nicholas shakespeare   Searching for Guzman  
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  About ten years ago a young boy holding a satchel wandered into Lima's Crillon Hotel and after only a few hesitant steps across the opulent lobby exploded into a thousand bloody pieces. This was not an isolated incident. Already dogs had been strung from the city's lampposts; in a crowded Andean market a donkey blew up, causing appalling wounds to the Indian shoppers; and in Chimbote a terrified duck dragged a home-made bomb into the telephone exchange. But I date the moment of my obsession to that schoolboy suicide. Who had sent him?

The question chafed much more than a piece of grit in the shoe. I wanted to understand the character lurking behind these actions. Yet it was hard to discover anything. An utter secrecy pervaded the revolutionaries--for that is who they turned out to be. When they entered a village to cut the throats of government representatives, they wore balaclavas. But underneath their masks they could be anyone. One man, an American married to a beautiful, carefree model from Cuzco, told me how he had looked up from his dinner plate to see his wife's face on television. "She was listed among the most wanted guerrillas."

Soon a name accompanied the executions. If there was a wall nearby, the name was frequently daubed on it in the victim's blood. "Viva El Presidente Gonzalo!" Who this Gonzalo was, what he wanted, no one in the capital knew. He gave no interviews. He issued no manifesto. And he killed anyone who tried to find out about him. Forty-two journalists to date.

I must emphasise that I did not know the extent of the danger when, in 1987, I set off in search of President Gonzalo. My motivation was to write a novel with his secretive organization as its backdrop. I cannot deny that his Garbo-like refusal to give interviews acted as a red rag to the journalist in me. But I suspected, once the trail petered out, that the grit in my shoe could be extricated only by the device of fiction. Beyond some point, I would have to invent him.

It is a curious sensation to be obsessed by somebody one has never met, nor has any likelihood of meeting. I understand it now as the ordinary state of the novelist. For two years, I felt tugged along a narrow path as if I had no say in the matter.

Among the very few things I learnt about President Gonzalo was his real name, Abimael Guzmán. He was an austere professor of philosophy who drank mineral water on his honeymoon. Apart from that, it proved impossible to vivify him. I met the doctor who had been present at his birth; his students; his professors, but they spoke of him in a hush--the kind of hush people use when they should not be speaking. With the same attention to detail that marked his dissertation on Kant, he had excised from the record most traces of his previous existence.

The rest I had to create. For whatever reason there entered my head the image of a man in an upstairs room, alone with his books and cassettes, occasionally getting up to perform a soft shoe-shuffle. I endowed him with a liking for popular songs, in particular Frank Sinatra: after all, I thought, if you're the Fourth Sword of Marxism, you probably would have a weakness for something American. And I had him inhabit a smart house near the Gold Museum, in the area where my family lived in Lima. This detail was, of course, ridiculous because, according to the police, he was in China--if he was alive at all, which they doubted.

One other thing I did find out. Abimael Guzmán was said to be ill. No one knew the nature of his illness, so I gave him psoriasis. It still seems to me extraordinary, in the light of what was to happen, that I should select this particular disease--a vindication of the fictional process. But if the available facts are absorbed, perhaps anything you anticipate is likely to be close to the truth. At any rate, I had read that Lenin suffered from an ugly skin complaint and this had led to thoughts about Guzmán and how, whatever lies he was telling us or telling himself, his body was insisting on telling the truth. And I speculated maybe part of the reason Guzmán had gone underground was simple human vanity. With his face erupting in painful, tear-shaped pustules, he didn't want to be seen. This, then, was the background to my novel published in 1989 as The Vision of Elena Silves.


I returned once, twice a year to Peru. The country was disembowelled by civil war and I travelled under a different name. In my imagination Guzmán remained pacing an upstairs room, rubbing on his ointments, watching through a curtain crack the effects of his revolution. I had hoped to strip myself of his shadow, but I couldn't keep away.

