Eminent Peruvian novelist Llosa tries his hand at the crime story with this police procedural set in 1950s Peru. He doesn't stray too far from the tropes of the genre, as a crafty Guarda Civil Lieutenant and his sentimental Sergeant run afoul of powerful military types as they investigate the torture and murder of a young airman from a nearby Air Force base. Still, in this novella length story, he manages to produce a remarkable amount of character development with the two policeman, including an offbeat subplot about the Lieutenant's infatuation with a pudgy married cook. Unsurprisingly, as they slowly unfold the circumstances surrounding the young man's killing, issues of race, class, and corruption come to the fore. And, with such a buildup, it should come as no surprise that the resolution is more bitter than sweet. In sum, this is a relatively minor work from a major writer.
on January 17, 2002
The time is the 1950s, the place is Peru, and the victim is a young air force enlisted man named Palomino Molero, in Mario Vargas Llosa's spare, tightly written and excellently constructed whodunit. Palomino Molero, eighteen years old, a guitar player who enchanted everyone for miles around singing boleros, is found brutally tortured and murdered near a local air force base.
Two civil guards, Officer Lituma and Lieutenant Silva, try to unravel the crime. Rumors abound all over the place; the victim was involved in smuggling or the like and the higher-ups are covering up the perpetrators. But when Silva and Lituma find out that what Palomino Molero was involved in was not smuggling but a love affair with the daughter of his base commander, the plot thickens in all kinds of ways.
Vargas Llosa's book is not only a crime novel but a bitter indictment of the social/racial conflicts of modern Peru, where an airman cannot fall in love with the daughter of a colonel, especially if she is white and he is a cholo (half-breed). Vargas Llosa knows how to leaven his story with comic relief; Lieutenant Silva is hopelessly in love with and shamelessly pursuing the respectably married Dona Adriana, and her revenge on him for his presumption is a riot. The murder is solved, but the townspeople won't accept the truth, and insist that they were right all along; there were "higher-ups" involved. "Higher-ups" indeed.
It would be a crime in itself to give the solution away and I'm not going to; suffice to say that Vargas Llosa has written a gem of a murder mystery with an ingenious plot twist. It's a very short novel and shows again that some of the best things come in small packages.
on May 21, 2013
I fell in love with Vargas Llosa's bewitching style less than a month ago, when I read my first novel by this brilliant author, "Death in the Andes," also a detective story, but published 7 years after "Who Killed Palomino Molero," in 1993. I immediately took up "War of the End of the World," a Masterpiece, which I am still trudging through, while lightening up the load with brief forays such as this small treasure.
Just as these other two Vargas Llosa novels, "Who Killed Palomino Molero" is more poetic rendering of the humanity's tribulations and propensity for hope than a complex, fast paced story. Unlike most modern fiction, which pulls readers in through plot twists, action, and constant end of chapter "cliff hangers," inducing them to forget the writing and word choice and to follow through to the end for curiosity about what happens, Vargas Llosa's work is brilliant because his stories are secondary, they are merely a vehicle for his insightful and beautifully written commentary (Do not misunderstand me: I love a good story, as modern technology, film/TV and other forms of entertainment have taught us to do; as time passes, we tend to be less patient, more eager for action than for thought--but few writers, such as Vargas Llosa, still have the power to capture attention and remind us that there is much more to be gained by savoring life than by rushing through it).
"Who Killed Palomino Molero" does not stand on its own as a mystery (the two guards who investigate the death of deserter airman Palomino Molero solve the crime because individuals openly confess, not because of their investigative skills, not with the help of any Sherlockian deductions or forensics), however, it offers a beautiful and fascinating depiction of life in coastal Peru around the 1950s as well as a portrait of life in poverty and of how individuals may find meaning and even happiness under depriving, inhospitable conditions.
Abject impoverishment, racism, corruption, incest, savage murder, obscenity, squalid heat, and classism constitute the background of the mystery--but the foreground of the story, which follows Civil Guard (policeman) Lituma and his commanding officer as they seek to uncover the mystery of a young "cholo" (person of color) who has been found severely mutilated and impaled in a field of carob trees on the outskirts of an airforce base.
