Three men disappear from a small mining village in the Peruvian Andes. The army sends two investigators, Corporal Lituma and his adjutant Tomás, to get to the bottom of the apparent murders. Suspects include Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) guerilla-terrorists and a number of locals. For some of the locals, there’s another possibility, the various demons and deities attributed to each of the mountains in the Andes.
“Death in the Andes” follows the time that the investigators spend in this remote village. There are two major story lines taking place at once. One narrative arc revolves around the investigation and day-to-day living in a tiny town under primitive living conditions. The second story line comes by night as the deputy, Tomás, recounts his love affair with a girl who was out of his league in almost every way—except, perhaps, with respect to virtuous living. The girl was in a relationship with an abusive gangster at the start, a condition that Tomás found untenable. His love-driven reaction creates all manner of drama, and that drama serves as the only entertainment to be had in this remote village.
The book is literary fiction, but it’s not purely about the characters. As suggested, there’s a strong narrative element. While the book is in a realist genre, i.e. nothing in it feels like it couldn’t happen in our universe, the fact that the story takes place in an area of the Andes where the Shining Path is strong and mother nature is harsh means that there’s plenty of tension and suspense.
This is book is translated from Peruvian, and it seemed to me that the translator did a fine job of capturing the feel of the rural Andes. A few Spanish terms are used for terms like terrorists and avalanches to create a feel of a unique character of these concepts relative to this place. However, there are only a couple of these terms and so context is sufficient for the reader to readily keep them straight even if one is not gifted in picking up foreign terminology.
In general, the book is quite readable. The most challenging part of reading it is when Tomás is telling his story because you have a three-way conversation going on over two time periods at once. (i.e. Tomás voices himself and his girl as he tells their story, but then Cpl. Lituma chimes in periodically with questions—or, more commonly, commentary.) However, the author uses dialogue tags throughout to avoid confusion. One just needs to be attentive in one’s reading of these sections.
I enjoyed this story. I picked up this book both because Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 and I like to read something by winners, but also because I’ve trekked in the Peruvian Andes and translated literature often offers one a unique form of insight into a place. This was no exception.
I’d recommend this book for readers of fiction. If one is looking to broaden one’s horizons into literary fiction and /or translated fiction, this book is a good place to start. It offers humor and intrigue as well as deep characters and an infusion of geography and culture.
I know you feel my sex appeal
despite the lack of earnest squeals.
You should know, despite my glow,
the fans rarely stop to say, “Hello.”
Am I not a rockstar, superhero
because my visibility ranks near zero?
In this hour of superpowers
I think I’ll stop to sniff the flowers.
1.) The Dispassionate Witness: A person’s default setting is to repress emotions and pretend they don’t exist. On the one hand, this seems to work because others rarely notice one’s clenched jaw or downing of Prozac, and it’s true that fist-fights rarely break out in workplaces and classrooms. On the other hand, this approach leads to a lot of passive-aggressive behavior and stress-related illness. I just read in some material on Flow and business that 2/3rds of performance issues in businesses result from strained relationships.
The alternative is to take time to observe one’s emotional state, but to watch it without dumping fuel onto the fire. This process puts one’s feelings in perspective so that one can respond in a careful, but not repressed, manner. It doesn’t mean one won’t still be mad, sad, or scared, but one will be in a position to act in a manner that is neither petty and knee-jerk, nor one that consists of gobbling antacids. This brings us to #2.
2.) The Second Dart: [Siddhartha Gotama] Buddha talked about the mind’s response to an event as the second dart, suggesting that the second dart produces much more prolonged misery than the first. Imagine one is walking along and gets hit by a dart. Ow! It hurts. But what makes it agonizing is when one’s mind becomes obsessed with the injury. It’s unfair that someone threw a dart at me. What if the wound doesn’t heal right? What if the wound heals up too well, and I don’t have a cool scar at story time?
This point is closely related to #1. One has to observe, but not let mind run wild. The first dart is real. The second dart is immaterial, a figment of the mind.
3.) Relaxation is Part of the Process: Anyone who’s attended a yoga class is familiar with closing in savasana (corpse pose.) Occasionally, a student wants to get up and walk out at this point. They “aren’t paying __ $’s to lay around on their a##.” For Americans, rest is something begrudgingly accepted between actually doing stuff.
The problem with the “rest as laziness” approach isn’t just that one is likely to suffer a relaxation deficit, but also that the rest one gets isn’t effective. But how can rest be effective? I’m glad you asked. Because when you’re doing savasana or yoga nidra (yogic sleep) you’re not just letting your monkey mind run wild as it does when one is watching television or stuck in afternoon rush hour.
4.) Breath is Anything but Mundane: Since breathing is constantly going on and one can choose not to think about it, people dismiss it as unworthy of consideration. However, breath is the one point at which we can consciously influence our autonomic nervous system. [Well, there’s also blinking, but to my knowledge there’s no evidence that one can adjust one’s energy level or emotional state through blinking–but you can with breath.] Breath is the key to improved physical performance, but it’s also a powerful tool to train the mind.
5.) Use the Belly: I haven’t studied a large number of martial arts, but I’ve trained in a diverse few that were extremely different in both approach and priorities. It could be said that these arts (budō, tai chi chuan, muaythai, and kalaripayattu) had nothing in common. Except they did. They all valued strength in a point below the navel. Sometimes it was called dan tien; other times tanden. However, regardless of the pronunciation, name, or the precise anatomical location, there was this commonality.
Strength in the belly is tied to both breath and mental concentration.
Every novel or short story has lessons to teach. After all, stories are nothing more than problems resolved. Sometimes fiction teaches one how to do it right, and in other instances how to do it wrong–but there’s always a lesson.
But some works of fiction teach more than others (and more effectively.) It’s a great challenge to merge entertaining and thought-provoking story lines into one piece. Below are five books that I found both illuminating and engrossing.
[The hyperlinks in the titles go to my book review.]
1.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: Ishmael asks one to reevaluate what one thinks one knows about the world based on a lifetime of viewing it through the lenses of culture and anthropocentrism.
2.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The “Socrates” in question is Millman’s [probably fictional and / or composite] teacher from the “Peaceful Warrior” books–not the Greek philosopher. This book shows us how a person whose life has been scarred by tragedy can attain peace of mind.
3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Little Prince teaches one to reevaluate what one thinks is important, and encourages one to see the world through a more child-like lens.
4.) Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo: How can the average Joe reshape the way he [or she] views life so as to live a happier one?
5.) Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho: A young woman who attempts suicide is told by her doctor that she damaged her heart and has only five days to live.
Whenever I come across a little, unlabeled door in a place where it seems to have no business being, I can’t help but take a picture. I’ve got quite a collection of such pics, of which I present a sample.
Maybe I watched “The Matrix” too many times, but I can’t help but wonder.