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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Broom Flower: Robin Kirk's The Monkey's Paw: New Chronicles from Perú

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 13 December 2004

Flor de retama, the broom flower with its yellow shoots flourishes from soil nourished by blood. Peru's Shining Path fanatical cult, devolved from earnest Maoism into indoctrinated millenarian warriors determined to bring down their corrupt nation and destroy it in order to rebuild it into a utopia, chose this weed as their logo. Like the Easter Lily, the flower symbolised resurrection from sacrifice. Unlike the lily, its appropriation sprang from nihilism more than nationalism. Robin Kirk, in her collection of chapters, charts her Peruvian encounters with the senderistas, their pursuers, and the victims left by both sides--'internal refugees' forced off their land by those who claimed to fight for and protect them, whether government or guerrillas. Beginning with her 1983 first visit with her American partner as he was writing his dissertation about a Piura hamlet, Tunnel Six, that grew around the spew from an irrigation works near the Ecuadorian border, she records various stints spent in the country over the next decade and more, as the war with Abimael Guzmán's disciples intensified and spread to the cities.

Which were, fittingly, plunged into darkness as the senderos dynamited power lines. Harbinger of the apocalypse which the revolutionaries vowed to bring down upon millions of their fellow citizens. I read Kirk's version of what she subtitles 'new chronicles' from a world that has dazzled and disoriented earlier journalists, from Incas portraying their nation after it had been overrun by the Conquest which also taught its subjects to read and write in another language so they could send back their half-fabricated, clumsily fantastical, laboriously compiled nuevas crónicas to their Spanish rulers. For any student of today's (post)colonial legacies with jargon of subalterns and interrogation of/by the Other, both the 17c and this late 20c report from imperial border fringes, sharing their quixotic centuries of native rebellions and defeats, should recreate familiar scenarios. By the end, Kirk, however, remains little more enlightened than those who received earlier dispatches from the fabled but rebellious hinterlands.

I read her account after having studied her translation of Gustavo Gorriti's history of the SP (reviewed in an earlier article for The Blanket, 'No Escape from the Anthill'. Comparisons and contrasts with the long war undertaken by the IRA over roughly the same time period have always intrigued me. But, even in Spanish, abroad I found few crónicas. I wondered, from an English-language vantage point, why so few reporters from outside Perú had produced book-length works for a popular audience on the movement, as opposed to the regular production of now a shelf of such investigations of Irish republicanism. Perhaps the lack of a wider British and American audience for journeys among the Andes plays a part. But a less welcome feature, for those on the left curious to align their optimism with this particular Third World liberation struggle, was that it lacked the ameliorative appeal of South African, Palestinian, or Vietnamese uprisings. Why? The hostility towards 'Western' gringo observers, not only by the army and police suspicious of collaborators, but from the SP itself.

Kirk devotes much of her book to an effort to enter the mind of the female guerrillas. Unlike other movements, she notes how many women entered ranks as universities opened up in the 1960s and 70s to peasants. Senderos promoted many young girls quickly. Kirk offers a clever analogy. Both rebels and clerical systems have offered those from the impoverished and marginalised masses opportunity for more rapid advancement than the larger societies have. For mediaeval women, a religious order could afford the talented a ladder upon which to rise according to their talents. For Peru's women, they 'also accepted a mystical contract that exempted them from a female fate.' (79) Unique among Peruvian factions, the Shining Path actively recruited them. The SP, entrenched under Guzmán's professorship (although Gorriti devotes no small scholarship to examining the increasingly spurious medical excuses Comrade Gonzalo kept producing to claim sick pay for his frequent coastal sabbaticals from the burden of teaching in a mountainous city), practiced its aggression in the classroom, in the quads, and on the plains. It drew its followers, as scholars now assert about the 'old' IRA, not from the workers and peasants so much as their newly educated children. Led, as many such cultural revivals, by those predominating from the colonial and urban classes, the SP claimed that it sought to free those it coerced. Caught between the guerrillas and the government, the chutos often had to flee their rural holdouts into safe zones that were patrolled by police and mortared by militants. To translate the Peruvian proverb, they were hammered between 'sword and stone'.

