On Tuesday, January 20th, at 2 pm on BookPeople’s third floor, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will discuss Mario Vargas Llosa’s literary noir Death in the Andes. Mario Vargas Llosa is one of Peru’s most renowned writers and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize. His novels are wide-ranging, and Death in the Andes is perhaps his only book that can be considered a detective novel (although he certainly plays with the genre’s conventions). Other subjects he has written about include the slow destruction of an apocalyptic cult in The War of the End of the World, the life of Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in The Way to Paradise, and many other wide-ranging narratives drawn from his native Peru and all over the globe.
Death in the Andes takes place in the early 90s, written at the height of Shining Path activity (a Maoist guerilla insurgent group based in the Andes). The book is set in a traveling camp of construction workers building a road increasingly doomed to incompletion by avalanches and Shining Path attacks.
Two civil guardsmen are all that stand between the Shining Path and the construction site, and given their low numbers, fulfill a largely symbolic role. The Shining Path could show up at any moment and murder them without a thought, and so the two men spend the book talking about love and waiting to die. One guardsman cares only for his lost love, a prostitute named Mercedes, while the other allows himself to be consumed by his own homophobia and his investigation into the disappearances of three souls from the camp – an albino, a mute, and a disgraced ex-mayor.
The couple who own the only cantina in town may have the answer to the disappearances. The husband and wife practice magic, reading fortunes in coca leaves and palms, and hold the keys to all the gossip in town through their monopoly over the town’s drinking. Through the civil guards’ obsessions, the reader is given a layered portrait of Peruvian tradition, history, conflict, paranoia, sacrifice, rituals, and magic of all kinds.
The events of Death in the Andes occur in one of the most extreme environments in the world, and in the atmosphere of a near-total government collapse. The characters are paralyzed by suspicion, obsession, paranoia, and ignorance, and moved to action by ancient traditions, liquid courage, and dangerous mystical forces. Llosa’s world is a world on the precipice, literally and figuratively; his characters cry out in misery and have no solutions to their predicament. At long last, some of them do find answers, but no solutions.
Death in the Andes has no heroes, no villains (except, perhaps, for the Shining Path ideologues); only humans, fighting each other, judging each other, loving each other, and killing each other. The innocent suffer most, but hardly anyone in Llosa’s world is a true innocent. Many characters are condemned by both the Shining Path forces and the military, and that category includes anyone who wants to have a little fun. This is the ultimate book about being between a rock and a hard place, and not just because of its mountain setting.
The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets the third Tuesday of each month at 2 pm. Please join us Tuesday, January 20th, as we discuss Death in the Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Copies are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. All book clubs are free and open to the public, and book club members receive 10% off of their purchase of their monthly book club title.