As in the previous book, the "mystery" element - in this case the disappearance of three men - is to some extent a McGuffin. Like Leonardo Sciascia (and unlike Friedrich Durrenmatt or Alain Robbe-Grillet) Vargas Llosa understands and respects the rules of the crime genre, but his real interest is not in solutions but in the insoluble - even the unspeakable. There are scenes in this book which are likely to haunt your dreams for some considerable time to come, and their power is enhanced by the knowledge that it is all, in the vulgar sense, true. Anyone who doubts this should read "The Story of a Massacre", which has just been republished in Making Waves (Faber pounds 20), a splendid anthology of Vargas Llosa's occasional pieces translated by John King, but unfortunately defaced by a portrait of the author which manages to make this most distinguished of literary figures look like a Martin Amis inflatable at bursting point.
In the end, Lituma does indeed find out what happened to the three missing men, but the result is not a sense of closure and a return to normality but a vision of a heart of darkness which even Conrad might have balked at, only slightly mitigated by the fact that the gun which has been hanging on the wall for three acts fails to go off. The expected descent of the Sendero Luminoso death squads never materialises, Lituma gets promotion and a transfer, and his lovelorn adjutant is reunited with the woman of his dreams. One is left with the feeling that in the last resort Vargas Llosa is just too decent to follow the logic of his concept through to the bleak conclusion it seems to demand - just as, perhaps, he was too decent to become President of the country about which he writes with a horrified fascination, which ultimately seems more characteristic of the foreigner than the native.