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VARGAS LLOSA VISITS HIS ANIMAL

12:00 AM, Jul 22, 1996 • By MICHAEL VALDEZ MOSES
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On the evening of August 21, 1987, standing before a frenzied crowd of over 100,000 Peruvians jammed shoulder to shoulder in San Martin Plaza in Lima, the renowned writer Mario Vargas Llosa delivered an incendiary speech denouncing President Alan Garcia's proposed nationalization of Peru's banks, insurance companies, and financial institutions. To fervent applause, Vargas Llosa declared that economic freedom and political freedom were inseparable and that private property and the market economy offered the only path to peace, progress, and prosperity for Peru. Rumor has it that President Garcia, a populist socialist with despotic inclinations, watching on television as his political ambitions were frustrated by this mass demonstration, demolished his set in a fit of rage.


In retrospect Garcia's explosion of temper seems justified, for the rally in San Martin Plaza launched Vargas Llosa's meteoric political career as leader of Movimiento Libertad (the Freedom Movement) and front-running candidate for the Peruvian presidency. Nearly three years later, in April 1990, Vargas Llosa won a narrow plurality in the initial round of the presidential election. But his political odyssey was not fated to end in triumph. In June he lost the runoff election to an obscure Japanese-Peruvian agronomist, Professor Alberto Fujimori. In the aftermath of his unsuccessful campaign (and Fujimori's subsequent coup d'etat in 1992), Vargas Llosa has returned to the vocation that had already made him, on that critical night in 1987, one of the most famous cultural figures in Latin America. Although his vision of a truly democratic Peru remains unrealized, and his native country has fallen victim yet again to authoritarian rule, the recent publication of Vargas Llosa's latest novel, Death in the Andes (translated by Edith Grossman; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 279 pages, $ 24), testifies to the undiminished artistic powers of one of the most accomplished writers in the world.


Although the germinal idea for his new novel occurred to Vargas Llosa before he entered politics in 1987, the subsequent frustration of his political hopes for a liberal democratic Peru doubtless contributed to the pessimism of Death in the Andes. Originally published in Barcelona in 1993 as Lituma en los Andes, Vargas Llosa's latest work is set in the remote Andean mining community of Naccos, whose dwindling number of dispirited inhabitants suffer deplorable economic conditions, relentless natural disasters, and the depredations of the Maoist guerrilla army, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), whose terrorist attacks have turned the region into a showcase of atrocities.


Corporal Lituma, a member of the civil guard, and his adjutant, Tomas Carreno, who have been quixotically posted to this alien locale to protect the miners, investigate the mysterious disappearance of three inhabitants of the camp. In the evenings that the two spend together during their investigation, Carreno recounts his own turbulent romance with a prostitute, Mercedes Trelles, the mistress of a drug lord named "Hog." Carreno tells how he was hired as a bodyguard by the drug lord, whom he subsequently assassinated when the latter viciously beat the beautiful Mercedes during a night of orgiastic sadomasochism.


The story of the eventful flight of Tomas and Mercedes and of their tormented passion provides a counterpoint to the grim tale of savagery, lust, and religious devotion Lituma and Carreno bring to light in Naccos. These interwoven narratives of primal passion, brutal instinct, violent fanaticism, and atavistic barbarity ultimately serve as an emblem of a country so rooted in the myths and beliefs of the past that it is unable, in the words of the former presidential candidate, "to become a part of history."


An alter ego who has often appeared in Vargas Llosa's fiction and drama, Lituma represents the frustrated spirit of enlightenment, a figure whose heroic striving to know the truth leads to an understanding, but never an amelioration, of the evils that beset his nation. While Naccos is intended to be an outpost of progress, a site where the material development of an impoverished nation might be pursued, what Liturea discovers is a lost world ruled by tellurian powers, a primitive land still under the sway of ancient and cruel gods, the apus, or spirits of the mountains, who demand nothing less than the flesh and blood of their human worshippers.