On the trail of El Presidente

The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare Harvill, pounds 14.99 South American magic from an English subversive. By Colin Greenland

John Dyer is being made redundant. The newspaper that employs him to report on South America is closing its bureau in Rio. Counting on the influence of his aunt, a philanthropic ballerina, Dyer seeks one last stellar interview, but he can't even find his aunt. He has already admitted defeat and started to retreat into writing history when, purely by chance, in a lonely restaurant, he bumps into the man every journalist on the subcontinent has been hunting for the last year and more: Agustin Rejas, the police colonel who arrested Edgardo Rodriguez Vilas, the tyrannical guerrilla leader known as El Presidente Ezequiel.

Pretending not to recognise Rejas, Dyer tries to trick him into telling his story. The policeman sees through him at once, yet begins to tell him anyway how, after 12 years, with great patience and at the cost of everything else of value in his life, he finally tracked the master to his lair: a room in a suburban avenue, above a ballet school.

This is, in fact, the whole plot, which both Rejas and his author make plain from the start, so that it gains an air of fatalism in the telling, like a tragedy. In any case, El Presidente Ezequiel is meant very much to remind us of El Presidente Gonzalo, a.k.a. Abimael Guzman, leader of the Peruvian insurrectionists, The Shining Path. Vilas, like Guzman, is an overweight philosophy professor "of no small distinction" who wrote a dissertation on Kant and suffers from psoriasis. Guzman did indeed contrive the deaths of 30,000 people from a room above a ballet school, 42 of them journalists who were looking for him. Reading this cool, meditative novel, it is hard to remember that Nicholas Shakespeare could very easily have been the 43rd.

The Dancer Upstairs, says Shakespeare, "may be read on its own, or as a sequel to The Vision of Elena Silves", his 1989 novel whose fictitious details famously turned out, when Guzman was caught in 1992, to have been eerily accurate: the upstairs hideout in Lima near the Gold Museum, the fat man with psoriasis dancing an unsteady dance.

Mario Vargas Llosa, who praised that book, is part of the scenery here: the name of a novelist scrawled on a wall, relic of a presidential campaign. For a while, The Dancer Upstairs does resemble an indigenous species of South American novel, the kind constructed of miracles, of nested coincidences. The journalist and the policeman, the only two customers in that restaurant, are reading the same book. A man tells a woman that tea spilt on a tablecloth foretold the shape of the birthmark on her cheek. Others remark that text has its own reality; that the "I" who writes is a stranger to the "I" who reads; that obsessive hunters assume the characteristics of their prey. The policeman's daughter is a star pupil at the school above which Ezequiel is planning the revolution, and her father will fall helplessly in love with the woman who is teaching her to dance.

As the steady narrative voice continues, however, the spell dissolves. The idea that people turn into their opposites is a quotation from Mao. The birthmark story is a chat-up line, rebuffed as "the corniest shit". When Dyer himself comments on the coincidences, they cease to be fantastic and dwindle into contingency. Of magical realism, nothing remains but the pellucid, attenuated romanticism: the sense, perhaps, of a spirit, wounded and elusive, whose exact features have been rendered incommunicable by atrocities; something essential, to be pursued by other means than literalism.

The Dancer Upstairs is a novel quietened, but at the same time sharpened, by a great weight of loss and pain. Since his triumph, Rejas too has been disempowered by his employer, shunted into the obscurity of a pointless sinecure. We might presume the pressure of secrets upon the heart, the urge to set the record straight, but in fact Agustin Rejas has a quite different motive for choosing John Dyer. Meanwhile Dyer, his options expired, has no object but to sit at the table and listen. Decommissioned, he is in a state of grace, ready for intelligence beyond the scope of foreign correspondence.

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific