Written three years after the author’s defeat in the 1990 presidential election in Peru, Death in the Andes won for Mario Vargas Llosa (1936– ) the Planeta Prize, one of the most important literary awards in the Hispanic world. This novel marked a new start for Vargas Llosa, who had chosen to exile himself from Peru and acquire Spanish citizenship.
In contrast to Vargas Llosa’s previous novels, the story is set in the Andes, a region that, though internationally renowned for scientific studies and tourist interests, had seldom been represented in his works. Featuring Lituma, Vargas Llosa’s recurrent police-detective figure, this novel depicts the Andean world as an exemplar of Peru’s social and cultural crisis. Critics suggest that this novel displays an ambitious narrative multiplicity, simultaneously juxtaposing and contrasting representations of Peruvian life. Death in the Andes also provides a way of observing the reality of Peru as a postmodern country that is beyond rational understanding.
The Andes, as depicted in this novel, is a world full of mysteries and conflicts in the eyes of the protagonist, Police Sergeant Lituma, who has been transferred from Peru’s coastal region to a post in the mountainous area. His assignment is to protect a road construction project. The novel contains two parts and an epilogue. The first part is divided into five chapters. The story begins with three missing-person cases in the area of Lituma’s jurisdiction. The missing people are Pedro Tinoco, a mute and retarded boy who used to be a servant for the police; Casimiro Huarcaya, an albino; and Demetrio Chanca, a highway construction foreman. The narrative in each chapter contains three sections, each following a different clue. The first section is about Lituma’s investigation of the disappearance. The second section narrates incidents happening in the Andes, including guerrilla attacks and past encounters between this quasi-military force and the three missing people. The third is a love story between Tomás Carreño, Lituma’s assistant, and Mercedes, a young prostitute from Lituma’s hometown of Piura. Before coming to the Andes, Tomás was a fugitive who killed a drug dealer in order to save Mercedes. In this narrative structure, the first clue is based on the encounter between Lituma and the Andean world; the second is about the stories of the Andes; and the third is a story outside the Andes, tied to the police officer’s past. The investigation of the crime is the link to the different stories.
During the investigation, Lituma frequents the bar owned by Don Dimnisio and Doña Adriana at the Naccos camp, as he suspects that the barkeepers may know some secret about the disappearances. There he hears different rumors about the three vanished people: killed perhaps by guerrillas or taken away by the pishtacos (vampires), the Andean monsters in which many local people believe. Lituma feels lonely and helpless in this strange land, as well as troubled by the lack of clues to the cases. Meanwhile, the next section focuses on the guerrillas’ atrocities and reveals information about the social and political situations in the Andes. Under their stiff Marxist doctrines, the guerrillas maintain strong hostility to all government officials, property owners, and foreigners. Since the disappearances happened around the same time that the guerrillas attacked some other innocent people, Lituma suspects their guilt. Moreover, all three missing people have had previous encounters with the guerrillas. By the end of the first part of the novel, it seems that the guerrillas are at the center of the conflict in the Andes and a threat to everyone, including the two policemen. There also exists a major mystery that seems to connect the three missing people and the guerrillas.
However, in the second part of the novel, which consists of four chapters, the narrative focus changes from the guerrillas to Don Dionisio and Doña Adriana, the barkeepers. In this part, Lituma survives an avalanche and learns from a Danish engineer about the still-performed indigenous rite of sacrificing human beings to the Andean spirits or monsters. This discovery produces a link between the missing people and superstitions that abound in the local community. In parallel with Lituma’s continuing investigation of the mystery, Doña Adriana talks about her legendary fights with the Andean vampires and subsequent marriage to Dionisio, a story that recalls the Greek myth of Ariadne rescued by Dionysus after she helped Theseus kill the minotaur. Her narration develops gradually from fantastic tales of human beings who once challenged the Andean monsters to more realistic observations of the depression in the region, which is connected to the cases of the missing people. Her stories help Lituma figure out the couple’s role in the mystery.
The mystery is apparently solved at the end of the second part of the novel. The red herring initially leads the reader to suppose that these tragedies are caused by the superstitions of the indigenous people, who try to avoid the local economic recession by making human sacrifices to the Andean spirits. In the epilogue, however, while Tomás recalls his lost love, and the two policemen receive orders to abandon their post in Naccos, Lituma makes a final investigation into the mystery at the local bar. He finds that the guerrillas are in fact an indirect cause of the murders of the three victims. Thus, although different parts of the Andean community—the police, the road construction workers, the indigenous people, and the guerrillas—seem ideologically diverse or in contrast to one another, they prove to be interrelated and together form the world of mystery in Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes.
Kristal, Efraín. Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.
Oviedo, José Miguel. Mario Vargas Llosa: A Writer’s Reality. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1985.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. A Fish in the Water: A Memoir. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.