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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'