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Violent, amoral and pulsating,
This review is from: The Dancer Upstairs (Paperback)
We are in an unnamed South American country, a thinly disguised Peru, with an investigative journalist Dyer, soon to be reassigned by his paper, looking for a story about the guerrilla leader, Ezequel. I gather that the novel is based on the author's reporting on the hunt for the Shining Path guerrilla leader, Abimael Guzmán, now under life sentence in Peru.
Dyer seeks an interview with "Captain Calderón", a shadowy contact of his Aunt Vivien, and de facto ruler of the country. Vivien is unwilling to see him and when he is searching for her Dyer meets Rejas, the very person who captured Ezequel and now a possible Presidential candidate.
As they talk over a series of dinners, Dyer learns the true story of Ezequel's capture and Rejas' 12-year long search. The author very effectively presents the complex background information, historical, racial, political and cultural, in a manner that is neither forced nor didactic. In itself this is a considerable achievement.
Rejas is Indian, his wife is blond and their daughter takes after him. The family are suffering financial problems, since police pay is low, and his wife seeks a more reliable household income. He explains the situation to his daughter's ballet teacher, Yolanda, who is understanding. To his wife, ballet is associated with keeping up with her wealthy friends but Rejas hopes his daughter will use dance to strengthen her awareness of her Indian heritage.
Ezequel's guerrillas are now active in the capital and offer even greater threats to the government whose ministers are being killed in theatres and gunned down by twelve year old girls. Children, dogs and donkeys are all being used to deliver bombs and widespread blackouts create greater panic. One blackout finds Rejas and Yolanda caught together, discussing the progress of Rejas' daughter. Yolanda's fear of the dark and Rejas' response open up new possibilities.
Ezequel is plagued by an extreme case of psoriasis, graphically described, which is eating him up; this disease, Rejas notes, does not attack Indians, whom the guerilla movement supports, only Caucasians. Yolanda can captivate with her classical and traditional dance, but only because she has lived through the pain of training her ugly and misshapen feet. Salvation and freedom through suffering is justification enough for the guerrillas and their supporters.
Betrayal is at the core of the novel, the inhuman betrayals of Calderón and Ezequel, Rejas' betrayal of his wife, Yolanda and his daughter, Dyer's aunt's betrayal of his trust and the `haves' betrayal of the `have nots'. Seeing a possibility to take a stand against endemic injustice, Rejas seeks to offer Ezequel mercy at the end of the novel but the consequences for him are not immediately obvious.
Much of the action takes place in the city but both there and in the countryside that Rejas knew as a boy but only now realises that he cannot return to, the author's descriptions are riveting and his ability to build up the tension almost excruciating. However, I did not understand why Vivien, a retired English ballerina married to a diplomat, was so closely based on Margot Fonteyn and Roberto Arias, a Panamanian diplomat, especially when Fonteyn was mentioned later in the novel.
In a note that prefaces the novel, Shakespeare writes that it can either be read as a sequel of sorts to `The Vision of Elena Silves', 1990, or as a self-contained book, and my reading was the latter. This is an excellent novel that can be read and enjoyed whatever your level of knowledge of the region.