One summer I made a television film of an ice pilgrimage near Cuzco. It took place on a high glacier and people dressed in strange costumes to worship the mountain spirits. There was talk, and later evidence, of human sacrifice. The ceremony ended in a spectacle of sun worship. The experience affected me deeply, and would have a consequence I couldn't foresee.

By now an estimated 30,000 people had died. Once, after I left my hotel in Lima, a car-bomb obliterated the building, killing another 27 people. The police were no nearer to capturing Guzmán, but there had been a tiny break-through. They discovered, near the Gold Museum, a safe-house recently occupied by him. It contained his library and a pair of his boots and later a video cassette was found. This featured our first sight of Guzmán for a decade. Hesitantly filmed, his corpulent figure, very much alive, was shown dancing, possibly drunk, to the theme tune of "Zorba the Greek".

In the summer of 1992 a Shining Path spokesman announced that the revolution was about to triumph. Then, in September, Guzmán was captured, without a shot fired, while watching television.


My reaction, initially, was disappointment--that such a potent figure would now be boiled down into meat and fat. But my feelings altered when I learnt the details.

He had been captured in a room above a ballet studio. One reason he had been tracked down was his illness. Sifting the rubbish bags, the policeman in charge of the case had discovered empty packets of Kenacort. The strange figure in the upstairs apartment, where the curtains were always drawn, suffered from extreme psoriasis. His body, like that of my fictional character, was covered in weeping sores.

Once more I found myself on the flight to Lima. Already another plot had barged its way into my head. In my first novel I had to invent and, weirdly, an astonishing amount of the material had come true. For this novel, I hoped to get some facts under my belt.

I was never to meet Abimael Guzmán. No one would be permitted to speak to him. He had been put in a cage, and taken by boat to an island where he was locked in an underground cell. But I did manage to speak to three participants in the drama. Two had not told their story before and I couldn't believe my luck.

The first was a poet whom I interviewed in a park. He had once lived with the ballet teacher and had no idea this beautiful young woman had run her studio as a cover to hide the Shining Path leadership. We kept having to move benches because the secret police, disguised as gardeners, were watching us. The poet told me about his affair. I think he was still in love.

The second person was the ballerina's uncle, an innocent composer who had been caught up in the police operation. He had chosen to visit the ballet studio on the night they arrested Guzmán. He had thought the masked men bundling him back inside and blindfolding him were robbers. He spent the night on the dance floor, tied up beside his niece, and in the morning when the blindfold came off he found himself standing next to the most wanted man in the southern hemisphere. Wildly, he looked about for his niece. She was punching the air, shouting "Viva El Presidente Gonzalo!"

Neither the composer nor the poet had been able to talk of their ordeal. Now out it came. The reason each had agreed to see me was the documentary on the ice pilgrimage. The ballerina, they told me separately, had been fixated with this festival. She talked about it incessantly and her one thought was to make a film. She had been on the glacier, trying to do this, when I was there. Perhaps we had filmed each other.

One day I spoke to the policeman who had arrested Guzmán. This scrupulous, modest man was, like his prey, a philosopher. We talked about some of the weird coincidences I have outlined above and about how fiction could be a reliable guide to the truth. When I told him of my intended plot and my wish to make the detective fall for the ballerina, he threw back his head and laughed. As a young man, he himself had been in love with a classical dancer. They wanted to marry, but she said: "Only if you leave the police force". He thought for many days, then decided he could not abandon his vocation. They separated and he never heard from the dancer again until the day after he captured Guzmán, when he received a telephone call. "You were right," she said.


This, then, is the background to The Dancer Upstairs. After ten years I hope I have removed the pebble. However, I am not certain. Abimael Guzmán lies in an underground cell near Lima, but I have become aware of a disconcerting phenomenon. All over London, there has cropped up the stencilled face of a bearded man with glasses. Beneath the raised fist are the words: "Move heaven and earth to defend the life of Chairman Gonzalo!"

To write this article, I went outside to check the words. I did not have to look far, less than two hundred yards. There was his face, freshly stencilled, in my street.
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Copyright © 1997 Nicholas Shakespeare.

Photo of Nicholas Shakespeare © Miriam Berkley.