Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman

Corporal Lituma is like a fish out of water. Originally from Piura, a town on the Pacific Coast, he has, as a punishment, been posted in Naccos, a village high in the Andes, where the language spoken is Quechua, not his native Spanish.His only help is Tomasito Carreño, also posted to the area in disgrace.

Naccos is a undesirable assignment for many reasons. The area is constantly under threat from the terrucos (maoist terrorists), who dish out their arbitrary justice at will. Nothing is safe from their brutality, not even an innocent herd of vicuñas. This act of slaughter, savage but not gratuitous, establishes the extent of their brainwashed brutality. When two young French tourists choose to travel via bus rather than by plane, and a renowned ecologist believes herself and her team to be immune from attack, their naïvety costs them their lives. As for the locals, they are unemployed silver miners or road construction workers. Gruff, rough men, in fear of losing their jobs as extortion by the terrorist organisation Shining Path, or natural events (avalanches) render the works increasingly unviable. There is a cantina where the men can socialise, though the proprietor’s wife is said to be a witch. It is she who initiates Lituma into the local way of thinking.

All these hills are full of enemies,” she said softly. “They live inside. Day and night they weave their evil schemes. They do endless harm. That’s why there are so many accidents. Cave-ins in the mines. Trucks that lose their brakes and drive off the road on curves. Boxes of dynamite that explode and blow off legs and hands. … They send down huaycos (avalanches) too.”

Lituma’s sense of foreboding is acute. When three men vanish without trace, there are three possibilities: 1) They have got lost. 2) They are victims of a random xenophobic terruco attack. 3) They have been sacrificed to appease the spirit of the mountains.

This is not your traditional mystery. There is very little evidence and Lituma is really at a loss. Keeping his distance from the locals to preserve an air of authority, Lituma’s only companionship comes from Tomas Carreño, a lovesick kid, who spends the evenings explaining how he came to be in temporary exile in Naccos. Believe me, he is no innocent, but his story and that of the three missing men, outsiders all within this community, expand the novel into a extended observation of Peruvian history and culture. It is Llosa’s attempt to understand the tortured and conflicted homeland from which he was already in exile at the time of writing in the early 1990s. There is no attempt to flatter, it’s certainly no picture postcard vista!

Lituma, I understand, is Llosa’s alter-ego, a rational man, always pining for the relative civilisation of Piura. (I say relative, it still seems seedy to me.) Lituma has no time for the mysticism and folklore that swathes the mountainous region. Yet a narrow escape from an avalanche that sounds the death knell for the new road breaks down his stand-offishness. He sets off for the bar, determined to get as drunk as a skunk. Ironically that night he finally uncovers the truth of what happened to the missing men … to his eternal regret. It seems, his nightmare is just beginning.

Mario Vargas Llosa was Nobel Laureate in 2010, and here am I, eleven years later, reading him for the first time. Yes, I am somewhat behind the curve, but then I don’t have a good record with Nobel Laureates. (Really, I’ve lost count of the DNFs.) So, while there were elements of Death in the Andes, I found crude, sordid even, and moments I found truly distressing, I never considered stopping. I recognised a master at work, seemlessly slipping from present to the past without jarring or losing his reader, juggling the rational and the superstitious, controlling the ultimate reveal until the penultimate page. Llosa’s Peru is a strange and sinister land, and this novel is intrinsically Peruvian, a point underlined by Edith Grossman’s retention of several Spanish words in her English translation.

I will read more Llosa. Next up is the prequel to this, Who Killed Palomino Molero? I need to know why Lituma found himself in Naccos. But feel free to post the Llosa must-reads in comments . For future reference, not immediate acquisition, you understand. 😉