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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Tag Archives: Santiago Roncagliolo

The Pisco:  Qollqe Italia

The Books:  Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa and Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

When in Peru, the drink is pisco. When not in Peru, exceptional pisco is often hard to find. But when found, the stories that come to light are well worth the investigations.



A see-through sophisticate showing a glint of silver. On the nose a floral aromatic charge plays against alcohol infused with citrus and green apple. And in the mouth that expected alcoholic bite is countered by a fruit-driven sweetness. Polished and well-bred. (abv 43%)

Pisco is made by distilling fermented grape juice. It is brandy of a sort, but with its own distinctive course of production. In Peru it dates from the 1500s and is often thought of as that country’s national drink.

It is best known as the central ingredient in a pisco sour, a cocktail with a long-standing reputation. But many admirers of the newer breed of premium pisco have turned to drinking it neat, or at least closer to what pours from the bottle, as I like to do, adding a thin slice of citrus fruit such as orange or clementine.

Peru and Chile, the other major exporter of pisco, have recently revived interest in the spirit, bringing it to the world stage, at least as far as two South American countries of modest profile are able to do. With the rise of small batch, artisanal pisco, this has been made a whole lot easier, and more pleasurable.

In Peru it has official D.O. (Denomination of Origin) status, and must originate in one of five designated regions of the country. Pisco Qollqe is made in the Ica region by Destilerias del Sur. It is a “pisco aromático”, its character coming from the late harvest of the aromatic grape varietal Italia. It uses 7-8 kg of grapes per litre, with the distillery’s annual output amounting to only 5000 litres.

placing of labelsGreat care is taken with its production. Many of the grapes are organically grown. Harvest is undertaken in the traditional manner, followed by careful separation of the grapes from any the extraneous material. The grapes are then macerated and the best quality central portion is isolated for 10-12 days of fermentation. Much like whisky, distillation takes place in a copper still with only the central “body” of the distillate retained. This is allowed to rest for up to a year before bottling. Silkscreening of iconography from the ancient Paracas culture of the Ica region, together with a silver band of silk cord, make for a distinctive and elegant bottle, gift tag and presentation box.


There is much pisco drunk in both these books. But hardly anything refined, appropriate as it were to the brutal nature of the storylines.

Peru’s Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote Death in the Andes, his 11th novel, not long after he plunged into politics, in a 1990 unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Peru. One suspects he makes a much better writer than he would have a South American politician. While he is irrevocably tied to his homeland, he continues to live much of each year in Europe, mostly in Madrid and London. A writer, however, never leaves his homeland far behind.

55b18b1d222aa03a8d9536cafabe794b-w204@1xWhile billed by some eager publicists as a mystery, Death in the Andes is closer to a political thriller, although it doesn’t really fit that bill either. Vargas Llosa is too interested in the intricate, often perplexing workings of Peruvian society to write anything that fits the mode of genre fiction.

The novel’s central characters, Corporal Lituma and his adjutant Tomás, are in the Guardia Civil, sent to the remote mountain outpost of Naccos to guard a highway construction project, and to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of three men. It doesn’t go smoothly for the engaging, diligent pair. (With some relief for the reader, the frustrations of the investigation are offset by Tomás’s amusingly tortuous love life, as recounted to the sexually deprived Lituma.)

The police work leads first to the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the brutal Maoist militants whose savagery struck terror through whole regions of Peru in the 1980s and early 90s. The glaring horrors of recent Peruvian history take hold in a couple of side stories, including that of the ruthless murder of a young French couple backpacking through the mountains.

Vargas Llosa is not satisfied with so straightforward a solution to the crimes. He suggests the underlying causes go much deeper, perhaps as far back as the ancients and their practice of human sacrifice. Perhaps Peru never fully escaped the barbarity of its pre-Columbian past, nor that of the Spanish conquistadors for that matter.

There is much at play here — history, the dark recesses of the human psyche, political corruption. All things which the author has concerned himself with in previous writings. While not as monumental as some of his earlier work, Death in the Andes is as indelible and disturbing as anything he has penned.

Santiago Roncagliolo, who is half the age of Vargas Llosa, set his novel Red April in the Peruvian city of Ayacucho a decade later (in the era, in fact, Vargas Llosa would have been president had he won the vote). It is a more carefully crafted, more controlled novel. A different writer, drawing on different perspectives. Yet the view of Peruvian society is equally unsettling.

red-aprilIt is Holy Week in the year 2000 in a city famous for its intensely Catholic Easter rituals. Alberto Fujimori has served for a decade as Peru’s president. The leader of the Sendero Luminoso has been in jail for years, and, after 70,000 people have died in civil strife, only remnants of the terrorist cult remain. Even so, the workings of the police and government officials are far from democratic. Gruesome murders are overlooked or documented as accidents.

At the novel’s centre is Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, a complex, peculiar innocent, an associate district prosecutor sent from Lima back to Ayacucho, the city of his youth. His marriage has run recently run amok, not surprising since he has never seen past the death of his mother. Since returning to Ayacucho he has set up a replica of the bedroom she once occupied, and constantly carries on imaginary conversation with her. As the reader suspects, once she discovers it, the scenario doesn’t go over at all well with Edith, his potential girlfriend.

Chacaltana takes his job as prosecutor seriously, however, and is determined to get at the truth in his investigations of a series of particularly grisly murders. His efforts are blocked by his corrupt overseers. In a novel where much is not as it first appears, the prosecutor’s moral direction eventually wavers and by the end of the book the reader is at odds to see how Peruvian society will ever rehabilitate itself.


These two books are among the best novels to come out of Peru in recent years. They advance an unsettling view of the country. No need to search out pisco before breaking open the novels, but if you do uncover some, try taking it chilled and raw.


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