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The story is broken into five parts, each of which begins with an impressionistic narrative without paragraph breaks. The novel concludes with a five-chapter epilogue. Vargas Llosa adds to this narrative complexity by referring to characters obliquely "the lieutenant", "the native", etc. He also creates double narratives within chapters without clear demarcation.
The effect is to interweave past and present and to suggest an omnipresent and continuing corruption and brutality. During the early years of the 20th century, a mysterious stranger named Anselmo, whose origins and motives are never explained, builds a popular brothel, the Green House, in the desert on the outskirts of Piura.
Antonia Tonita is left for dead after her adoptive parents are killed by bandits; her eyes and tongue are plucked out by vultures, but she survives and is raised by a poor villager, Juana Barra, until Anselmo abducts and keeps her in a room in a tower of the Green House as his wife. She dies giving birth to a daughter, Chunga. Outraged, the village priest, Father Garcia, leads the townspeople to burn down the Green House. Grief-stricken, Anselmo becomes a homeless drunkard, supporting himself by playing the harp in the town's bars and brothels.
His daughter, Chunga, grows up in this environment and eventually builds a new Green House, where Anselmo plays his music. Lituma serves in the Amazon region, where he meets his future bride, Bonifacia.
They return to Piura and live together until Lituma takes part in a fatal game of Russian roulette and is sentenced to ten years in jail. While he is away, his friends rape Bonifacia, who then becomes a prostitute at the Green House. At novel's end, Lituma has returned to Piura and is living off his wife's income from prostitution. During the s, after escaping from prison in Brazil he had been arrested for accounting theft , Fushia flees to Peru, where he meets a poor water vendor, Aquilino.