BOOK REVIEW / Hornet's nest of Peru: 'In the Forests of the Night' - John Simpson: Hutchinson, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NOT ALL writers whose faces are familiar from television benefit from this association, but John Simpson (as well as being good-looking and clever) is genial, reassuringly blokeish and - since the Gulf war, at least - hugely popular. It's unlikely there will be many reviewers hoping the BBC's Foreign Affairs Editor has written a bad book.

In fact, he has written a good and unpretentious book; he has a story to tell and, after a stuttering start aimed rather too nakedly at the 'real-life thriller' market, he tells it well. It records, in the words of the lengthy subtitle, 'Encounters in Peru with Terrorism, Drug-Running and Military Oppression.'

Peru, as the editor of Newsnight told a mildly demurring Simpson, was 'exactly your sort of place: collapsing society, world's nastiest terrorists, Army out of control, that kind of thing . . .' Simpson does pause to wonder why, at 47, 'one should deliberately set out to thrust both hands in a hornet's nest like Peru', but this kind of musing is not his forte and he concludes, a trifle lamely, that the idea was 'too interesting to turn down'. The idea was to interview the arch-terrorist Abimael Guzman, leader of the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla movement. That would have been a televisual coup. Unfortunately, the admirable General Vidal of the National Directorate for Counter-Terrorism spoiled that plan by arresting 'Chairman Gonzalo' in his hideout in suburban Lima while Simpson and Co were having a jolly time at the British Embassy. 'Looks like curtains for us,' his producer said. But it wasn't.

Instead, it enabled Simpson and his crew to concentrate on the more shocking story of government corruption and incompetence, and the involvement of the army in drug-running and casual - not even 'necessary' - murder. Peru, as Simpson writes, 'was triply colonised: by the Spanish Conquest, by the American dollar, and by the drugs trade'. Nearly three-quarters of the world's cocaine supplies, he informs us, originate in Peru. The poor peasant in the Huallaga Valley has no choice over what he grows; the market economy, backed by the drug barons and the army, dictate his choice of crop. Of course the problem is not confined to Peru, or to neighbouring Colombia; it's our problem, too, since the West is where the drugs are sold. But it doesn't help that the country is governed by a hopelessly compromised president, Alberto Fujimori, who (like a creation of his great rival for the presidency, Mario Vargas Llosa) 'timed everything to fit in with the afternoon and evening soap operas on television', and by his eminence grise, the sinister, secretive Vladimiro Montesinos.

Simpson tells a grim tale, and there is plenty of gallows humour as he and his intrepid crew, including the young and beautiful Peruvian television reporter Cecilia (who obviously made a deep impression on the author), penetrate the war zones and encounter ever nastier military commanders. There are moving examples of the extraordinary bravery of ordinary people, and moments of pure comedy - as when Simpson and Co turn the tables on an army intelligence film unit intent on frightening the peasants who've gathered to tell them of human rights abuses. In a kind of duel of videos, the BBC team focus their cameras and microphones on the hapless army duo, who soon make themselves scarce.

Simpson's essential decency is evident throughout, but when he worries about keeping his word to a particularly vicious army officer, a 'psychopath' who lies to him throughout their interview, one sympathises with the impatience of some of his companions. Yet he is surely right to be scrupulous. That is what distinguishes him from men like Commandante Alfonso, and that is why we instinctively trust him to tell us the truth, whether it's from Iraq, Afghanistan, Romania - or Peru.