A mystery and a melodrama. Vargas Llosa's `whodunit' probes deep into responsibility

Who Killed Palomino Molero?, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 151 pp. $14.95. ``Who Killed Palomino Molero?`` turns out to be a hard question to answer. As a title, though, it indicates that Mario Vargas Llosa's 10th book is a police-procedural, a ``whodunit.'' Trying to answer the question takes us quickly and deeply into the mazy world of the bigger novels of Vargas Llosa, a world now seen in the palpable, almost opaque light emitted by compact, exquisitely made literary works of art.

As a whodunit, ``Who Killed Palomino Molero'' is a dandy. The place is Peru; the time, the '50's. Palomino Molero, a skinny cholo (native) boy who played the guitar and sang divinely, is brutally tortured and murdered. Molero was an Air Force cadet, so the problem of jurisdiction comes up immediately. The Guardia Civil discovers that, as the only son of a widow, Palomino wasn't drafted. He enlisted. Now why would he enlist?

Other questions follow. Soon, the Latin American culture - composed of poor Indians and the ``big guys'' employed by the government and military - is peeling like an onion. There are tears. The relationships between fiction and reality that unravel go beyond those typical of the genre into the cultural myths of Latin America, myths fed on centuries of exploitation - by others and by the Latin Americans themselves.

As he said in his Neil Gunn Lecture for 1986 in Edinburgh, Vargas Llosa thinks that ``one of our worst defects and our best fictions is to believe that our miseries have been imposed on us from abroad, that others have always had the responsibility for our problems...''

In ``Who Killed Palomino Molero,'' responsibility becomes a key issue, especially since nobody will take any.

A scandalous love story is the mythical center of this onion-like novel. As the assistant to the police lieutenant on the case, Lituma, says or rather thinks to himself, ``It was a kind of waking dream, again and again he saw the happy couple enjoying their premarital honeymoon in the humble streets of Amotape: he a half-breed cholo from Castilla; she a white girl of good family. There are no barriers to love, as the old waltz said. In this case the song was correct: Love had broken through social and racial prejudices, as well as the economic abyss that separated the two lovers.''

Other parties, including the girl's outraged and finally murderous father, the colonel who runs the air base, see it differently.

Lituma is too sympathetic to be a cop. The compassion and solemnity of the man make him jump to conclusions. But his superior, Lieutenant Silva, is a hardened investigator with an astonishing ability for asking leading questions.

Silva is more than a name for reason. His other, not exactly sentimental, side comes out in his lust for the wife of a fisherman. As this novel's ``binary world'' keeps ramifying, we see that this woman, Adriana, is the polar opposite of Palomino's girlfriend Alicia. Alicia's stuck-up nose and boardlike body and troubled mind (she confesses her dad `takes advantage' of her) find ironic echos in the Rubenesque frame and hardy character of Adriana. Even their laughs are contrasted. The girl has the ``rapid little laugh, roguish, like that of any kid on the street,'' while Adriana becomes ``twisted up'' with laughter when she tells Lituma about her victory over his boss.

Adriana's ``moral victory'' (her word) over the lieutenant - she uses her sexuality to quite undo his machismo - brings a Rabelaisian sense of humor to the book, which, over all, is perhaps more bitter than sweet.

Here as always, Vargas Llosa uses special literary devices to explore the overlap of fiction and reality. Much happens at night. When a ``big guy'' from the base appears suddenly, it's as a ``shadow.'' The narrator is Lituma, and we are in the mind of this ``sentimental cop'' sometimes, at other times in the minds of other characters. In general, we go in and out of objective reality, and participate in the memories that motivate what characters say and feel, especially under the expert, sometimes cruel handling of Silva. Like Lituma, we often feel ``contradictory emotions.''

Mercifully, background noises will break in on the intense human confusion. These noises reveal, often ironically, what is ``really'' happening. Donkeys, foxes, guitars, the sea, cats, and a radio all contribute sounds to a story that started with the murder of a sweet-singing cholo.

Melodrama is closer to reality than drama, Vargas Llosa says in ``The Perpetual Orgy,'' his book on ``Madame Bovary.'' He proves it once again in ``Who Killed Palomino Molero?'' As some of the poor Indians say when details of the investigation get out, ``it's like a movie.'' Of course, they have their own theories, theories sprung from that old Latin American love of blaming other people, which Vargas Llosa discussed in his Neil Gunn Lecture.

But it's not merely a historical theory; it's the seamlessness of a reality made up of theories and gossip, old songs and movies, that inspires Vargas Llosa as an artist. Such seamlessness, and such melodrama, are evident as Lituma listens to Dona Lupe, an old woman who gave the lovers bed and board in Amotape, the village where - nice touch! - the teacher of Sim'on Bol'ivar, the hero of Latin American independence, is buried. We are in and out of her memory, hearing the voices she heard, and hearing her own.

Listening, ``Lituma felt a tear run down his cheek to his lips. It was salty, a drop of sea water. He kept on hearing Dona Lupe, her voice as deep as the ocean...'' His salt tear runs into the ocean whose depths measure the terror and charity of the old woman.

One of the few tender moments in the novel, this scene only begins to suggest the depths of Mario Vargas Llosa's commitment to art and to life.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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