The author, like previous chroniclers to a land of harsh weapons and forbidding walls, finds herself trapped. Her white skin, San Franciscan provenance, and education distance her from her subjects. They mistrust her, and she finds herself caught between pity and contempt more than once as she listens to guerrilla prisoners. At one point, on a visit, they put on a show of martial precision with earnest chant followed by their invitation for her to dance with them. She shrinks back, unwilling to be claimed by them as a prize, a convert to their chilling blend of conviction and cruelty. Kirk's honesty, her own realisation that she can only approach but never enter the interior of those she interviews, makes for a bracing if disheartening recounting of her Peruvian journeys.

Seeking to rendezvous with the SP, in the opening episode, she finds her illusions shattered when learning that the guerrillas and police alike were wont to board buses, arrest suspects--including meddling gringos--force them to kneel on the road as the bus lumbered off, and shoot them in the nape of the neck. Later in the book, she explains how the senderos update what readers of The Blanket might think of as Tom Barry's 'flying columns'. Twenty to a hundred insurgents. Nomadic, with no fixed base. But Seán Keating's iconic painting of a few such 'old IRA' men at the ready now we can juxtapose against another rural vista:

{W}hen the column came, people hid. But the column could drag them from their homes and administer a ''popular trial." The column could shoot them or hack them to death with machetes or stone them as they begged for mercy. Or the column could force a daughter to kill a father; a husband his wife. La columna could force an entire village to march before them, forming the people's vanguard of an attack. It burnt the houses of those it deemed traitors. It took those, especially the young, it found useful. The column called itself "the people's wrath." Its appearances could be as sudden as a thunderhead cresting a ridge. Its departures were scored by the slow, measured sound of grief. (104)

Certainly such a panorama bloodies even more any post-Leninist vision of a revolutionary vanguard. And whether this herded flock constitutes the force of the peasant's class struggle against feudal and capitalist pitucos or the victims of such wrath by those their self-anointed liberators remains ambiguous, if not to the Sendero Luminoso itself. Its name taken from a poem (by José Carlos Maríategui, founder of Perú's CP in the 1920s), its nightmarish rhetoric, its idealised portraits transforming its portly Ayacucho doctor into a cherubic, trimmer messiah of redemption through decimation: all underscore the actual distance between the SP and those from the lowly for whom it mediated in fevered litany its 'pensimiento Gonzalo'. The hearts and minds of the people remained aloof from these vengeful liberators. As an aid worker to IDPs (internally displaced persons, whom Kirk notes outnumber worldwide the numbers of refugees, but who languish unprotected by international treaties) asks Kirk: 'if they are fighting for the people, why kill them? Why did they drive them away?' (170) This discussion leads into an excellent analysis of what differentiates senderistas from other militants.

Peru's peasants suffer under the colonial legacy of the caste system. At the bottom, the chutos or sallqas (meaning dirty/savage/pagan) live on the highland plains, the puna. I take this to be equivalent to tinkers or bogtrotters or spalpeens. (I know these Irish counterparts differ from each other as well as their Peruvian versions, but I make this comparison and choose these terms for parallels.) Reform for the Irish began with the Land League and the gradual redistribution of estates under 1904 British law. For Perú, such reforms occurred only under General Juan Velasco, who deposed the criollo Fernando Belaunde in a 1968 coup. Under anti-Communist rationales, the military dictator from a poor urban slum--who had worked his way up as a mixed-blood cholo by one of the only avenues of advancement, the army--nationalised foreign holdings, organised workers, and divided land among the previously dispossessed. The peasants gained more from the mistis, dividing up their bosses' livestock, tools, and farming machinery. Higher education expanded to the poor, among them those recruited by Dr Guzmán and his cohorts into the SP. But, why did the Marxist rebels not follow the success of similar Third World situations?

Kirk and a former comrade she interviews agree: the case of Osmán Morote serves as a paradigm. This SP leader wrote his 1970 MA thesis at Ayacucho. He applied a 'scientific Marxist' approach to his anthropological study of 'lucha de clases' or class struggle among in the Huanta district--an area where one landowner had until Velasco's seizure reigned in manorial excess. Yet Morote neglects that Velasco's 1968 reform had occurred in his 1970 study. He rails against other Marxists on the faculty insufficiently violent, and against bourgeois peers, yet never refers by name to one of the Indians on whose behalf he constructs his dissertation. He, like his inspiration Guzmán, spends words and spreads bullets in the cause of the poor, but to the intellectuals who ran the SP, the peasants remained chutos, a mere category of force and energy to be harnessed or driven by those inducted into Comrade Gonzalo's cadre, and, when exhausted, to be cast out or eliminated as an abstraction, a by-product of the dialectic which itself became apoplectic in its allegiance only to Guzmán.

