Aguerrilla movement, heavily armed and ruthless, has all but paralyzed a weak Peruvian government. Authority has been largely handed over to the army and police, who patrol city and countryside with even greater ruthlessness.
The slums of the capital are swollen by country people fleeing the violence, and most of all, the poverty and hunger. They are vast wastelands, preyed upon by drug mafias, free-lance thugs and armed political bands from the right and left. Even in the expensive neighborhoods, where the narrator of Mario Vargas Llosa's witty and despairing novel lives, garbage fills the ravines and piles up against the seawalls. There is no society left, not even for the rich who, in a literal spirit of "after me, the deluge," dribble their expensive wastes down the hills.
With minor adjustments, this is today's nightmare in half a dozen places in Latin America. And Vargas Llosa advances it a few notches into the future, though it remains dismally recognizable.
A guerrilla incursion from Bolivia, supported by Cuban advisers, has seized Cuzco and the surrounding area. In response, more or less, to a government appeal, U.S. Marines have come in. It is a bloody stalemate.
What remains of national life lies stricken between the two manipulators of what the author sees as Latin America's destiny: those who are prepared to destroy a country in order to liberate it into a new social order, and those who are prepared to destroy it to save it from its liberators.
All this is the framework for the story of Alejandro Mayta. It is not the story itself. Vargas Llosa uses his nightmarish near-future as denouement and moral to an ironic and oddly tender tale taking place a quarter-century earlier. Innocent times, relatively speaking, when the revolutionary Utopians were still unaware of the costs and consequences of their efforts and the iron transformation they would go through. And when, on the other side, "the army still took prisoners."
It is the narrator, waiting with his countrymen for Marines or guerrillas to let them know which form of salvation will destroy them, who unearths the story. He is, in fact, a fictional Vargas Llosa.
Mayta was a schoolmate, a boy from a poor family who managed to fill one of the places that the middle-class establishment preserved for the less privileged. The narrator lost track of him, but at the end of the 1950s, when he was living in Paris, a couple of paragraphs appeared in the French press about an abortive insurrectionary attempt in an Andean village. One of the participants was named Mayta.
The narrator, whose parallel with the author is exact, remained in Europe, writing novels and achieving a comfortable recognition. It is only now, back in Peru and waiting for the apocalypse, that he recalls Mayta and feels the need to trace his life. Is there a key there to what has gone wrong?
The narrator questions those who knew the young Mayta: sisters, the wife from an annulled marriage, the members of the tiny Trotskyist cell to which he belonged, and the mountain villagers who witnessed or participated in the tragic comic and utterly futile uprising. At the same time, their actions and conversations are set down as they took place a quarter of a century earlier. These shifts between present and past occur abruptly, sometimes in the course of a single paragraph. The effect is of history constricted and tripped up; no majestic stream but a series of leaks and sputters.
Mayta emerges as a splendidly vivid character, wreathed in uncertainties. He is one of Vargas Llosa's finest creations. He is an idealist, a bumbler, supporting himself as a part-time translator and totally absorbed in the eternal dialectical debates and perennial schisms of the Trotskyists. His own faction is itself a schism, in fact, consisting of just seven members. It will split further before the book ends.
The sterile hair-splitting among Mayta's comrades is a comical parody of the Latin American Old Left, before Fidel Castro came down from the mountains. Mayta, however, meets by chance a young lieutenant who represents something new. With virtually no ideology, Lt. Vallejos is a pure revolutionary. He is the commander of a military jail in a tiny Andean town, and has become convinced that one spark can set off a peasant uprising and a national revolution.
He and Mayta--who, to his other handicaps, adds those of foot trouble and painfully concealed homosexual appetites--make a splendidly unlikely couple. Vallejos slips Mayta a submachine gun, and they go out to the country to practice.
For this devoted and frustrated conspirator, growing old in purposeless argument, it is a transfiguration. "Could there have been anything as captivating for a man like Mayta than out of the blue having someone stick a sub-machine gun in his hands?," the narrator reflects.