In the desert:
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 adopted 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.
In the 1930s, a Piruan native, Lituma, joins the military (in a drunken burst of patriotism after the Piruan born colonel, Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro, becomes President of Peru through a military coup). 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.
In the jungle:
During the 1920s, 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. Together, they trade goods by boat to rubber and timber workers and gold prospectors. Meanwhile, an infant girl, an Aguaruna native (later named Bonifacia), is taken from her father, Jum, to be raised in a mission in Santa María de Nieva. (The nuns "civilize" the native girls and sell them as house servants.)
Fushia is once again forced to flee because of his thieving ways, and after encountering Huambisa natives, ends up in Iquitos, where with Julio Reategui he takes part in the illegal rubber trade (it is the early 1940s and there is a renewed demand for rubber; since Peru officially is trading rubber only to the Allies, there is a thriving black market). While in Iquitos, Fushia seduces fifteen-year-old Lalita. After his role in the black market is discovered, he arranges to trade Lalita to Reategui for a boat and provisions, but Lalita escapes upriver with Fushia. They live on an island on the Santiago River deep within the jungle.
Jum, after being educated by two political organizers, creates native co-ops for trading rubber, thus interrupting the system of kickbacks that has enriched Reategui. With a military force led by Reategui, Jum is caught, tortured, and publicly shorn of his hair, an emasculating act to the Aguarauna. Aided by the Huambisa, Fushia assaults native villages, stealing rubber and hides, and abducting barely pubescent girls for his concubines. He is assisted by the humiliated Jum, Aquilino, and Adrian Nieves. Lalita, tired of Fushia’s abusive ways, escapes with Nieves to Santa Maria de Nieva, where they take in Bonifacia after she has been expelled from the mission for helping newly abducted native girls escape. There she meets and marries Sergeant Lituma. Nieves is eventually sent to jail. Lalita marries one of Lituma’s former comrades. And Fushia, who has contracted leprosy, spends his fortune to covertly enter the leper colony at San Pablo. He lives a lonely life there, visited once a year by his aging friend Aquilino.