The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

No Escape from the Anthill

Gustavo Gorriti’s The Shining Path
(Chapel Hill & London: U. of No. Carolina Pr., 1998)


Seaghán Ó Murchú • 5 November 2004

Last night, I finished Gustavo Gorriti’s account of the Peruvian personality cult led by Abimael Guzmán, aka Comrade Gonzalo. I wondered, sleepily, what had become of the Sendero Luminoso. This morning, the newspaper displayed him center stage, fist in the air, with other graying guerrillas: ‘Long Live Marxism’. His retrial has opened in Lima.

The book by Gorriti I call an account rather than a history, because it conveys the movement in medias res, published in 1990 as the SL prepared to assault the capital, well before the 1992 capture of Guzmán and the persecution of Gorriti. Particularly relevant to readers of The Blanket is the preface by the author to the 1998 translation by Robin Kirk. Here, he briefly describes how, when president (elected in 1990) Alberto Fujimori staged a coup in 1992, he was arrested for his investigational journalism into the president and his ‘Creole Rasputin’—right before the arrest of Comrade Gonzalo. Gorriti managed to escape, files spirited out of the country too, and wound up in Panama working for its paper La Prensa. There, in 1996, he again faced his enemies as that government threatened him after he exposed a campaign financed by a Colombian drug cartel. He lived in his office for weeks, so as to foil police plans for his deportation. He emerged victorious, determined to uphold—in what he calls ‘cosmetic democracies’, a free press.

At the time Gorriti compiled his tale of the SL, he had intended it as part of a three-volume work on the Peruvian Communist Party and its many alphabet-soup off-brands. This shows, as I was instantly immersed into a detailed narrative of unions, strikes, police machinations, and bureaucratic—to me—trivia. The book is probably not the first place to go for a quick introduction to the situation into which Sendero Luminoso stumbled. Gorriti clearly addresses an audience more familiar than I was with his country. Still, the gifts of his journalistic verve carried me through pages of departmental decisions into powerful chapters that highlighted the deadly nature of Guzmán’s millenarian blend of Lenin, Marx, Mao, and messianic apocalypse that plunged—literally—much of his nation into darkness and resulted in at least 70,000 deaths, half of these at the hands of those who claimed to liberate the people from their imperialist oppressors. Half of these at the hands of those who claimed to protect the people from their revolutionary oppressors.

This is Gorriti’s achievement. Eschewing the glib slogans of the left and the harsh vows of the right, he tracks the rise of the Shining Path from a few students tossing dynamite—a commodity readily nicked from the mines—to police reprisals and the spread of societal breakdown across the Andes and into, as the book ends, the edges of the city. What the history lacks is a context for foreign readers into which Guzmán and his ilk can be placed. Not even his birthdate is given; we know nothing here about his early schooling, what kind of a doctor he was, or how José Carlos Mariátegui founded the PCP, apparently in the 1930s. This information, which any academic editor would insist upon in a conventional manuscript, is, I assume, assumed by Gorriti not to matter or to be common knowledge to his Peruvian audience. Robin Kirk (who has written a lefty’s view of Perú, The Monkey’s Paw) translates what, given my knowledge of Spanish, I presume carries the uneven rhythms of the original prose, with its leaden ‘he said, she said’ reports from within the corridors of power as well as its nearly cinematic vignettes of attacks and reprisals from the front. Given these drawbacks, nonetheless, the uneasy mixture of dry minutiae about police intelligence sloshes against a potent additive. The energy with which he describes the attacks by the guerrillas on the Ayacucho police stations, the torture of suspects, the funerals of officers and cadets, the rain on a tin-roofed shanty where a teenaged girl guerrilla shows her interviewers the marks of her abuse by her captors: all of these vignettes unforgettably inscribe themselves on your memory.

Years ago, I had read Mario Vargas Llosa’s novcl, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, based on Guzmán’s career. I’ve just started the British novelist Nicholas Shakespeare’s The Vision of Elena Silves, which appeared about the same time as Gorriti’s book. (Shakespeare also penned a later novel, The Dancer Upstairs, based on the capture of Guzmán, which was made into a movie by John Malkovich which I have not seen but which received tepid reviews.) The portrayals by Gorriti of the conditions in which the Shining Path provoked repression and in which the police and civilians resisted glow with the same passion that a good novelist channels. You do feel as if you are there.

