Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Death in the Andes

Recently I have felt inclined towards reading more Latin American literature – perhaps it is the after effect of reading a book as mesmerizing as Pedro Paramo, but I think I still have to find the right sequel. The Death in the Andes is definitely not one, and after putting it down, I can only feel slightly disappointed and confused more than anything else.

It begins as a mystery – a civil guard trying to find three men who have gone missing in a mining village of Peru. But even from the beginning, the mystery only seems to be in the background, somewhere hovering only in the mind of this guard and ignored by everyone else. Even the guard seems only to be flirting with this mystery, and is more distracted with hearing the love story of his adjutant and commenting on the social fabric of the village. Llosa spends a long time painfully detailing the romantic escapade of the young adjutant, on the other hand he fleetingly flips through many sublets that he opens and closes in the story. There are several characters in the book who hold centerstage for a while, as Llosa explores their thoughts, ideas, stories – but quickly brings them to a violent death at the hands of Sendaristas (the Shining Path Rebels), to return to the love story.

I don't know whether it is a positive of Llosa's work that the political motivation has been completely ignored in the book. The Sendaristas have been glossed over. They appear only to kill or punish or plunder, and remain as unexplained and mysterious as the pishtacos, the mythical vampires. It is almost as if they had no motives or reasons for the violence, and are only fulfilling the purpose of keeping death alive in Andes. Perhaps Llosa is being unjust to the rebels in doing so, or perhaps it is his polite way of rejecting their ideals completely. Once the villainy of the Sendaristas is completely established, they are suddenly dropped, and the ancient Peruvian love for death and sacrifice turns into focus. I suppose Llosa himself continuously experimented with the possibilities and followed them to a certain length till they appealed to him, and then abandoned them once they became stale. In a way, it does lead to some charm to the story, but to me the confusion created is slightly more compelling than this faint charm.

What is good in the book to me is the presence of many characters. It presents a collage of several stories, all leading to wasted lives, and you feel a certain gloom in every page. (Except the love story, which even though the main plot, appeared to me an anomaly in this tale of despair) For that matter, even the love story is sort of doomed, but the adjutant is so juvenile that it is impossible to feel depressed with his love.

I also loved the interplay between past narration and current dialogue. Especially, the civil guard's comments interspersed in the adjutant's story make it very interesting – it is like watching a trash movie with friends – you keep interjecting with comments, and later you can never separate the movie from those evil comments J
For all its failures, the book does succeed in inspiring fear. You see a land seeped in violence, and you can feel that the perpetrator of this violence or the cause is immaterial. From the ancient times, it is a land that has lived and breathed violence and worships spirits that demand death. Perhaps it is too imaginative a notion, but perhaps it is true that you cannot escape your history and continue to pay homage to it.

I did not think that this book was anywhere close to the Llosa that I have read earlier (The Storyteller). That was a very sincerely written tale, one which made you appreciate culture, history, even myths. This one is simply dark narration.


Alok said...

of the 5-6 novels by Llosa that I have read so far this was the weakest. I agree with most of what you say. His writing is always plain on the surface and unadorned but in most of his novels he experiments a lot with multiple points of views and multiple narrative threads jumping forward and backward in time. the plot is less important than atmosphere and the sense of the place. Death in the Andes also is very evocative of the place...may be only because it feels so remote from our own experiences. Also about Shining Path guerillas they started off as genuine Maoist revolutionaries but like most other such movements elsewhere soon turned into an almost criminal outfit, running operations based on extortion, killing and looting. this novel is certainly based in that period thats why he doesnt present their political beliefs. it was just not there at that time. also he wrote this novel just after losing the presidential race, may be that's why it feels like a weaker effort.

my favourite of his novels is, The War of the End of the World, a historical novel which dramatizes a real historical event - rebellion against the brazillian state by a ragtag bunch of outcasts in brazil led by religious prophet. It is a huge novel so may be next time you are on a long vacation. I recommend it very highly.

Much more light reading is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter really one of the most hilarious novels ever... you just have to read it very carefully to get all the jokes in the end. His Feast of the Goat is also a very good example of the classic "dictator novel" genre of latin american literature.

also about the novel being dark...much of modern history of that part of the world has been extremely dark so its natural that literature reflects that too but there is always this exuberance and liveliness this "will to style" (a phrase i learnt recently) despite all the horrors.

Kubla Khan said...

Well, you have summed the situation quite neatly. The historical context of this novel is important and don't forget the Llosa later was a presidential candidate and lost( Alok is right there, as always). the shining path is marginal to this story and his sympathies are clearly not with them, though the path leaders were university professors and much well read.

Llosa is essentially a story teller but vastly over-rated. His sympathies with the natives are questionable. he portrays them vividly and exotically. thus they have more heart than head. this malaise is typical of "white settler" mentality and attitude and fiction is no exception.(Alok and me have debated this) A good example from Llosa himself is The war of the end of the world where the native, present and visible is still marginal.

add to that the complexity of hispanic Catholicism, the barbarity of fusing native blood with invading hordes, the complexes of language and colour and everything gets confusing. in this struggle, the invaded seem as guilty as the invaders. to be fair, in his War novel, he captures a vast essence of this coplexity and is definitely his best novel.

