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.
I picked up this book because of the mystery and enigma indicated on the back-cover. As I sat down to read it, I realized that the book was quite different from the expectations I had in my mind. There was a mystery, not the kind you will find in a thriller, but a more deep-seated mystery of identities and cultures.
It is only when one reads books like Things fall apart or The storyteller, that one sees a perspective that is different from this lop-sided view. The convenience of this online order comes at a cost of losing one’s identity, one’s believes, one’s culture and everything that they have believed in collectively for ages. For the one who brings to them education, teaches them what he himself believes in. He negates everything that this tribe has known for years. He tells them that the sun does not stay in the sky because you are walking like a nomad – but because of scientific principles.
The storyteller presents to us these conflicts. Just sensitizing the harbingers of culture the damage that their culture could inflict on some. It does not give a sob story – neither does it make an effort to generate sympathy. In stead, through a Machiguenga (the tribe around which the book is centered) storyteller it tells us some fantastic stories of magic and tribal belief.As we read these stories, we feel a little sad for their disappearance. For it is much more interesting to assume that the moon is the disgraced father of an angry sun than to think that it is a mere celestial body revolving around the earth. It is perhaps far more awe-inspiring to believe that the marks on the moon are the remains of his dead wife, than know that these are craters which are not illumniated by sun’s light because of their depth!
Aside from this tale of a culture’s evanescence, the book is also a book on the art of story-telling. Alternating between the actual writer of the novel and the story teller of the Machiguenga tribe, the author endeavors to entertain his reader – to once again command that position of awe enjoyed by the troubadours.