When Peru’s most wanted man was captured in 1992, a young ballerina went to jail too, for harbouring him at her studio. The story was turned into a novel and film, “The Dancer Upstairs”. This year, the author of the novel, Nicholas Shakespeare, flew to Lima to meet the dancer at last—and to ask her whether she was guilty
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
“Amigo?” The interrogator, a stout policewoman in a tight black jersey, sits behind a scuffed counter.
“Si, amigo,” I say, and sense her rolled eyes.
“Where are you from?”
“England.” Then: “Do you get many visitors from England?”
“You’re the first.”
I hand over my passport. Another young policewoman stamps “B” on my right wrist and scribbles “38” with a green felt-tip. For days afterwards, I shall avoid washing my arm.
A squint-eyed man frisks me, then unlocks a door, ushering me through it into a compound with large buildings. A policewoman in an open wooden cabin guards the access.
I tell her whom I’m visiting.
“Amigo?” she flirts.
Another policewoman points out the entrance to Pavilion B, housing the Shining Path inmates. I’m signed in a third time, and am being escorted up a staircase when a figure darts forward. Trout-brown eyes, long dark hair parted in the middle, and a muslin scarf draped over her shoulders, embroidered with small flowers. Her face is thinner, more striking than in photographs. She wears loose black trousers and blue high-heeled shoes.
She nods, smiles.
Instinctively, I embrace her.
The last time I saw Lima, it was recovering from the arrest of a Kantian philosopher who suffered from psoriasis. Abimael Guzmán, self-appointed Fourth Sword of Marx-Lenin-Mao, had initiated a ruthless guerrilla war which would last 20 years and cause 69,000 deaths. His capture—peacefully, in a room above a ballet studio—occurred in 1992 when his Shining Path organisation appeared on the brink of seizing the capital, and proved a transformative moment in Peruvian history.
Almost two decades on, Lima the horrible, as it was then known, has become Lima the stylish. Gleaming new cars everywhere. Casinos. The most praised restaurants in South America. And dominating the skyline on huge iron pillars, the blown-up face of the model Kate Moss, advertising an exhibition of society photographs by Mario Testino, who is Peruvian.
I’ve returned to Lima to interview another beautiful woman: the imprisoned dancer Maritza Garrido Lecca, in whose ballet studio Guzmán was arrested on the evening of September 12th 1992, as a result of which Maritza received a life sentence. In 1995, I published a novel about that night, “The Dancer Upstairs”, which was made into a film by John Malkovich in 2001. And while I spoke to everyone I could—from the doctor who first cradled the new-born Guzmán, to Maritza’s husband, lover, even her classical-ballet teacher—I never met Maritza. I would sometimes picture her in a cramped cell, like a candle burning down, her muscles degenerating. She was arrested at 27, the convent-educated only daughter of upper-middle-class parents who never suspected her involvement with the Shining Path. At what point would she be too old to dance again?
Then, this January, I received a copy of a book that Maritza had written in her cell. It was about dance, and on the title page was a personal inscription to me, hoping we could meet and have “a good conversation”, one which might establish the truth.
And so, after a 17-year absence, I am in Lima again. Maritza’s lawyer has arranged for me to visit her in the woman’s prison in Chorrillos on Sunday May 16th. I concentrate on reacquainting myself with Lima. My enjoyment lasts until Saturday, when I open Correo and see a headline occupying a whole page: “RED ALERT FOR SHINING PATH”.
It is 30 years since the Shining Path’s foundation on May 17th 1980, when a group of masked strangers confiscated ballot boxes in the village of Chuschi. An anniversary plot has been uncovered to assassinate the defence minister, Rafael Rey, and a state of emergency has been declared in three provinces.
The idea that the Shining Path might not be extinguished ignites a gunpowder trail of unwelcome memories. I reflect on a recent e-mail from Guzmán’s biographer, the Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo, about how he had done an interview in jail with a Shining Path “terrorist” who had followed me when I was researching Guzmán for a Granta profile. (“He was told you were a CIA man. But finally, he realised you were taking too many risks for a secret agent. He said ‘CIA people are just the ones not asking for Abimael Guzmán on each door.’ ”) The discovery that I had been shadowed was disturbing, yet it made sense. When I was living in Lima in the 1980s, the Shining Path regarded journalists with unconcealed loathing. Guzmán refused all requests for interviews, and more than 40 reporters were killed while investigating his organisation. In 1987, I managed to question the godfather of the Shining Path, the ethnologist Dr Efraín Morote Best, about this. He gave a chilling explanation: “Journalists take sides.” One story haunted me: of a journalist who was said to have visited Shining Path prisoners in Lurigancho and was released—minus his tongue.
But this was decades ago. And Maritza’s lawyer is taking me to the prison to see her.