In a life as bizarre as any found in a South American novel, Benigno Anazco has been carving his way deeper and deeper into the Peruvian jungle in pursuit of a dream. On the way he left his wife, married his daughter and killed his son-in-law
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Geographers writing in Spanish often refer to Peru's Eastern Andes as muy accidentado (very accidented). The same could be said of the lives shaped by these mountains. If you live between Cajamarca and Chachapoyas, between the Marann and Huallaga rivers, you could have as a neighbour a man whose name is Hitler or Himmler or Lenin or Nixon, but who has never heard of the famous man he's named after. Or a nun who fell in love with a terrorist, left the convent, and became the leader of a hit-squad. Or an ex-soldier who wanted to make his fortune but instead was sold as a slave to a gold mine and barely escaped with his life.

Those people live relatively close to roads, police, schools - civilisation. But as you travel east from the sere peaks of the Andes and fall into the green-black, steaming jungle, the lives become even more excessive, filled with more danger. This tropical montane forest contains some of the thickest undergrowth in the world. Within six months any machete-cut trail utterly disappears. Unless you count survival, revenge and desire as laws, no law has penetrated this region since Inca totalitarian rule ended more than four centuries ago. For a time in the 1700s, Spanish Franciscans tried to convert it into a paradise of cinnamon, coca and cotton plantations farmed by Indians. But forest and natives alike proved inhospitable to life on any terms but their own. The priests fled in the early 1800s. Soon the natives were all gone, too; some migrated, and the rest died of smallpox and other European-borne diseases.

This wilderness had been literally empty of human life for the better part of 200 years when Benigno Anazco, a determined mestizo from a small highland village, began chopping his way into the no-man's land of the forest, re-opening the Inca roads of stone.

Nearly everyone who lives in this part of Peru has heard the story of Anazco, or at least some version of it. Sometime around 1960, they say, the devout Seventh-Day Adventist gathered his wife and children and vanished into the woods. He built one house, then another. Around house number three his wife tired of their hacking progress and took most of the kids back to town. Anazco kept one daughter for himself and pushed on for 20 years more. People say that he killed his son-in-law, shot him point-blank in the chest with a shotgun. The young man wanted to put in a cocaine airstrip, and Anazco would not abide drugs in his kingdom.

Now Anazco lives in a remote corner of Peru with his Bible, his transistor radio, his daughter-wife and their four (of eight) surviving children. He's got 800 head of cattle, they say. Owns more than a dozen houses, each piled high with dried meat and fortified with guns. They say he can tell a man to stand at the edge of a stream, close his eyes and count to 500, and by the end of that time Anazco can show him 10 fresh trout laid out on the riverbank. They say he has the pelt of a human-like being that he shot in the wilderness; the beast was hiding behind a tree, whistling.

For years at a time, he would pause to farm, always near ruins. Ancient terraces, he discovered, mark fertile soil. Once he deviated from the Inca roads and spent years on a detour that took him into a maze of swamps that proved impassable. There was no food; several of his children died. He backtracked to his original course and continued on, sacrificing everything, including his family's well-being, for a vision: he would open the jungle - all the way to the city of Saposoa, 60 miles east - founding villages along the way. The poor of the highlands would farm on land where seeds wouldn't go to waste. Soon the government would build a modern highway. Hunger would disappear. The glories of the Inca empire would live again.

PERU is unmapped south of the Ecuadorean border, between the Marann, north of Cajamarca. Political maps are mostly blank; due to the difficult surveying conditions, topographical maps simply don't exist. And because archaeologists have generally avoided the region, the history of the ruins dotting the valleys east of the Andes is encrusted with the opinions of weird amateurs, self-serving mystics, corrupt officials, and superstitious peasants. Yet there is at least one independent scholar studying the region, a German-born ethnohistorian named Peter Lerche, who has made it his life's work. He married locally, renounced his German passport, and now lives next to the edge of the rainforest on an isolated farm.

