As soon as the old woman entered the miserable hut, Lituma knew what she was going to say. And sure enough, she says it, although Lituma can’t understand a word because she’s speaking in Quechua. But even while he waits for his adjutant, Tomás Carreño to translate, he knows what’s being said: that a third man has gone missing from the village – if you can designate the place as such – of Naccos.
This is the scene that starts off Mario Vargas Llosa’s darkly atmospheric novel, Death in the Andes. And with this encounter between the old woman and the two ‘civil guards‘, that is, policemen, you’re drawn straight into the mystery that constitutes the main plot line of the novel: what happened to the three missing men?
Naccos is a place at the edge of civilisation, high up in the mountains of Peru and it only exists because a road is being built through the region. Everybody in the village, apart from Lituma, Tomás and the vaguely sinister couple who own the local bar are labourers employed on the project. The two civil guards, Corporal Lituma and his subordinate, Tomás have been transferred to this godforsaken place as a punishment and live in a miserable hut in the permanent shadow of the murderous Maoist guerrillas, the Shining Path, in daily expectation of being their next victims.
The mountains around Naccos are dark, enigmatic and dangerous. To Lituma, who is from a coastal town, the place is unspeakably alien, a place of vague, undefinable menace. The local Indians believe that the mountains are populated by apus, the spirits of the mountains; they insist that the missing men have been abducted by pishtacos – human shaped demons who capture lonely wayfarers and suck the fat out of their bodies. Lituma has his doubts about this, to say the least. He’s more inclined to believe that the three men were carried off by the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, who have committed some gruesome executions in the neighbourhood recently. But why these three? Perhaps, Lituma speculates, they were not killed at all but escaped Naccos to join the Shining Path? Unlikely. An albino, a mute and a construction foreman: the only thing that seems common about them that in their various ways they were outsiders.
Just as the two civil guards are.
“You’re a decent Civil Guard,” Dionisio asserted. “Everybody in camp says so. You never abuse your authority. There aren’t too many like you. Take it from somebody who knows the sierra like the palm of his hand. I’ve travelled every inch of it.”
“You mean the labourers think I’m okay? How would it be if they didn’t?” Lituma said mockingly. “So far, I haven’t made a single friend in camp.”
“The proof is that you and your adjutant are still alive,” Dionisio declared as casually as if he were saying that water is liquid or that it’s dark at night. He paused, scratched the ground again with his twig, and added: “But those three, Pedrito, Demetrio, Casimiro, nobody had a good opinion of them…”
– Usted es un guardia civil buena gente – oyó afirmar a Dionisio -. Lo reconocen todos en el campamento. Nunca se aprovecha de su autoridad. No hay muchos así. Se lo asegura alguien que conoce la sierra como la palma de su mano. La he recorrido de cabo a rabo.
– ¿Les caigo bien a los peones? Cómo sería si les cayera mal – se burló Lituma -. Porque no he hecho un solo amigo en el campamento hasta ahora.
– La prueba de que lo consideran es que usted y su adjunto están vivos – afirmó Dionisio, con naturalidad, como si dijera el agua es líquida y la noche oscura. Hizo una pausa y, volviendo a rascar el suelo con su palito, añadió -: En cambio, a esos tres, ese Pedrito, ese Demetrio, ese Casimiro, nadie los tenía en buen concepto.”
Past and present flows together fluidly in the narrative, as the wildly different plot lines converge and are weaved seamlessly into a multicoloured fabric by Mario Vargas Llosa. Cooped up in their miserable hut, Lituma and Tomás speculate, fear for their lives and talk about the past. Night after uneasy night, Tomás keeps Lituma awake recounting his fantastic love affair with a prostitute of a drug trafficker, while during the day they doggedly continue to investigate the disappearances – because they don’t know what else to do, because they haven’t got anything else to do. If they’re going to die, they might as well try to do their duty first. And they were fond of the mute who was their servant.
In the village, the miserable road builders find their only relief in wild parties orchestrated by the bar owner whose wife is rumoured to be a witch and claims she once killed a pishtaco. Nobody talks to the civil guards much and when they do, they do so only in disquieting hints. Meanwhile all around them the Shining Path continues to murder in the name of a philosophy as bizarre as the pre-Columbian superstitions the locals believe in; and it seems less and less likely that the road on which they all depend for their livelihoods will ever be finished…
Until Lituma finally comes to understand a truth so ugly that he wishes he never managed to uncover it. Perhaps Naccos is not merely at the edge of civilisation but beyond it altogether, in a peculiarly Peruvian hell of myths, mystery and murder.