For the more politically inclined, Gorriti analyses how Guzmán terrorised his comrades. While their own backgrounds—Gorriti alludes that many of them would have been with him from the start, although we learn nothing about when or where this was—remain unknown, we do learn how, as Guzmán built his personality cult, he destroyed any opposition. Shades of Stalinist show trials: again, weeks of self-incrimination, abasement, confessions, until his victims begged for death at his hands even as they praised him. His citations of their own pleas should be read by any true believers of any totalitarian creed. Here, Gorriti’s analysis of how a ‘Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-Tung thought’ ideology in all its awkwardness emerged under Comrade Gonzalo’s tyranny into a messianic message threatening, to quote as he did a Prussian strategist: ‘War is humanity’s most invigorating iron cure.’ (237) His chapters on party thought, recrimination, and internal (if ultimately one-sided) debate feature cogent, clever, and closely argued readings of Guzmán’s florid ravings, as he gradually leaves Marxist ideology behind to embrace dictatorship, deny any semblance of democracy, and, contrary to today’s paper’s phrase, no arrival of ‘a classless utopia’. Rather, an Orwellian boot upon a human face, forever. Gorriti cites Comrade Gonzalo’s desire for a system built on endless purges, of annihilation, of destroying Perú to save it. ‘The quota’ for blood via Lenin’s State and Revolution surpasses even his fevered sallies. As long as recruits continued, they could be decimated. Ensuring that a few led and many fought, Guzmán determined to provoke state repression. Mid-level cadres too could succumb, according to his calculus, if in the end the force of counteraction by the imperialist powers overwhelmed guerrilla operations.

Gorriti’s success, despite the awkward pace of his book, shows in his coverage of both factors of this terrible sum. His humanism overcomes the glib slogans of the left and the harsh vows of the right. Working as he was in a war zone, under a harsh regime itself under terrible attack, with little access to more than what he himself could find on the Shining Path, his achievement is remarkable. His account of how the ‘legal left’ fared at the hands of their former radical comrades offers a cautionary tale for activists. Peruvian union advocates and Marxist sympathisers rallied in early years to free, on humanitarian grounds and on the basis of professional solidarity, certain Senderos. Their crimes hidden from the public, they were depicted as helpless pawns of a cruel imperialist regime. Released, they progressed into more deadly reprisals against those on the left and the right and anyone in between, true to their leader’s determination to collapse the nation.

Although he mentions an International Revolutionary Movement only in passing, Gorriti shows how the Shining Path manipulated the case of Max Durand as an example of the cynical approach of the Senderos towards foreign well-wishers. Only 13 Maoist assemblages ‘both small and miniscule’ could be rallied for Guzmán’s global support, from such bastions as the Senegal, New Zealand, and the Dominican Republic. Even Albania had failed to inspire the last faithful proponents of the proletariat. For the Senderos used ‘Hoxhist’ as an insult, praised only unending dictatorship, and hung from Lima’s lamp posts dead dogs wrapped in scrawled slogans denouncing Deng Xio-ping.

Activists were expected to surrender their children to be raised as orphans so their parents could continue the cause. Sanguinary sacrifice increasingly rallied Guzmán’s disciples. The CIA aided the elite anti-terrorist Sinchi squadron while the Soviets funded the police intelligence units. The Senderos gloried in the chaos they invited. Gorriti explains that all guerrillas were over-burdened with responsibility; all felt inadequate to carry out the demands set by Guzmán. Therefore, all acquiesced to his control, guilty of their own lapses. In this way, one leader finally overshadowed even Marx, Lenin, and Mao as their role model, who preached: ‘Other than Power, all is illusion’.

While the Marxist ‘legal left’ sought the constitutional route—Gorriti explains this as a inevitable route for those following Khruschev’s rejection of violence as the necessary dynamo at the Second International—they unwittingly offered a version of Danny Morrison’s by-now clichéd assertion. Just before giving up the gun, a leader before a radical crowd hoisted a stick rifle. The real weapons remained in the hands of the state and those sworn to demolish what they saw as a colonial façade. At the close of the book, 1990 brings the threat of darkness literally to the cities. Generators were targeted by guerrillas. A black future loomed for Perú, not only as a metaphor.

I titled this with a nod to a collection of essays by Hubert Butler, who like Gorriti knew how to wield the pen against the sword. His revelations of Vatican collusion with Balkan and Nazi puppet regimes as well as the Fethard-on-Sea boycott in the 1950s against Protestants revealed truths that another purported democracy feared. Perú today is no Andean paradise, but the Senderos never wanted to make it one. Gorriti compares Guzmán’s efforts to those of an anthill. Senderos too could not be easily detected from above; their diligence depended on secrecy and not sunlight. Their leader taken away, held in a cage in a striped suit to boot, the cadres collapsed into the chaos with which they had sworn to spread all over their territory, as if robotics and not reason prevented them from realising that such nihilism would sweep them away as well as their enemies. When you see pictures of Guzmán and his survivors, fists aloft, remember the millions with whom they lived whom they longed to destroy, and tens of thousands they did.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

7 November 2004

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How We Progressives Helped Elect G.W. Bush
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No Escape from the Anthill
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Talking With... Áine Gribbon

Meeting Hugh Orde
Anthony McIntyre

A Woman's Right to Choose
Mick Hall

A Single Palestine
Peter Urban

Turkey Day
Brian Mór

4 November 2004

The Torture of John Devine
Anthony McIntyre

Defending the Faith
Dr John Coulter

Simulating the Simulators
Eoghan O’Suillabhain

Learning from Hurley
Gréagoir O’Gaothin

Politics and Reason
Mark Burke

If Looks Could Kill
Sean Smyth

Fraternal Parting
Davy Carlin

Bluebeard's Castle
Toni Solo



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