The gap between the observed and the observer, whether Morote or Guzmán, the aid worker or Kirk, persists. How can any of us, faced with exhibits from Pol Pot or Hitler's terror, comprehend genocide and mass death except from its material remains? She cryptically states, almost as an aside from Huanta: 'From the stadium, where the navy is said to have buried the "disappeared," hair, no longer straight or moreno, but in tufts, used to tumble down the streets, collecting dust and twigs and banking against the adobe bricks of the locked and shuttered houses.' (172) The state, crushing not only senderistas, also perpetuated its own class bias, as the navy's European-descended commanders unleashed their own brutality upon all those caught up--guilty, innocent, or compromised--within the counter-revolt. The country kept bleeding, more rapidly than before. Kirk's descriptions of prisoners, of crusaders for justice, of activists for human rights, all show how nuanced turn distinctions in a war zone. Irish readers can learn from her careful portrayal that the tension sustained by those who have entered from the press or academia into republican and/or loyalist undergrounds in hopes of clarification themselves become entangled by their own fidelity to morality as their own ethical rationales become parsed and rephrased and knotted.

Kirk, by the end, finds that she cannot keep returning to the flame that threatens to devour her. As a journalist, akin perhaps to today's stringers in the Six Counties, she finds that her employers less eagerly solicit stories on community reform than terrorist assaults. As the SP reels from the backlash by not only the government forces but vigilante peasant groups, these same gatherings find that they may have learned a bit from the mystical nihilism of the senderos after all. Not in content so much as in form. For what were once dreams begin to assume reality. In the wake of first Velasco and then the SP, despite the near-collapse of the economy and its mismanagement by whoever manipulates himself into the presidency, the common people begin to embrace local control of their justice system, their farm production, and their faith, which increasingly finds its dynamism fueled by evangelical Protestantism and its insistence upon self-worth and hard work to achieve security. As Kirk wings her way from Perú for the final flight home, she admits her bravery and its lack. She attempts, she concludes, to remain moral in adverse circumstances few of her readers or subjects will have faced willingly. In the awe-inspiring but also awful--in its sheer reach beyond human power--array of climates and terrains, Perú represents a microcosm of our planet's diversity. She raises again the question with which she began: 'Can I bridge the gap between Peru and me, between privilege and want, between fear and security?' (211) Kirk answers herself by quoting her co-reporter, as they faced taciturn, tortured senderistas in prison, or as she inspected her host at Tunnel Six cradling her dead infant: 'Never underestimate fear.' This land, fabled as our El Dorado for so long in our Western legends, resists those of us who dare to delve into its hidden veins.

(ISBN: 1-55849-109-0. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. See also the compilation edited by Kirk, her partner Orin Starn, and former colleague of Guzmán and expert on the SP Carlos Iván Degregori, The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.)




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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

16 December 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Failed Entity
Michael Benson

Out of the Ashes
Brian Mór

Identity Crisis
Mick Hall

Lights, Camera, Inaction
Jimmy Sands

St Joseph, Patron Saint of the Peace Process
Anthony McIntyre

Breeding Ground for Racism
Dr John Coulter

Torture in Chile
Tito Tricot

The Broom Flower: Robin Kirk's The Monkey's Paw: New Chronicles from Perú
Seaghán Ó Murchú

11 December 2004

Post-Debacle Stress Syndrome
Anthony McIntyre

Keeping the Lid on Pandora's Box
Davy Adams

Paisley's Guide for Penitent Provos
Brian Mór

Talking to Mr. George
Fred A. Wilcox

Dr No Says No, Again; Dublin Wrong to Back Photos
Fr. Sean Mc Manus

A Way Out of the Impasse
Liam O Comain

'Eternal Elves of the West'
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Bobby Tohill vs. The Andersonstown News
Liam O Ruairc

Peace Comes Dropping Slow
Brian Lennon



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