Reviewed by Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64)
Peru in 1992 is besieged by the sinister evils of President Fujimura’s not-so-secret police and military, and the equally brutal atrocities of the guerilla terrorists, Shining Path. Throughout Andean villages, monuments to long-ago battles and massacres — one loss after another — display the centuries of resentment descendants of the Incas bear toward the descendants of Pizzaro and his conquistadors. The ancient is very much a part of the present. Multiple bad guys fight each other, trampling the innocent and poor with abandon.
Into this violent mix, under the pretext of attending an academic conference, Professor Mark Thorsen travels to Lima for a secret rendezvous with an old love. Mark and Marisa met in Peru ten years before when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer and she an American student abroad. He kept his ardor aflame by writing her embarrassing erotic poetry.
Before Marisa arrives at the hotel, a General beats on Mark’s door to deliver a summons for him to testify before a commission investigating terrorism. It seems Marisa of “Lily of Peru” perfume and her husband are suspected of nefarious activities including support of the Shining Path.
Mark is incredulous. His Marisa? He has no dog in this fight. He just wants to get the girl and get away. Mark is an odd main character, a hapless guy tossed here and there by the real players. He is alternately pursued and led blindly by one side or another without explanation. Through the jungle, at high altitude, on a train, amidst ruins, at high speed.
There is a Looney Tunes quality to the chases and escapades. The roadrunner skidding to a stop at the brink of the cliff, or flying into the abyss only to be snagged on a convenient branch.
For a story, albeit fiction, so anchored in an actual place and historic time, it would have been helpful to have a narrator to orient the reader and perhaps to provide insight into the other characters. What we have instead is the limited eye of the storyteller and the immediacy of his experiences. He is summoned, captured, rescued, in hiding, on the run, in peril — over and over — only to be rescued in the nick of time, most often by a woman.
Women show up to protect him or bed him. And all the women are soft and smell sweet, except for an Andean crone who nevertheless saves his life. They know where he is and what he needs, even when he doesn’t. Belongings he leaves behind in a hurried escape show up chapters later in a room he’s never been in before. A new identification, a Danish passport, hair dye, contact lenses to change the color of his eyes, an Incan talisman, a safe house, and always a getaway plan — someone else’s plan.
He reminds us from time to time that he is a university professor in his early 30s, under consideration for a deanship. This is a little jarring because his behavior is quite immature.
While the author gives us a fast-paced tale with lots of color and atmosphere, he can’t resist what become annoying writing tics. All pots and cups of coffee are “steaming.” No one ever gets into a car or truck — they “pile in.” After getting wet, he never simply dries, he “towels off.” Similes are strewn here and there and everywhere. For the most part they add nothing to the narrative. Instead, they become annoying pebbles on our reading path — “water dripped like rain.” (I didn’t make that up!)
Mark professes his passion and delirious love for Marisa, but we don’t see much of a relationship. She is a woman of secrets, popping in for a night and disappearing, always refusing to explain anything.
Meanwhile, everyone seems to know him. The newspapers publish his poems and make him a romantic folk hero — the professor and his terrorist lover. Mark witnesses gruesome butchery and the deaths of colleagues. He is imprisoned, wounded. All the while desperate to elude those who think he knows something he doesn’t. Will Mark’s life be spared? Will he get the girl?
There are secrets and betrayals. Perhaps what is the biggest, longest kept, life-altering secret is dropped on Mark as a throw away. And now back to the action . . .
Reviewer Geraldine Kennedy is the author of Harmattan: A Journey Across the Sahara; publisher: Clover Park Press. Contact at email@example.com.
To purchase Lily of Peru from Amazon.com, click on the book cover, the bold book title or the publishing format you would like — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that will help support its annual writers awards.