Book Review / Shining path of decency

DEATH IN THE ANDES by Mario Vargas Llosa trs Edith Grossman, Faber pounds 15.99
THE original title of Vargas Llosa's new novel was the rather less sensational "Lituma in the Andes", thus marking the fact that it is a sequel of sorts to Who Killed Palomino Molero?, which introduced the dour, dogged, sex-starved Officer Lituma of the Peruvian Guardia Civil. That book, set in the 1950s, ended with Lituma discovering the politically inconvenient answer to the question posed by the title and being rewarded with a transfer to a punishment posting in the Andes. Thirty years on, he is apparently still there, but chronological inconsistency is the least of Lituma's problems as the representative of law, order and rationality in a no-hope mining community deep within the 6,000-metre high "emergency zone" effectively ruled by violent natural forces, Sendero Luminoso terrorists, and still darker powers which seem to have emerged from some pre-Incan collective subconscious.

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.