BOOK REVIEW: Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa

Death in the AndesDeath in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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.

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