Led up the shining path

THE DANCER UPSTAIRS by Nicholas Shakespeare, Harvill pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
THIS powerful novel is Nicholas Shakespeare's second shot at exploiting the Peruvian terrorist movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and its monstrous leader, Abimael Guzmn, as the raw material of fiction. One can see the reason. The bloody history of Sendero Luminoso could seize any imagination and, once gripped, it is hard to rid the mind of its horrors.

Sendero was, and despite the capture of Guzmn and many of his followers, remains probably the most extreme and ruthless of all the revolutionary terrorist movements of the 20th century. Abimael Guzmn was a philosophy professor at a minor Peruvian university. He must have been a persuasive and charismatic teacher since he evidently drew into his circle large numbers of followers who accepted him on his own terms. He saw himself as a combination of intellectual gauleiter, the philosopher-king of a revolutionary process and the leader of a Maoist conspiracy of violence to destroy the Peruvian state.

The supposed beneficiaries of Guzmn's revolution were to be the indigenous Indian peasants, who form the bulk of the Peruvian population but remain largely marginalised. Of course, he and his followers were neither Indian nor peasants, but white or mestizo by blood and political activists by education. Their true purpose was absolute power for Guzmn, and it was pursued with a ferocity matched only by the Khmer Rouge. The killing fields of Peru may have seen more calculated acts of sadistic cruelty than Cambodia's (even if the death toll was not so high), and it is the cold cynicism of many of Sendero's atrocities that marks it out as uniquely evil.

Nicholas Shakespeare's plot is so close to the story of Guzmn's career that it owes almost as much to reportage as to imagination. Its impact is all the stronger for that, and the novel is valuable for its political insights alone. At the level of fiction it will count among the best work being produced by the present generation of British writers. The narrative is complex but the sustained energy and depth of Shakespeare's writing carries the story forward to a credible conclusion.

The question which still baffles us at the end of the book is how a grotesque teacher of philosophy could inspire the blind allegiance of a host of disciples prepared to slaughter thousands of the peasants they pretended to help. What moved so many educated young zealots, often women, to kill by indiscriminate violence; to mutilate their victims; even to stage theatrical demonstrations of their willingness to murder and maim? What was the source of Guzmn's power?

Shakespeare comes no nearer to giving us an answer to this mystery than any other writer who has tackled it. His Guzmn look-alike, "Presidente Ezequiel", remains an ambiguous and repulsive figure to the end. Others among the terrorist leadership are human enough, and one at least is powerfully sympathetic. The dominant character, however, is the police colonel (Rejas) who finally captures Ezequiel at a tragic cost to himself. Rejas is a beautifully created character whose own Indian origin sheds essential light on the divisions which still starkly divide Peruvian society to this day.

Rejas's personal tragedy lingers in the mind as the brightest facet of this moving and exciting novel. The journalist, Dyer, with whom the story starts and ends, leaves little mark behind but is perhaps needed as a link between the author and his plot.

This is perhaps Nicholas Shakespeare's best novel to date. There are echoes of le Carre and Graham Greene in The Dancer Upstairs. If Shakespeare continues to develop his obvious talent into new fields as well as he has in this book, he may soon be rated in the front rank with them.