Death in the Andes is a good novel and stands as an example of his style which if using Sontag's criteria, falls out of the arc of really great writing as it invokes no poetry or emotional resonance. His writing does not have any shade of melancholy. thus, in his own way his style is different to other Latinas but dull.

Alok said...

yes we have debated (and disagreed a little) before too. To be fair, I have not read him in the last 4-5 years and he alongwith marquez was my introduction to latin american literature so that's one reason why i feel so defensive about him. It is definitely likely that if I read him now i will quibble about his lack of experimentation and his plain prose. I remember desperately trying to find anything and everything I could by both and reading like crazy, looking for reviews and secondary information on the internet ... Suprisingly the books were very easily available in india and reasonably priced too (not expensive imports).

I am not so sure about the political problems you have mentioned about Llosa. Shining Path had soon become an average terrorist organization and it didn't have any popular support at all. Llosa doesn't explain their political beliefs because when he was writing that book they were not motivated by political ideas at all.

In his earlier novels he does present every side of the story and doesn't privilege one over the other depending on his own political orientation. In fact this is what makes The War of the End of the World such a powerful tragedy. He is clearly not sympathetic to the rebels and the religious fanatics but he has presented them so vividly that their final defeat becomes a tragedy. The War... is also a great example of how a polyphonic novel can capture the complex realities of a culture and a region, which no other art form can. He gives voices to marginalized and the outcasts which no history book can do.

Madhuri said...

I guess I can identify with that Alok - I have not really read enough Latin American literature yet to know the bad ones - I certainly find the genre engrossing. And Marquez and Llosa are so readily available in India!
I liked Llosa in The Storyteller, even with (or may be because of) the "white settler" shade. I do not know if that shade is a bias. Chinua Achebe wrote about the African natives in 'Things Fall Apart', and I found his impressions to be very similar to those of Llosa - more heart than head. He is not a white settler, and is likely to be more conscious of the lives of the natives. And even though Africa and Latin America are two different continents, it is not too hard to imagine a similarity between the two natives. But that could very well be my ignorance speaking.
I think I need to find and read the war of the end of the world - it sounds like a good work. But I will surely welcome a few more suggestions on the genre that I can dig into.

Alok said...

Other than the three by Llosa I mentioned, my favourite of Marquez's books are The Autumn of the Patriarch, One hundred years of solitude and Chronicle of a death foretold. You might have already read some of these. Both Llosa and Marquez have been extremely prolific (and it is true for other writers of the region too)...writers block doesn't seem to apply to them and neither are they ever short of ideas or subjects.

I had actually put up a to-read list on my blog some time back. I did read a few of those Pedro Paramo recently which is really a masterpiece. I didn't like The President that much and was totally confused by Clarice Lispector's The Passion according to G.H. I, The Supreme was impressive but too daunting (it is sort of Joycean) so had to abandon after 100 pages.

Other than that you can take a look at the wikipedia page of latin american boom literature and the dictator novel. they are both quite good with lots of further pointers.

Kubla Khan said...

Alok's reading list is quite good. Marquez seems to be a favourite of even those who do not read a lot. in such things, there is a fallacy. one needs to read everything by one writer, then move on. Marquez belongs to the "boom" generation of LA writers. i do not like magic realism nor am i moved by it. however, his Love in the time of cholera is good.

A few books i like....

if you are looking for fantastically poetic literature, read Cortazar. read his Hopscotch, then live it for a while. play hopscotch, you can even do it indoors. then read his 62: a model kit. then stop. you can read his Blow up and Cronipios and famas too.

the newer generation of writers is exceedingly good. I am a Bolano enthusiast, try to read everything by Bolano. also Cesar Aira. Then Moya.

if you want to read the most pulsating novels, those that look at the trashier aspects of American cultural imperialism, especilly on its southern neighbours, then read Manuel Puig. read his Betrayed by Rita Hayworth or the Blood of requited love or the kiss of the spider woman.

Madhuri said...

Thanks for the recommendations guys! It is really helpful. Now all I have to do is get back to India and start raiding the bookstores. Incidentaly I am carrying the Autumn of the Patriarch with me (That is the only Marquez I have not read of the ones mentioned in your lists), so I can start enjoying that.

Rafael del Castillo said...

Try Cortazar's Rayuela instead... or for something lighter Laura Esquivel's "As water for chocolate".

Freud learnt Spanish just to be able to read El Quijote in its original language. And if you keeping reading Latin America's books, you may as well do it yourself.

I loved your blog.


Madhuri said...

Thanks for the suggestion Rafael. And you are probably right - may be I should learn Spanish, that will open up a lot of Latin American literature. :)