I met Lerche in 1994 on an archaeological tour of the Peruvian city of Chachapoyas. He claimed he was the only outsider who had seen Anazco in decades. It had been back in 1989. He was scouting from a tree in an area of jungle he thought was uninhabited when he spotted Anazco's cattle herd. Anazco spent weeks showing Lerche the local ruins, including one Inca sacred site whose exquisite polygonal stonework, in pink sandstone, rivals that of Cuzco. Lerche calls it Puca Huaca (Red Temple) and thinks its presence shows that Inca power extended deeper into the eastern forests than most scholars had assumed.

Yes, he said, Anazco had murdered his son-in-law. Yes, he'd had children with his daughter. "But the world would be a poorer place without such people," he contended. "Anazco is in his late 60s now. People don't last long out there. You want to meet him?"

It was more than a year before we could arrange an expedition. It took our party of six 18 hours in an open truck to reach our take-off point, the highland town of Bolvar, not far from Anazco's birthplace. From here, Lerche, who was in the party, said it would take 11 hard days to reach Anazco's log cabin, on a tableland known as La Meseta - that is, if he hadn't moved even deeper into the wilderness.

A major Inca highway begins in Bolvar, leading eastward over a 13,000ft pass and down into the jungle. The road is part of the vast, 15,000-mile network of amazingly well-built highways that held the ancient empire together. We followed this route down the backside of the mountain, spending the first night in a ruined Inca guesthouse, at 10,000ft. Then we dropped into the forested Yonn River valley and followed the river. Up close, the forest had little romance. Rain, mud, slopes, vines, cliffs, sinkholes, swamps, thorns, ants, mosquitos and biting flies. We crossed whitewater canyons on bridges made of rotten logs, pulled ourselves up cliffs on pencil-thin roots, and fought our way through thickets of bamboo. Any Inca highway that may have existed along the river valley had long since sunk into thigh-deep bogs.

Within a few days we had slipped into Anazco's kingdom. One afternoon we met a family of settlers living in a small cabin set in a clearing. They knew about him, knew that he had come before them, opening up the jungle. They gave us directions to La Morada, the settlement set up by Anazco's wife when she turned back. All the landmarks along the way were marked by Anazco's imagination: Osiris, the Enchanted City, the Garden, Angola. Anazco's placenames were culled from his dreams, fantasies, convictions, or the war reports he listened to on his transistor as he began to work new land. In this country without maps, directions were poetic: a couple hours' walk downriver, we'd see Orpheus across the valley. After nine bridges we'd reach Israel.

The Huabayacu valley must have been densely populated during Inca and pre-Inca times. Our trail passed by innumerable ruined dwellings, crumbled walls and terraces. Along the cliffs were many tombs, often decorated with ochre paintings of jaguars and scorpions. High along the far shore, we traced the indentation of an Inca highway that Anazco had cleared and followed. Yet these signs of domestication and culture, while everywhere, were barely discernible behind the scrim of foliage. It was oddly comforting to be so thickly surrounded by evidence that ecosystems recover, if let alone. I imagined rediscovering my own Massachusetts neighbourhood centuries after invasions and plague, its driveways filled up with weed maples, its aluminium sided houses swallowed in green.

Civilisation! La Morada is a town of more than 200 people, pioneering families that Anazco's ex-wife somehow managed to recruit from villages to the west. La Moradans presented a united facade. Theirs was a town of goodness. They insisted we ignore any rumours we might have heard that this was a stronghold for drugs or terrorism - never would they allow such things. Here lived Anazco's former wife, Noelita Bardales; his oldest daughter, Cayade Anazco; sons Zacarias, Silver, Alejo, David and Mercedes; and 30 grandchildren. La Morada was the site of the major Anazco family tragedies: bitter quarrels, divorce, murder. A miasma of propriety filled the air whenever these events were in danger of being mentioned. Town identity seemed to depend on suppressing these memories.

