Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa

One of the things I love about this writer is the way he really makes you feel you are in the places he describes, however remote they are from your personal experience.

This book is set in the writer’s native Peru and is a combination of mysticism and hard-nosed commentary on politics and its effects on ordinary people. The main plot concerns the Civil Guards sent to a remote mining town in the Andes and the constant threats that surround them. First among these to emerge in the story is the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, a Maoist terrorist movement that took its name from something said by the founder of the Peruvian Communist party: “El Marxismo-Leninismo abrirá el sendero luminoso hacia la revolución” (“Marxism-Leninism will open the shining path to revolution”). It is presented in the book as a brutal organisation, wholly without scruple in the pursuit of Maoist ideology. And as a description of what happens to people who subscribe to a belief system and then follow the consequences of doing so, however awful, without the capacity to be sceptical and to reflect on the absurdity of all supposedly universal belief systems.

We see it daily in the world of today, of course. If you take a foundational belief and make it axiomatic, that is, put it beyond question or challenge, you open the door to fundamentalism and a loss of common humanity.

But the other threat comes from the history and culture of the Andes: the beliefs in spirits and minor deities that seem to be held by the shadow-like labourers and other residents of that harsh and often isolated environment.

The book interleaves several stories, with these threats providing a background of foreboding. The story of people disappearing, the story of the young adjutant and his lover, the story of the corporal who is the main character. The women in the book are strong and remarkable characters, the men shallow and sex-obsessed.

These stories drift in and out of one another, with the narrative voice and setting changing without any signposting. This is disorientating at first but serves, as the book progresses, to unify the stories around the book’s themes: the transience and unpredictability of existence, the extent of the unknowable and the great distance between political ideology and lived, human experience.

A fascinating book.

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