Faced with the racism of whites on the base, with nepotism in the ranks (and subsequent punishment in the form of reassignment), with unspeakable tragedy (in the form of a mother who has lost her last son and living relative, or in the form of intimidated neighbors unwilling to speak out for fear of retribution), with sexual desire and unrequited love, Lituma's story paints a desolate (yet not a miserable or wretched) landscape within which he manages to not only survive, but to maintain a serene and even joyous attitude towards celebrating the seemingly insignificant moments which constitute daily experience. For Vargas Llosa presents Lituma as an ultimately satisfied (if not happy) man, as someone whose profundity arises from his attunement to lived experience.
Through Lituma's descriptions, we experience fully the scorching Peruvian sun, the smell of the landscape--carob trees, dust, manure, the sounds of the villages, the squalid poverty of most villagers--but also the simple joys of dining with friends, of smoking a cigar(ette) on the ocean shore at midnight, of a hot cup of coffee on a cold summer night, or of the inspiring melody of a guitarist strumming a bolero. Vargas Llosa manages to do depict all this melodically, yet using simple, not overtly flowery language (of course, this is based on the English translation, but the same has been written about his original Spanish)--unlike most other modern writers who seem to equivocate poetic writing with the usage of obscure verbiage, of impossibly long sentences, intricate constructions, and original metaphors (and who end up sounding pretentious for doing this 9 times out of 10).
Most of all, Vargas Llosa is a master phenomenologist (on par with philosophers such as David Abram, Edward Casey, Jean Paul Satre, and Albert Camus), someone who attends to the hidden mysteries of mundane, reflexive acts, to the structure of consciousness, and to the inextricable relationship between human experience and context (not limited to social or natural domains but encompassing both). Unlike Sartre and Camus, however, Vargas Llosa's phenomenological descriptions, while bleak, are not depressing, but ultimately uplifting: his characters, seeped in the experience of deprivation (versus Sartre' and Camus' privileged characters), seem to understand the importance of valuing--and deriving peace or happiness from--every detail (which Sartre and Camus do not even seem notice in their highbrow philosophical meanderings).
If you are looking for an atmospheric, brooding, existentially gripping portrait of Peruvian life in mid century, you will enjoy "Who Killed Palomino Molero"; if, on the other hand, you are looking for a clever mystery filled with twists and surprises, you'd be better off reading something else.
on November 25, 2014
"The boy had been both hung and impaled on the old carob tree. His position was so absurd that he looked more like a scarecrow or a broken marionette than a corpse. Before or after they killed him, they slashed him to ribbons: his nose and mouth were split open; his face was a crazy map of dried blood, bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns." So begins Mario Vargas Llosa's short, riveting detective novel set in a small town in 1950s Peru. After reading for the third time, I asked myself: now what makes `Who Killed Palomino Molero?' so gripping, so totally absorbing? On reflection, I think there are several good reasons:
The way the story is told: we follow the path of two policeman from the local force, Lieutenant Silva and his young assistant, Lituma, as they make their rounds on foot, usually under a blazing hot sun, to solve the case. The 3rd person narrator frequently dips into the mind of Lituma, making for most effective storytelling - it is as if the emotions and actions of all the characters are intensified by Lituma's feelings and musings.
The arch of the story: the guts of the novel, the plot, follows what Aristotle outlines in his Poetics. Each successive scene develops and reveals the details of motive and character as the lieutenant and Lituma converse with one key player in the murder's drama in each chapter. We encounter unexpected twists along the way, but, ultimately, there is a sense of inevitability in how events unfold and ultimately conclude.
The subplot: nothing like a little lust to add some spice to a murder mystery. Lieutenant Silva yearns for chubby Doña Adriana, owner of the local rundown, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. As the mystery is resolved in the last chapter, so also is Lieutenant Silva's relationship with his chubby object of sexual hunger. Aristotle would be pleased.
So, all in all, a novel well worth the read and at 150 pages of large print, a novel that can be read in a day. And if you are unacquainted with Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, finishing this short work might motivate you to tackle one of his longer novels.
on January 16, 2016
Rated strictly as a police procedural, this book would rate three stars at most, probably two. But that isn't what it primarily is. It is a portrait of a society with its racism, classism, corruption, cynicism (not always justified here), and at times honor. It is also an exploration of a cast of interesting characters whom the reader gets to know really well; one character, Alicia Mindreau, remains something of an enigma, but likely by design. Despite the horrendous murder with which it begins, this book is also at times extremely funny, the final chapter especially so. Greatly enjoyed.