The matriarch, Bardales, sent word she would receive me. I was led to her compound, which was large if not especially tidy, with several spacious houses built around it. In the courtyard, one son circled, gripping a corncob; another sat in a doorway smiling gently. They both were in their 20s, and both were retarded - the result, most likely, of malnutrition during infancy. "My little dummies," Bardales tenderly called them. "They'll never leave their mother."

Refusing to discuss the killing of her son-in-law, she waxed lively on the subject of her husband, presenting an unheroic portrait. In 1960, she said, she and Anazco and their three children were living in the town of Chuquibamba, some 26 crow-miles west of here. One morning after she had stayed out all night at a dance with her brothers, Anazco furiously announced that he was heading off into the jungle and that he was taking the children with him. Bardales begged not to be left behind.

As they cut their way into the woods, Bardales bore and raised nine children in the uninhabited forest; she also broke trail, cleared land, helped with construction. Her husband would walk ahead with the machete while she followed with a hoe, flattening a path for a mule loaded with babies and corrugated roofing.

Whenever Anazco went for supplies, Bardales and the children stayed alone in the forest, eating seeds and leaves for a month at a time. Wild pigs attacked them. Jaguars ate their calves. (Bardales once chased after one with her machete.) Bird cries spooked them and they imagined ghosts, dwarves and walking spirits.

Just across the valley from La Morada, the family lived together for the last time. Bardales decided to give up the journey and leave her husband in 1975. Bush-whacking had become too hard for her, she said; the change of life had come upon her, and she could no longer wield a machete. Besides, she said, the children needed school. Bardales moved here with most of the children and a small herd of cattle. She and her son officially incorporated the town and eventually the government sent a teacher. Forty families now live there.

Anazco, meanwhile, continued travelling eastward with their youngest daughter, Margarita, then 13, and one retarded son. They established themselves up on the tableland of La Meseta. The last time Anazco visited La Morada was in 1986 and it was on that visit, Bardales said, that he shot Cayade's husband.

No one in La Morada was certain where Anazco was now. Some said that he might be a week's walk away, maybe even farther. We decided to climb up to La Meseta and look for Anazco's son Fabian in the hope that he might lead us to his father. By a lucky choice of trails, we reached Fabian's compound in three days (including one of vain machete work in search of Lerche's favourite temple, Puca Huaca). Fabian lived with his family in log cabins strung out along a stream that Anazco named the River of Repose. At first Fabian was suspicious of our motives and he carefully shielded his two teenager daughters from our porters. He defied us to imagine a life like his. "Words are easy," he said, "but one who creates reality is called crazy." Whenever he ventured to towns outside Anazco's realm, he heard strangers talking behind his back: "There goes an Anazco. You know they're savages. They can't even talk."

Inside the main cabin, Fabian's wife was lying in quiet agony on an enormous bed. A cow had stepped on her foot and she was feverish, her leg badly swollen. We gave her antibiotics and aspirin. Perhaps it was because of this that Fabian decided to trust our intentions and agreed to lead us to first to the red temple and then to his father. "No one of low character would come this far," he reasoned, grinning. "And if you think it takes willpower to get here, think about what it takes to live here."

Fabian hacked at the underbrush for nearly an hour before he found Puca Huaca. It was covered with green moss, which Lerche scraped off the salmon pink stone, almost worshipfully, with handfuls of fern. "It's incredible how it's been covered up," he said. On Lerche's first visit in 1989, this entire part of the forest had been gnawed down by Anazco's cows, so that the temple was plainly visible. Had it not been for Anazco's cows, another few centuries could have gone by without Puca Huaca ever being found.

The following morning Fabian led us down the River of Repose and after four hours of walking, we spotted a large cedar log that appeared to be the outer barrier of a domestic compound. And there he was. Anazco.

