Sunday, December 29, 2013

Peru: "Who Killed Palomino Molero?" by Mario Vargas Llosa

In my imagination, I see Vargas Llosa and de Recacoechea in a bar sipping pisco and making bets about which can write a better noir novel, or whose novel will be picked up for film rights, or which one does a better job telling a story about his country in less than 175 pages. Since Who Killed Palomino Molero? appeared in 1987, and de Recacoechea's Andean Express came out in 2000, it is more likely that the Bolivian writer paid homage to Vargas Llosa. As a reader in 2013, however, I experienced something similar to double-feature at the movies.

Pictures of Talara - Traveler Photos
This photo of Talara is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Vargas Llosa's book takes place in the very north of Peru in the early 1950s. The plot revolves around two police officers in Talara seeking the truth behind the grisly murder of a young man posted to the nearby airbase. While some reviews say it is a tightly crafted murder mystery, I have to confess that I knew who did it as soon as we meet the offender -- and I knew why. If you, too, have a deep background in Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, or Laura Roh Rowland, this might not be the intellectual puzzle you seek, but it is still worth the time to read as a psychological study of power, if nothing else.

Talara is on the coast near oil fields, with the airbase, and serves as the headquarters for an administrative district, all of which play a role in the story. Descriptions of life of the time appear sparingly amidst the dialogue that moves the tale along. Here, the police lieutenant and his assistant head to a cafe for their dinner.

"They walked out, locking the station door...There was a full moon. The bluish light of the sky illuminated the street. They walked in silence, waving and nodding in response to the greetings shouted to them from the families congregated in the doorways. Off in the distance, above the throbbing surf, they could hear the loudspeakers from the outdoor movie--Mexican voices, a woman weeping, background music." (p. 115)

While the author might or might not have intended commentary on gender relations, women are depicted as victims and as manipulative objects of men's desires: a grieving mother, a child-like waif, a voluptuous cafe owner. To be fair, the male characters, except for one, also have very little independent agency, being molded into specific roles by their place in the social hierarchy and their degree of authority over others.

For a glimpse of life in mid-20th century Peru, for the reality of the social divisions between "purebloods" (those presumably of 100% Spanish descent) and everyone else, and for some descriptions of the landscape, this is a good, quick read. The book contains subtle political commentary, as one expects in Vargas Llosa, about the abuses of power and the pure-heartedness of the common people. One summary says it is about the difficult life of an honest man in a corrupt society. Indeed, the lieutenant is a cop who insists on paying for his meals and in the end, he pays for that integrity.

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