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.
A fabulous novel - a real page turner. The storyline is inspired by the real life capture of the leader of the Peruvian Shining Path terrorist group and does bear some similarity. As well as being a gripping thriller, it is also a story full of humanity.
The couple of chapters were a little slow but once the story proper starts the book becomes immediately compelling. The central character and narrator is Rejas, the policeman who succeeded in capturing the enigmatic guerilla leader Ezequiel after years of searching. Rejas is a good character and one who is easy to sympathise with, and is supported by strong supporting characters.
South America is vividly conjured up and anyone who has lived in or travelled on the continent will be transported back there. The descriptions of the hardships suffered by people in rural areas, at the hands of both guerillas and military, are powerful. Although the story is a work of fiction set in an unnamed South American country, there are many similarities with Peru and the Shining Path group.
Sometimes the plot relies a little bit too much on coincidence, although that doesn't spoil the story, it does stretch credibility a little bit. For example, we have to believe that Ezequiel just happens to be hiding above the dancing school where Rejas' daughter regularly attends, and where Rejas has a friendship with the teacher. It's handled well though and never feels too clunking.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone - it will be particularly enjoyed by those with a love of South America, and by anyone who likes the novels of Le Carre, Grisham etc.
This is basically Nicholas Shakespeare's own dramatised version of the capture in 1992 of Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso), the Maoist terrorist group which had been waging a bloody war against the Peruvian state since 1980. Known by the local media as the "capture of the century", it caught everybody by surprise that Chairman Gonzalo, as his followers called him, had been hiding at the house of Maritza Garrido Lecca, a ballet instructor, in one of Lima's middle-class districts and that a small special anti-terrorist police unit (DIRCOTE), lead by Colonel Benedicto Jiménez and General Antonio Ketín Vidal, had used meticulous - and old fashioned but effective - methods to track him.
Anybody familiar with this event will be able to understand and follow Shakespeare's story of Agustín Rejas (Jiménez/Ketín Vidal), the police detective in charge of finding the elusive and messianic Ezequiel (Guzmán), who has been leading a terror campaign to bring down the government of a South American country. The only difference is that Rejas - "bars" in Spanish, what a fitting name for a policeman! - falls in love with a woman called Yolanda (Garrido Lecca), who happens to be his daughter's ballet teacher and who will eventually lead him to Ezequiel.
Though I believe that this is a very fascinating novel that John Malkovich eventually turned into a movie in 2002 (I even had the chance to meet the author himself during a talk he gave in London back in February 2011), I am still waiting to see a film about the real capture. Shakespeare did write an excellent and extensive article about the fall of Guzmán for the Sunday Telegraph in 1994. But, so far, all I can recall is a mini-series made for Peruvian television four years after the event but I was not very impressed - well, at least it was not as bad as Aces: Iron eagle III (1992) or Lima, breaking the silence (1997)!
Nicholas Shakespeare is tough on his characters. He makes them inhabit a world where daily they must confront the big issues of life: morality, love, betrayal and the political machinations of an unstable state. But just as dancers must often endure pain to produce movement of great beauty, Shakespeare's protagonists are made to fight emotional battles to produce a work of surprising humanity and tenderness. Of course all this needs an environment sufficiently grand to accommodate such large themes, and Shakespeare's undeniable understanding of South America and its societies provides ample space. Across Shakespeare's lonely mountains and confused cities we follow Colonel Rejas, a policeman on the trail of Eziquiel, a terrorist leader. Eziquiel himself leads a life of incarceration, partly due to his outlaw status and partly because of his own illness, an ailment which, ironically, is confined largely to the social group Eziquiel is fighting against. Throughout the book we watch the characters make moral choices, influenced both by the society and the environment they find themselves in. This is a place where children carry out political assassinations and in which no-one remains untouched by politics and corruption. We see most of the events through the eyes of Rejas, who himself begins to question the rights and wrongs of his own actions when confronted with evidence of violence on both sides of the political divide and realises the risk to the relationships he holds dear. The book is full of fearful encounters, but each has its own humanity and with each we achieve some sort of recognition, or empathy even. The Dancer Upstairs has the pace of a thriller and the intrigue of a detective novel, but has a very human heart. Read this and, just like Colonel Rejas, you may find yourself examining the very roots of values and relationships you hold close.