Perhaps it's always a shock when a myth turns out to fit into a human body. Anazco was golden-skinned, whip-strong, far handsomer than in Lerche's photograph. But he'd aged. His beard was white and stringy. He no longer gave the impression of truculent power we'd projected into the shadowed, bluish images that Lerche had snapped. Behind him, tending the fire, was Margarita. All about the courtyard were the children: Idmas, 16, a silent boy in a maroon poncho; Adan, nine, and Zoila, four, gyrating in excitement; and Luisa, a six-month- old with enormous cheeks.

Anazco seemed overjoyed to see us. He invited us into his house, a one- room cabin of well-fitted logs, with a bed and a table inside. He spoke eagerly, as if we'd been waiting years to resume an urgent conversation that had been interrupted. I showed him a government satellite map and he traced his thumbnail across the indistinct image, determining our precise location: on this river, below that mountain. He told Lerche that his dream of opening the jungle all the way to Saposoa had failed. A new breed of settlers was flowing into the next few valleys. Drug workers, unrepentant terrorists. Outsiders had taken over his rice farm to the east and set up a primitive cocaine factory. After they threatened to kill him, Anazco abandoned it. "The ambition for easy money is the worst disease on earth,"Anazco fumed. "The smugglers lack a full sensibility. They think happiness lies in money."

We washed in the river and sat down in front of Anazco's cabin to resume the conversation. Anazco was clearly the hardest-working man in the region, and the wealthiest. His farm rose above the muck and exigencies of pure survival. Fat cattle - 85 head, not the rumoured 800 - grazed on the bank of the river, quietly gnawing back the jungle. Wooden bridges eased hard spots on the trail. Perhaps it was the bridges, an effort any other peasant would consider unnecessary, that made Anazco's sense of destiny most clear. He worked not only for himself, but for an abstract ideal of civilisation; not just for the present, but for the future. "People who have no vision," he said, "have doubts."

Schooled for just two years in his home-town of Chuquibamba, Anazco's active mind had patched a vision out of local legends, Bible reading, personal ruminations, and the advice of the grandparents who raised him. His grandmother had been an extraordinary woman. A mule breaker, livestock castrator and midwife, Mama Josefa carried a bayonet in her waistband, and a whip she was not afraid to use on evildoers. Some people said she was a saint. When Anazco was six, Mama Josefa prophesied that he "possessed her sign" and was destined to explore the eastern mountains. She counselled little Benigno to get used to walking, to ignore hardships, to become a soldier defending goodness everywhere.

In 1942, when he was 15 years old, Anazco entered the forest with three friends. Turned back once by cliffs, again by swamps, the friends gave up. Anazco went on alone. He sighted the flat, fertile La Meseta through binoculars in 1955. He and Bardales had three children, but his attentions were increasingly focused on the mountains. His trips grew longer, and his solitude became excessive. After an extended outing in 1960, he returned to town and took them out of school, and the family set forth as a unit.

Altogether, Anazco had chopped 14 farms out of the jungle. "When I find a nice piece of land, I don't want to go on without working it a little," Anazco said. "I build a house, and then, because I must keep going, I move on with pain in my soul." It was for the sake of others, he said, that he moved on: "God gives some of us an inclination. When we see that we cannot take it in our bellies when we die, it becomes our pleasure to leave something behind for others."

He was bitter, though, that others hadn't responded to his dream of founding towns. He once sold eight cows to buy 2,000 acres of La Meseta from the government and set aside much of that land for the poor, anyone who'd claim it. One group travelled from the Maranon valley; he helped them build houses, but in a year they all went back. "They worried about bears and diseases, where to get batteries and store-bought clothes," Anazco said with contempt.

We assured him that all the people we'd met had come down the river valleys following his example, that one lifetime was not enough to see the effects of work like his. Privately, though, we wondered whether he had driven neighbours away with his pet theories. He could go on for hours about how air becomes water deep inside the mountains, why there is a heaven but no hell, why the Virgin Mary was no saint.

