Under the AndesJanuary 13, 2011
So, obviously everyone’s had the experience of being in dark room and not being able to see anything. And then after a few minutes your eyes adjust to the lack of light and you can see a little bit again, even if it’s just vague, dark shapes. But if you can see anything at all, that means that there is light coming from somewhere, even if it’s only a tiny little bit. Eyes do not function in the total absence of light.
There are a lot of things that drove me crazy about Rex Stout’s Under the Andes, but that was the worst. I mean, Rex Stout is supposed to be a genius. I can accept the nutty plot twists, because nutty plot twists are funny, but the way everyone kept being able to see in total darkness was even more infuriating than the bit where the narrator is like, “Oh! Inca knotted thread writing! I saw that in a museum once, so I can totally read it.”
The narrator is Paul Lamar, a wealthy, sophisticated New Yorker. His younger brother Harry runs off to Chicago with a French dancer called Desiree Le Mire, and Paul follows to keep an eye on them. The three of them travel to San Francisco together and end up wandering down the West Coast and into South America in a yacht, stopping at all the different towns to let everyone fall in love with Desiree, which everyone but Paul is happy to do. Apparently lots of titled Europeans have shot themselves over her. That gets mentioned a lot.
When they get to Peru, Desiree is seized with a desire to go mountain climbing. Also, she tells Paul she’s in love with him, and he’s as horrible about it as he can be, i.e. he laughs in her face and tries to kiss her. So when their guide shows them a mysterious cave from which no one has ever returned she immediately rushes in out of spite. And when she screams from inside the cave, Paul and Harry feel that they have no choice but to follow her. They run into the cave, and promptly fall into an underwater river, which carries them deep underneath the Andes.
They soon encounter the descendants of a lost tribe of Incas, who are tiny, dark-skinned and hairy, presumably so that we can’t forget how primitive and backwards they are. They can’t seem to speak or hear, and they somehow manage to remain relatively healthy on a diet made up entirely of fish. And although they can apparently see quite well in absolute darkness, despite, you know, science, they do keep some rooms lighted, including the royal apartments and a gigantic hall with a lake in the middle.
It’s when they arrive in this hall that they discover Desiree, dancing on top of a sparkly column, but they have to run away to avoid capture before they get a chance to communicate with her. Harry says:
Now, they must want us for something. They can’t intend to eat us, because there isn’t enough to go around. And there is Desiree. What the deuce was she doing up there without any clothes on? I say, Paul, we’ve got to find her.
Paul, by the way, has already concluded that they’re not going to be eaten, because descendants of the Incas can’t possibly be cannibals. This is one of many things that make sense in Paul’s world, but not in mine.
Finally they are captured and brought to the cave with the lake to be judged. Desiree has apparently been put in charge of their fate, and one of the Incas brings her some colored threads with which to communicate her decision. The idea that Paul can even see the things from halfway across the lake, let alone read them, is ridiculous, but he shouts to her that black means death, white means mercy, purple means reward, etc. This is my favorite bit, because Desiree is still angry about him trying to kiss her, so she chooses the black thread. Paul is appalled, and shouts some insulting things at her across the cavern until Desiree suggest flipping for it — we’re shown earlier in the book that tossing a coin is her usual way of making important decisions. She wins the toss, and Paul tells her so, which impresses her deeply, since she’s too far to see the coin herself, and he could easily have lied to her. So she changes her mind and chooses the purple thread. Paul attributes her change of heart to her appreciation of good sportsmanship, and also “the eternal mercy of woman.”
The rest of the book consists of Paul, Harry, and sometimes Desiree being chased around an endless network of caverns by the Incas. Sometimes they are captured. Sometimes they have a battle, which consists of large quantities of Incas hurling themselves at Harry and Paul and being slaughtered by the dozen, while the two brothers amass a number of scratches and one or two deeper wounds, which quickly heal as they hang out next to a lake or stream for a few days. Sometimes one of them gets a fever or an infection. Sometimes they use spears to kill enormous fish. Once the three of them get stuck in a cave with a gigantic reptile with glowing, hypnotic eyes. They frequently have nothing to eat for days, but somehow they’re always up for whatever physical challenges come along.
Eventually Paul falls in love with Desiree, but she gets killed shortly before they finally escape the caves. I suppose she wasn’t virtuous enough to survive: she spends most of the book topless, and also there are some fairly unsubtle implications that the Inca king has raped her. Paul and Harry return to New York and go back to their old lives, and Paul writes down the whole story, only to find that Harry doesn’t remember a bit of it, up to and including Desiree’s existence. There is no apparent reason for this.
So, yeah, a delightfully terrible book. I hope Rex Stout’s other early novels are equally ridiculous and embarrassing. I will be sadly disappointed if they’re not.