Vargas Llosa's 'Andes': witchcraft and ecology

February 11, 1996|By Alan Singer | Alan Singer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Death in the Andes," by Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Edith Grossman. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 276 pages. $24 The title of Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel, "Death in the Andes," invites us to entertain expectations of a particular, and so conventionally, dramatic death. Indeed, within 15 pages a beatific young couple arriving for spiritual communion with the Andean heights is brutally murdered by blank-faced children of the Shining Path. But this is only the first of myriad deaths. We quickly realize that in this novel it is the most undramatizable universality of death that Mr. Vargas Llosa means to evoke. Death is the more menacing and squeamishly intimate for being so pervasively uncapturable.

In "Death in the Andes," his first novel since "In Praise of the Stepmother," Mario Vargas Llosa succeeds as a brilliant allegorist of death's power to enchant life. For this author the anonymity and randomness of death concoct an imaginative elixir that excites the vital signs and inspires the most intense human desires. Fears of death animate the forms of life, yet without minimizing death's devastations.

Set in a remote mountainous region of Peru, where ancient folklore mixes with technology-driven economic change, where the terroristic rampages of the Shining Path rebels are equated with the destructiveness of natural forces, where witchcraft is interchangeable with ecological catastrophe, "Death in the Andes" might at first seem sociologically naive in its fabular vision of modern Latin America. The fantasy bravura of Mr. Vargas Llosa's characters - miners who work in fear of evil spirits that suck the fat from one's system, men who can cast drunkenness like a spell, women who are incited to Dionysian excesses - seems to risk self-trivialization for an author who otherwise references himself to a world of very real troubles: terrorism, deforestation, poverty. Yet out of phantasmagoria Mr. Vargas Llosa fashions a serious reckoning with the abiding tragedy of the third world, where past and present disastrously collide. As death would have it, the present is bound to the past by its loss. For Mr. Vargas Llosa this fact dictates life in the third or the first world. So it is a plausible bridge between them.

As we would expect from an imaginative compadre of Mrquez, Fuentes and Cortazar, Mr. Vargas Llosa's way of handling the complexities of mortal circumstance demands comparable complexities of structure. To frame the multiplicity of stories within stories that populate this novel, Mr. Vargas Llosa gives us a frame story within a frame story: A civil guard corporal and his adjutant pass lonely nights in a dangerous outpost by sharing the latter's reminiscence of his sojourn with a treacherous prostitute who inflamed his soul. As it is recounted in darkness between the two soldiers' cots, the romance becomes an oblique mirror of the increasingly ominous daily life from which these two characters originally turned out of boredom. All this is more than mere literary-stylistic gymnastics however. To follow the complications of Mr. Vargas Llosa's conceit is to participate in as well as comprehend the unexpected connectedness of disparate worlds.

Readers who ordinarily have no taste for the imaginative hyperbole of "magic realism" will come away from this book awed. While the eccentric characters and exotic events which fill the pages of other magic realist fiction often become benignly folkloric, mere tokens of fanciful imagination, here they remain fierce creatures of imagination that prey upon our most sobering thoughts.

Alan Singer is the author of five books, three fiction and two nonfiction. His latest novel, "Memory Wax," is scheduled for publication by FC2/Black Ice Books in May. He is an English professor at Temple University and director of the graduate creative writing program there. He has published book reviews in Modern Fiction Studies, among other professional literary journals.

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