All the next day it rained. We sat on the benches, eating beef with fresh yucca and sweet potatoes, listening to his life story. Andean music issued thinly from the black transistor radio. Across the brown, swollen river, toucanets cried, and scarves of mist threaded slowly among the opulent trees. Timidly, I asked Anazco whether he could accept a difficult question.

"For me, miss, I think there are no hard questions," he replied. Long ago, he'd asked pardon for his evil acts - murder, incest, cruelty. "God is something superior," he said, "like electrical waves. If electricity can light a bulb, how can God not be in contact with our hearts? And so, if I have sinned, God must forgive."

"How was it that you got together with your daughter?" I asked. Anazco didn't flinch. He began by explaining his relationship with Bardales. He was her last choice after she had pursued four other men. "So when I took her on. I made her swear she'd never make me jealous. She remembered for a while, but after some time, that woman, she made my life a hell with her character. And so we separated. After that, I tried to find another woman. I went to town and I tried my best I thought. `Only death can stop me in these works of the mountain. But I cannot live alone. I need the help of a woman. I will take my daughter.' I thought, `People will repudiate me, but how can I die alone?' I thought about it very well, and I decided. She had judgement. She said that she would attend me, but that if I could find another woman, then we'd separate."

Quiet, shy and a little stocky, Margarita trundled through her daily tasks, usually with Idmas at her side in silent communion. She harvested beans and potatoes, tended the fire, crocheted baby clothes. She was 33. She'd been with her father for 20 years. That afternoon, as gently as I could, I asked her about her life. Her voice was barely a breath, but she came straight to the point, bluntly summing up her painful history. "My mother left," she said, "because everyone thought my father was a madman. People look at me with contempt because I went with him. My mother said, `You are no longer my daughter.' I suffered for many years over that. But I came out of duty to my father, not out of hatred for my mother.

"When I was small, we always thought we would come to a town one day. But not now. Now I am of the mountains. I hear on the radio how people live in towns. They steal, kill, take each other's land. They have no peace."

We invited Anazco to come out to one of his pastures, alone, for a photograph; I took advantage of our solitude to ask him about the murder of Cayade's husband. He said that his son-in-law, Jose Aliaga, was one of those ambitious village youths who went to the coast to discover that where jobs are scarce, crime could be the most direct way of obtaining a living. "He came back saying that he had specialised in all the ways of evil, robbery, rape and drugs," Anazco said. "He said it was my duty to help people rise. He wanted me to protect this mafia thing. Either I would run it or he would run it. I said no. He said no one was going to stop him. He had a plot to get me alone - I heard he'd been bragging how he would kill me. So then I realised it was him or me."

I would later learn that the case against Anazco, filed in 1989, remains in a Kafkaesque limbo. Since the police won't go and get him, the suspect must present himself, and since he does not present himself, nothing can be done. But after meeting with the subprefect of Chacha-poyas, Manuel Paredes Rodriguez, I doubted that Anazco would ever be prosecuted. "There, where justice does not arrive, to kill a wicked man is justice," Paredes said. "We should give that man a parchment, not a prosecution. He has served as an agent of development, an example of work and perseverance for all Peruvians."

Down the hall, attorney Conrado Mori leafed through the law on incest, discovering that the statute of limitations had elapsed. Margarita had been an adult for too long. "Well, the Incas used to practise incest deliberately," Mori mused. "Brothers would marry sisters. They'd get one superintelligent one and six idiots, throw away the idiots and make the good one emperor."

I thought of Anazco standing alone in his field, waiting for vindication before he dies. Waiting, amid the cries of the emerald toucanets, the lowing of his broken-legged mule, the laughter of his beloved children - amid all of his kingdom's lovely, awful splendours, Anazco had his own summation. "On the seventh day," he said, "God surveyed all of the creation that he had made, the good and the bad, and he sanctified all of it equally."

That's not exactly what it says in Genesis. But surely, in the end, only God is qualified to judge Benigno Anazco.

! Kate Wheeler was this year named one of America's top 20 young novelists by Granta