Shakespeare the Novelist

John Sutherland

  • The Vision of Elena Silves by Nicholas Shakespeare
    Collins, 263 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 271031 5
  • Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow
    Macmillan, 323 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 333 51376 2
  • Buffalo Afternoon by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
    Hamish Hamilton, 535 pp, £12.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 241 12634 7
  • The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 563 pp, £13.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3479 8

According to news reports, Peru is crumbling fast. The unfortunate country’s latest – and possibly terminal – woes began in 1980, after 12 years of military junta, with the installation of civilian rule under President Bealunde Terry. It was a false dawn. Since then, Peru has been afflicted by the hemispheric curses of debt-driven inflation and insurgency. But the violence which is currently destroying Peru is all its own and quite different from narco-terrorism in Columbia, CIA-Contra terrorism in Nicaragua, strong-man terrorism in Panama, or the urban guerrilla terrorism of the Tupamaros. Peru is under siege from a wholly anachronistic but apparently invincible Maoist revolutionary army, Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path. This purist faction sees itself in conflict with the ‘parliamentary cretins’ of the Peruvian Centre-Left (who have had the lion’s share of power in the post-junta years) and the revisionist ‘dogs’ of Moscow, Albania, Cuba and – above all – China as it has backslidden under Deng Xiaoping. The Senderistas own no allies, hold dialogue with no one. According to Nicholas Shakespeare, they accept no funds from abroad and their weapons of choice are stolen guns and hand-made beer-can bombs hurled from slings made of llama hair. Theirs will be one revolution without the AK-47.

The elusive and wholly intransigent character of Sendero Luminoso is embodied in its leader, Abimael Guzman: ‘President Gonzalo’, his followers proclaim him, and ‘the Fourth Sword of Marxism’. A former professor of philosophy at the university of Ayacucho, Guzman was converted to Maoism in the Sixties. Virtually nothing else is known about him. No one apparently recalls him making a speech or taking part in any street demonstration. He has never given an interview to any journalist. He has spent a few days in prison but since the late Seventies his whereabouts have been entirely unknown. That he has a skin complaint is one of the few physical facts recorded about him. There are no clear photographs. He may no longer even be alive. Nevertheless, according to the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, Guzman is ‘the object of religious devotion’ to his Senderista followers and of holy terror to Peru’s middle classes.

Nicholas Shakespeare’s fascination with Sendero Luminoso expressed itself in a remarkable journalistic essay, ‘In Pursuit of Guzman’, published in Granta in 1988. Shakespeare had travelled to Peru the year before to track down the Kurtzian guerrilla leader. ‘I knew I wouldn’t succeed. I didn’t,’ he confesses in the first paragraphs. But he did discover a lot about Peru and its current love-affair with violence (‘we are discussing a new birth and new birth is always produced in blood,’ a Senderista blandly told him). Shakespeare the journalist concluded that ‘Guzman’s secret was his invisibility.’

Shakespeare the novelist uses the techniques of fiction to continue the pursuit of Guzman and to render him finally visible. The Vision of Elena Silves has a narrative which flits back and forward over Peru’s apocalyptic years, from 1965 to 1986. At the starting-point a philosophical young revolutionary, Gabriel Lung (he has Chinese blood), falls in love with Elena Silves (she has Portuguese blood). Elena has a religious vision and performs a confirmatory miracle. She is imprisoned by the authorities in a convent. Gabriel becomes a Senderista. The main strand of the narrative recounts what happens in 1986 when Elena escapes from the convent and Gabriel from prison. Guzman dominates the climax of the novel barely fictionalised as Presidente Ezequiel, pustulent with psoriasis and abstract hate. Other actual terrorists and acts of terrorism described in ‘The Pursuit of Guzman’ reappear under thin disguise in the novel. The love story – which is entirely fictional – explores the mixture of Catholic mysticism and revolutionary rationalism which Shakespeare discerns at the core of the Senderista cult.

One might have expected Shakespeare to draw on the examples of Conrad, Greene or Paul Theroux for his fantasia on violence and evil at the headwaters of the Amazonian jungle. Instead he borrows the fluid, elliptic techniques of Latin Americans such as Fuentes, Marquez and – above all – Llosa. The Vision of Elena Silves seems in one of its aspects a homage to Llosa’s earlier exploration of the Guzman mystery, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and in places Shakespeare echoes the Peruvian novelist’s words. But Llosa’s ‘X-ray of Peru’s misfortune’ is more engaged – as indeed is Llosa himself (he has indicated an intention to stand as president of his country and this January was the target of a Senderista dynamite attack). Shakespeare’s meditation on Peruvian violence has a quality of fascinated ambivalence, almost a swooning into its depths. It’s a luxury which only the outsider can enjoy.

The Vision of Elena Silves is a terrific novel and persuades one that the imaginative resources of the novel are not just useful but necessary to the full understanding of fanaticism. But Shakespeare will have difficulty with British readers like myself – the majority, I suspect – for whom Peru is an unknown country. James Michener could brief us in a heavy-handed tutorial prelude on South American politics. But Shakespeare has chosen an artful form of narrative that cannot carry any great burden of exposition. I wish that Collins had appended ‘In Pursuit of Guzman’ to the novel.

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