The charge that all revolutions are bound to devour its own children is one of the oldest and most common admonitions against the people’s collectively rising up to effect massive social transformations. First heard in the aftermath of the French Revolution with the Jacobins falling under their own Guillotines, this discourse has become common fare in the 20th Century.
Lumping together the “nightmarish” experience under all victorious and defeated revolutionary movements from the “Stalinist” show trials to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Kampuchean “Killing Fields,” the people are admonished to just endure the exploitative and oppressive conditions of the present because any attempt to change will only lead to something worse.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes gives another variation to this old worn-out theme. While keeping the writing style light and filled with humorous anecdotes, making the novel a delightful read, Llosa ultimately tackles grave issues confronting Peruvian society at the height of the Shining Path’s guerilla war against the US-sponsored government in the late 1980s.
The disappearance of three militiamen in a remote rural outpost in the mountains of Peru is the starting point of the novel. Two civil guards, Captain Lituma and his adjutant Tomasito are sent to investigate. Were they murdered by the guerrillas? Have they gone to join them voluntarily? Or were they sacrificed to the mountain spirits by the superstitious locals?
We jump from story to story about the lives of the two investigators and the people around them, including that of Tomasito’s love affair with the prostitute Mercedes. But all of these serve as a mere plot device to allow Llosa to point his guns at the peasant-based Sendero Luminoso.
Narrated in a mocking tone, Llosa does not hide his disdain for the revolutionary movement. He writes how these revolutionary multitudes took two French tourists hostage, conducted trials with their people’s court in a rural village, and interrogated a “bourgeois” philanthropist before her execution.
Llosa’s impressionistic accounts of these tribunals paint the revolutionaries as a ruthless and dogmatic bunch only out to eliminate perceived enemies. He rips their violence out of its context as a logical response to the everyday violence inflicted upon these previously submissive masses by unjust social structures and its agents. Without any deeper look at the crimes wreaked by the old semi-feudal order on the people, the novel jumps directly into how the movement, bearing their rifles, waving their red flags, painting their slogans, and reciting their blood-curdling speeches, incited people to mindless violence:
They took turns and patiently explained the crimes, real and inferred, that these servants of a government drenched in blood, these accomplices of repression and torture, had committed against each and every one of them, and their children and their children’s children. They instructed them, they encouraged them to take part to speak without fear and reprisal, for the armed power of the people protected them.
This nameless and faceless mass that included men, women, and children alike, like the blob of science fiction thrillers, and now given the power to put things right after centuries of colonial and landlord oppression apparently embody Llosa’s worst nightmare.
Little by little, breaking out of their timidity and confusion, spurred on by their own fear, by the atmosphere of exaltation, and by darker motivation – old quarrels, buried resentments, silent envy, family hatreds – the townspeople began to speak… By midday, many Andamarcans had found the courage to walk to the middle of the square and present their complaints and recriminations and point the finger at bad neighbors, bad friends, bad kin.
Seizing power from the landlord and bourgeois classes that have concentrated economic wealth, political power, and military force in their hands and establishing a more humane and socially just dispensation sometimes necessitates the use of armed struggle on the part of the oppressed. For the majority whose very status as the oppressed forced was upon them through the violence of the oppressing classes, their use of revolutionary violence as an instrument forced upon them for their own liberation is justified.
As long ago pointed out by Mao, it is exactly the tyranny of the despotic landlords themselves who drove the peasants to violent revolts of the kind scorned by Llosa. It is in areas where the worst outrages were perpetrated that the most violent reprisals occurred.
The peasants are clear-sighted. Who is bad and who is not, who is the worst and who is not quite so vicious, who deserves severe punishment and who deserves to be let off lightly — the peasants keep clear accounts, and very seldom has the punishment exceeded the crime.
Without exerting such a force, the peasants cannot defeat the entrenched power of the landowning classes. The pursuit of fundamental social change cannot but take the form of an act of violence by which one class defeats another, how in this instance the peasantry defeats the feudal classes.
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.
And it is precisely this insight that is lost on Llosa, which makes the thought of radical social upheaval a nightmare. And it is exactly his being a part of the ruling Peruvian elites that makes the idea of the redistribution of wealth and the peasants taking up arms to enforce this so repugnant.
This is also the explanation why the revolutionaries are perceived by Llosa and his lot as aliens: “They hear, but they don’t listen, and they don’t want to understand what you say to them… They’re from another planet.” It is the class divide that is speaking here, the unbridgeable gap between two irreconcilable interests that only shows how deeply ingrained the ruling ideology, the prevailing worldview of the ruling classes is in Llosa’s own consciousness and consequent construction of his novel.
Mao once observed in the Talks at Yenan Forum that different classes in different class societies always put the political criterion above artistic merit in judging literary and artistic works. His counsel for the oppressed classes to similarly criticize works on the basis of their attitude to the people and progressive or historical significance should prove to be instructive a propos Death in the Andes:
Some works which politically are downright reactionary may have a certain artistic quality. The more reactionary their content and the higher their artistic quality, the more poisonous they are to the people, and the more necessary it is to reject them.