A Review of Poetry, Prose, and Art - Summer 2001
The Dancer Upstairs, by Nicholas Shakespeare
Reviewed by Steve Harris
The struggle in Peru between the Maoist Shining Path and the government is the thinly veiled backdrop for Nicholas Shakespeare's novel The Dancer Upstairs. And like the books of Le Carre and Graham Greene before him, Shakespeare weaves a story of love and betrayal in a time of conflicting ideologies. The victories are small, and the forces that can crush us, immense; what is a victory (even if it appears as defeat) is often determined by our reaction to what Graham Greene called the "human factor."
The book opens in an unnamed South American country with the investigative journalist Dyer looking for a story on the enigmatic, and now captured, leader of the insurrection, Ezequel. He seeks an interview, through his aunt, with the shadowy "Captain Calderon" who pulls the strings for the death squads and moneyed interests in the country. Before Dyer's arrival, however, his aunt (who fears Dyer's journalistic probing) goes away, supposedly for an engagement in another city. In searching for his aunt, Dyer encounters Rejas, the policeman responsible for Ezequel's capture, and currently a potential candidate for the country's upcoming presidential election. The meeting is, of course, no accident.
As the novel unfolds, Rejas, during a series of late night dinners, tells Dyer the story of Ezequel's capture. It is a remarkable story in that it also tells the story of the country, with all its cultural and racial divisions. These divisions play themselves out in Rejas own life, as he feels the pulls of his race (Indian) and his duties as a policeman and a husband. On one side, there are the revolutionaries, who are brutal followers of Mao, and on the other side, the military, which in its own ham-fisted way will kill a native village in order to save it. Rejas is a man caught in the middle, who is given the task of hunting Ezequel down. At the same time, his marriage is suffering a slow death. His wife, fair-haired and materialistic, flits from one enthusiasm (charity, book clubs) to the next. As budget crunches cut into police overtime, she seeks a wealthier lifestyle and more income. Pathetically, she takes up an Am Way type road to wealth, selling cosmetics to her richer friends. Rejas and his wife have a daughter, who is trying to learn ballet. For the wife, the ballet is simply another middle class trapping, meant to keep pace with her wealthier friends. She hopes their daughter will one day dance in the Metropolitan.
The new dancing instructor is a woman named Yolanda. Rejas is attracted to her, and she shows sympathy towards him, as he is often short on cash to pay for the lessons. At the same time, the city is being rocked by Ezequel's final assault. At night, the electricity is often cut and the night sky filled with different colored fireworks, signaling new attack phases for the rebels. The day has its own terrors, with government officials being gunned down by twelve year old girls, and dogs and donkeys being used as living bombs. The fragile suburban world of this cobbled together country is cracking. One is reminded of the great Talking Heads song, "Life During Wartime."
One blackout finds Rejas and Yolanda caught together, discussing the progress of Rejas' daughter in class. Yolanda's own fear of the dark, and Rejas's comforting of her, stirs something in both of them. But Yolanda is also a revolutionary. She has been trained in Cuba, and she has lived in the jungle with the rebels. She is now hiding Ezequel, who lives upstairs from the dance studio, spending his days watching tv, reading Kant and Mao, and of course directing the blood bath. But Yolanda's feelings for Rejas are real, and she chooses to ignore the obvious clues that Rejas has an unusual profession.
Yolanda's divisions, however, will eventually force her to make choices. The figure she ultimately chooses (and worships) is Ezequel. She is willing to abandon her art and, in the end, her love for a mad man's ideal. For Yolanda, revolution and religion have mixed into something quite lethal — Ezequel is a grotesque, oozing figure, plagued by an extreme case of psoriasis. As Rejas notes, this is ironic because psoriasis is a disease that doesn't attack Indians (those Ezequel would "liberate"), but only Caucasians — it is a "white man's disease." And, as an Indian, Rejas sees clearly what Ezequel is, what he has become, and what he means for his people:
I am not a Kantian philosopher. I find his work hardly intelligible. But I understand it enough to know that Ezequel took an a la carte attitude to Kant's works, and made such a meal of his philosophy that its originator would not have recognized it.
Whatever sympathy Rejas may feel for the plight of his people is balanced by his revulsion at the methods of the revolutionaries. A figure from his childhood, Father Ramon, a good man, is found gutted like a fish, with his face sliced off. The priest had been sharply critical of both the revolutionaries and the Army, and it cost him his life. When returning to his home village, Rejas recalls to Dyer his last meeting with the priest, as he was departing for the university:
"Agustin, I want to give you this." Father Ramon hitches up his surplice, revealing dirty tennis shoes. He plucks a hand from the folds. "No." I take a step back. "I can't. Not possibly."
This small gesture, in all it gentleness, is in a sense the principle, the core, of Rejas himself. He will even find room for mercy for Ezequel who, after his capture, is revealed, despite his evil, as small and pathetic in his own sufferings. Rejas' ability to find the middle ground, to empathize, makes him a figure that rises above the polarities of his country's murderous times. But, he suffers as well as he views, without sentiment, his own betrayals -- to Yolanda, his wife, his people. Rejas's betrayals are not the inhuman actions of an Ezequel or a Caledron, but are instead the small betrayals of the conflicted human heart. It is fitting that Father Ramon also tells Rejas of the story of the sitter for Judas in Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper." When told by the artist that he had been selected for the role of Judas, the man broke down crying. Many years before, he had been Leonardo's model for Christ.
For readers looking for a successor to Le Carre, they will find a fine candidate in Nicholas Shakespeare. The wars, both cold and hot, whether geographic, or in the heart, will continue into the new century. The victors will be those who best hold onto their own humanity and retain the ability to recognize it in others. Shakespeare's handle on this necessary understanding is impressive. I look forward to his future efforts.