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.

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