Mario Vargas Llosa is a famous writer, but Who Killed Palomino Molero? appears to be relatively unknown. I came across it in 1989, the year after its publication, and it has stayed in my head ever since. My edition’s a Faber and Faber paperback, translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam (who deserves a cheer).
The book came to my notice via a newspaper review by an Australian critic, Laurie Clancy, headlined “Detective Thriller Runs Deep.” Clancy wrote (in part), “Who Killed Palomino Molero? is, on one level, a detective story, and it will offer great encouragement to those who believe that this genre can reach the heights of accomplishment of any other branch of fiction. Sparsely written with not a superfluous word, taut, filled with ironies, it is a superbly gripping novel right up to the deliberately irresolute revelation at the end.”
I went out to buy Llosa’s book, fairly confident that it would be right up my alley, and it was.
The opening paragraph sets the scene for all that’s to follow:
“Sons of bitches.” Lituma felt the vomit rising in his throat. “Kid, they really did a job on you.” 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. Lituma saw they’d even tried to castrate him; his testicles hung down to his thighs.The time is the 1950s. Constable Lituma and his superior officer, Lieutenant Silva, are the two cops at the Guardia Civil post in a small Peruvian coastal town called Talara. They set out, in the heat and dust, to investigate this horrific crime. They don’t have a lot going for them--not even motor transport. To get around they rely on the local taxi driver, who complains that they lose him money, though the lieutenant always pays for the gasoline. Otherwise, they bum lifts from passing truck drivers. But it’s the wall of silence they run into which puts the brakes on the investigation.
Lituma says to a cousin: “‘It’s going to be tough. Nobody knows anything, nobody saw anything, and the worst part is that the authorities won’t lift a finger to help.’
“‘Wait a minute, aren’t you the authorities over at Talara?’ asked Josefino, genuinely surprised.
“‘Lieutenant Silva and I are the police authority. The authority I’m talking about is the Air Force. That skinny kid was in the Air Force, so if they don’t help us, who the fuck will?’”
That is the nub of their dilemma. The murder victim, Palomino Molero, was a new recruit at the nearby Air Force base and everyone on the base has clammed up. It transpires that Molero was also a bolero singer and guitar player, who was sought by both the Air Force officers and gringos at the International Petroleum Company (IPC) to entertain at their parties and serenade their sweethearts. It’s this part of the slaughtered kid’s life which the crime comes out of--at the heart of which is the stony-faced base commandant, Colonel Mindreau, and his spoilt and troubled daughter. It was Molero’s tragic misfortune to come up against these people.
Silva and Lituma go out to the Air Force base to interview
Colonel Mindreau. Casting his eye around, Lituma observes bitterly: “Some of these fuckers know what happened.” The colonel treats them like dog turds.
“He really put us through the ringer, didn’t he, Lieutenant?” Lituma dried his brow with a handkerchief. “I’ve never met a guy with a worse temper. Do you think he hates the Guardia Civil just because he’s a racist, or do you think he has a specific reason? Or does he treat everybody that way? Nobody, I swear, ever made me swallow so much shit as thatBut Lieutenant Silva is in a good humor. “Appearances are tricky, Lituma. ... As far as I’m concerned, the colonel yakked like a drunken parrot.”
As the author clearly shows, we are dealing with two distinct worlds: the one of the base, where the officers live in proper houses with gardens and swimming pools and good food; and the poverty-stricken and mean shantytown existence of the locals, which is the existence of Silva and Lituma. As Lituma comments: “They really live it up. Like the gringos at the IPC, these lucky bastards live like movie stars behind their fences and screens.”
It’s against this contrast of lives that the “runs deep” of the aforementioned review headline comes into focus: the virtual impossibility of justice, the abuse of power in a society grounded in inequality--the “big guys,” as the locals call those from the parallel world, are never touched.
OK, so why did this story stay in my head over the years, along with only a handful of other novels? It’s short--150 pages--and for many would be a rapid one-sitting read, perhaps best taken in a single shot. On the other hand, some might prefer to take it easy and linger over great writing which develops the characters, infuses a haunting tone in the narrative, and creates an atmospheric sense of place. Witness how the squalid dump that is Talara, wilting in the hard sunlight beside the dirty, oily ocean, offering its residents just a few grains of hope in their lives, is invested with atmospheric, even poetic touches, by the author. He’s sparse with description, but when he puts out those touches come as rays of light in the basically gritty, realistic narrative--yet, rays of light connected to the unfolding story.
It was a warm night, quiet and starry. The mixed smells of carob trees, goats, birdshit, and deep frying filled the air. Lituma, unable to erase from his mind the picture of the impaled and bloody Palomino Molero, wondered if he’d be sorry he’d become a cop ...And another brain-aching morning:
It wasn’t even eight yet and the sun was blazing hot. The restaurant was pierced by luminous spears of light in which motes of dust floated and flies buzzed. There were few people on the street. Lituma could hear the low sound of the breaking waves and the murmur of the water washing backThe two cops go to a nearby town, to interview the dead bolero singer’s mother:
down the beach.
Amotape is thirty miles south of Talara, surrounded by sun-parched rocks and scorching sand dunes. There are dry bushes, carob thickets, and here and there a eucalyptus tree--pale green patches that brighten the otherwise monotonous gray of the arid landscape. The trees bend over, stretch out and twist around to absorb whatever moisture might be in the air; in the distance they look like dancing witches. In their benevolent shade, herds of squalid goats are always nibbling the crunchy pods that fall off their branches; there are also some sleepy mules and a shepherd, usually a small boy or girl, sunburnt, with bright eyes.It’s this kind of everyday scene that makes Lieutenant Silva, and Lituma, sweat, and their heads ache; the impossible investigation is a taste-bud-searing sauce on the dish of their hard lives.
As you might have gathered, much of the story in Who Killed Palomino Molero? is told from Constable Lituma’s point of view. He diligently initiates several inquiries in support of his boss, which all fall in a heap. A romantic kind of guy, dark-skinned, of the lower classes--the cholos--he is overwhelmed by the situation they’re in. Unlike the sharp-minded, pragmatic, handsome, and fair-skinned lieutenant, Lituma is anxious about their lack of progress, and having nightmares featuring the murdered kid. He watches his boss with admiration but without much understanding. The lieutenant’s cunning moves, and obscure motives, leave him bewildered. The laconic Silva, despite the seeming hopelessness of the investigation, is not done with the “big boys.” He’s chipping away at the wall of silence, and laying his plans to undermine it. Throughout this tale, the lieutenant is a benevolent and amused mentor to Lituma, though that doesn’t stop him from shafting his junior officer with his corrosive wit.
“Are you kidding me, Lieutenant?”Lieutenant Silva is laid-back and self-contained, but there is one big chink in his armor and that is where the author’s commentary on the macho attitudes of the male, in this society, in particular, are threaded into the narrative with flashes of humor. The lieutenant is obsessed with Dona Adriana, the proprietor of the seaside shack were he and Lituma take their frugal meals. Silva is not put off by her being married to an old fisherman who captains The Lion of Talara. Or by anything else. He’s been running a relentless campaign to lay her. Her infuriated rejections are like water off a duck’s back to him, only serving to fire up his desire to incendiary levels. Silva tells Lituma: “I’ve got that chubby broad under my skin, goddamnit.”
“No, Lituma. I’m trying to distract you a little because you’re so edgy. Why are you so edgy? A Guardia Civil should have balls like a brass monkey.”
“You’re a bit jumpy yourself, sir. Don’t try to deny it either.”
Lieutenant Silva laughed involuntarily. “Of course I’m jumpy. But I cover it up so people can’t see. You look as though you’d shit in your pants if you heard a mosquito fart.”
Lituma is perplexed. The lieutenant could have any girl in town. He thinks: “Who could figure it? She was old enough to be his mother, she had a few gray hairs in that tangle on her head, and, last but not least, she bulged all over, especially in the stomach.”
Constable Lituma puzzles out that the lieutenant’s current life is dominated by two forces: beneath his calm, patient exterior there’s a deep-seated drive to solve the Palomino Molero case, and more on the surface is his desire to conquer Dona Adriana. Some afternoons, he slips away with his binoculars to a headland above a secluded bay, where Dona Adriana goes alone to bathe. He says he’s going there to watch for smugglers, but that’s not the case. One afternoon he takes Lituma along.
“This is the greatest gift I’ve ever given anyone, Lituma. You’re going to see Chubby’s ass, nothing less. And her tits. And, if you’re lucky, her snatch with its curly little hairs. Get ready, Lituma, because you’re going to die when you see it all. It’s your birthday present, your promotion. How lucky you are to work for a guy like me!”Lituma regards the lieutenant as honest, fair-minded, and dedicated to his work, yet flawed by a mind, which in regard to Dona Adriana, verges on the pornographic. However, the day is coming when Dona Adriana comprehensively destroys Silva’s macho pride. It’s one setback that he can’t take in his stride.
Nonetheless, the indefatigable lieutenant is patiently closing in on solving the case. When he ties it up, so far as it can be tied up, the irony is that no one in the town believes that he’s nabbed the real killers. As Clancy said in his review: “they stick with stubborn prejudice to their belief that the real killers were the ‘big guys,’ who were never touched--which is true, of course, but not in the way they think.”
However, the lieutenant and his officer are left in no doubt that they’ve touched the big end of town. Silva breaks the news to Lituma:
“Bad news for you. You’ve been transferred to a little station ... somewhere in Junin Province. You’ve got to get there right away. They’ll pay for the bus ticket.”Who Killed Palomino Molero? is one of those rare and satisfying dishes, the taste and memory of which stay with you. I wondered what happened next to Silva and Lituma in their lives--I fear nothing good.
“I’m being transferred, too, but I still don’t know where. Maybe the same place.”
“That’s got to be far away.”
“Now you see, asshole,” the lieutenant teased him affectionately. “You were so eager to solve the mystery of Palomino Morelo. Well, now it’s solved, and I did it for you. So what do we get for our trouble? You’re transferred to the mountains, far from your heat and your people. They’ll probably find a worse hole for me. That’s how they thank you for a job well done in the Guardia Civil. What will become of you out there, Lituma? Your kind of animal just doesn’t grow there. I feel sorry just thinking about how cold you’re going to be.”
“Sons of bitches.”
I haven’t read any other of Mario Vargas Llosa’s fictions. Years ago, though, I saw the terrific movie, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which was based on this author’s 1977 novel of the same name and starred Peter Falk and Barbara Hershey. (The film was retitled in the States as Tune in Tomorrow.) I’ll read that if I can ever find it.