The violence of Latin America during the last hundred years or so has been well chronicled by some of its greatest authors. From Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez to Chilean Isabelle Allende to Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the author of Death in the Andes, violence is a theme well trod, a frighteningly comfortable concept that is often used to great effect. While not as exhaustive in its examination of evil, violence and the way treachery and danger shape a country's (and a person's) psyche as The Feast of the Goat, Llosa's Death in the Andes is an intricately structured back and forth of voices past and present. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is a story of love.
In a remote mining town in the Andes, people have gone missing. The civil guard is called in, but nobody is talking to them. To make matters worse, the Andes is an abandoned paper factory inhabited by madmen with torches - the area is volatile, hostile, incredibly political and horribly violent. Factions are fighting for influence, power and, as often as not, for money and women.
While Tomasito and Lituma question people to find out who is killing and why, Tomasito talks about his love for Mercedes, a woman he met a few years ago. From here, the narrative fragments, splitting paragraphs and pages between the present time of Tomasito and Lituma's investigations, and the younger Tomasito's quest for love. The flow of the story offers little by way of indication as to the dominant narrative framework, which requires the reader to be extra attentive as time shifts forward and backwards. Generally, though, before the narrative shifts, the characters will engage in dialogue, which forms something of an road map for what is happening with the story.
Added to this are the asides where we follow the life and death of several characters. These stories would serve very well as short pieces in their own right and add to the strength of the novel as a whole. There is the sad story of the albino merchant who wronged a woman in his youth, and throughout his life she haunts his mind and, finally, kills him. There is the story of the mute who dies horribly, and so on. These stories serve to add to the menace of the Andes as the main characters interact with warriors, warlords, rebels and the military. There is a sense that this violence is eternal, that the names and places may change but the fight will always rage on. We are told very little about the political situation, other than to highlight how bad it all is. Tomasito's story, past and present, is a series of tense situations where seeming madmen have the power of life and death over him and everyone else they come into contact with.
The love story of Mercedes and Tomasito is interesting, particularly because, for the most part, we know how it all turns out from the start. Mercedes is shown simultaneously as the perfect woman and a prostitute, thief, and a liar. Tomasito, thinking back, has nothing but kind words for her. In many ways he is an anomaly; neither Lituma in the present or his fellow Civil Guardsmen in the past can understand that what he wants from Mercedes is love, not sex, companionship, and not a one-night stand. That she is capable of being bought seems not to phase him. That she betrays him seems not to matter. In a country full of violence and cheap love, Tomasito cannot be understood.
"Squeezed together like that, you had a good chance to feel her up," Lituma observed.
Here we have the narrative shift from present, to past, to present, with hardly an indication. And we see Tomasito - the one who asks if she is bothered by his lips around her earlobe - being a lover, not just a man interested in one thing only. Given the cheapness of death and the scarcity of happiness, it is difficult - for Lituma as much as for us - to countenance such a romantic as Tomasito. Again and again, he is let down, betrayed and lied to, yet his love for Mercedes never burns lower than a bonfire.
"You're talking so you'll have an excuse to kiss me on the neck," she said, her mouth against his ear.
"Does it bother you?" he whispered, slowly brushing his lips around her earlobe.
"Necking like that in cars is fantastic," declared Lituma.
A large theme of the novel is the chaos of Latin America and how it shapes men and women into tools of that chaos. Nobody is happy, really, except perhaps Tomasito, who comes across as somewhat deluded. There is hardly a sense of future for anyone, because if you survive against today's band of rebels attacking the town, well, tomorrow's marauders might just do you in. People laugh when they are drunk or when they speak lewdly. And yet, for all that, it is not a sad world that Llosa paints. It is a country in flux, a changing place, a land for potential but also for death. It is sad to think there is little hope at the end of the novel that the violence will stop. Tomasito's love is the only spark worth sheltering, but the land, the culture, the people and the feel of Peru is captured very well. Chaos has, for a brief moment, been contained within the pages of Llosa's novel. Recommended, but only for those readers who are willing to put in the effort to untangle a novel that refuses, for the most part, to untangle at all.
And the mysterious murders? Ah, that is the most chaotic and mysterious event of them all.