In Other Words

Love in the Time of Terror

La Cuarta Espada: La Historia De Abimael Guzmán y Sendero Luminoso (The Fourth Sword: The Story Of Abimael Guzmán and the Shining Path) By Santiago Roncagliolo 286 pages, Barcelona: Random House Mondadori S.A., 2007 (in Spanish) So, after all these years, it turns out that the rise and fall of the Shining Path — the ...

La Cuarta Espada: La Historia De Abimael Guzmán y Sendero Luminoso
(The Fourth Sword: The Story Of Abimael Guzmán and the Shining Path)

By Santiago Roncagliolo
286 pages, Barcelona: Random House Mondadori S.A., 2007
(in Spanish)

So, after all these years, it turns out that the rise and fall of the Shining Path — the brutal, Maoist-inspired terrorist movement whose war with the Peruvian state in the 1980s and 1990s left nearly 70,000 dead — was all just a love story.

A love story that went really, really sour.

Or so one discovers reading La Cuarta Espada: La Historia de Abimael Guzmán y Sendero Luminoso (The Fourth Sword: The Story of Abimael Guzmán and the Shining Path), Santiago Roncagliolo’s improbably entertaining biography of Abimael Guzmán, the near mythical founder of the Shining Path. An award-winning Peruvian novelist living in Spain, Roncagliolo returned to his native soil to explore how a small-town philosophy professor took up the writings of Chairman Mao, launched a 12-year armed struggle, and brought Peru to the brink of implosion, all until his stunning capture and incarceration in September 1992.

Although Roncagliolo skates close to the forgiveness-through-understanding school of biography ("If [Guzmán] is not an innately bloodthirsty madman," he muses early on, "if he became so through contact with society, then in one way or another he is our own creation"), he did not return to Peru to offer Guzmán absolution. Indeed, as the chapters rush by, The Fourth Sword unfolds less as a pure biography and more as a personal memoir, one that explores Guzmán’s story, but does so almost as an excuse for the author to reconsider his own wartime childhood and reconnect with the country he left behind.

The tale begins with another childhood, that of Guzmán, in the beautiful, blue-sky city of Arequipa, in Peru’s southern Andes. He was drawn to politics after watching government forces put down student protests in the city square just three blocks from his home, but his revolutionary hormones weren’t truly released until his university years, when Guzmán peeped through a neighboring window and watched a young woman change her clothes before going to bed. From such sordid beginnings emerged a year-and-a-half relationship, which ended when the girl’s father decided that the lower-class Guzmán was not fit for his daughter. She broke up with him at a wedding reception, leaving Guzmán alone on the dance floor.

"That girl was the one who decided Peru’s contemporary history," said Abimael’s sister, Susana Guzmán, in a statement as intriguing as it is simplistic. Without that lost love, "he had more time to think about others, and about what he called life’s injustices. He [told me] that a new man was beginning to live within him."

Whether or not an early crush propelled Guzmán toward revolution, the new man’s far left-wing politics soon came into sharp relief. After studying philosophy and law — the same as his intellectual hero, Karl Marx — Guzmán moved north to the poor city of Ayacucho, where as a university professor in the early 1960s he lectured for hours on revolutionary theory. Even there, Roncagliolo explains, love became "a means to spread the revolution," with Guzmán seducing female students who seemed ideologically amenable to his teachings, dropping them if they fraternized with political rivals.

In Ayacucho, the writings of Chairman Mao became his new infatuation, "love at first sight," as Roncagliolo puts it. Indeed, even the leaders of the Cuban Revolution were not quite radical enough for Guzmán, who "situated himself to the left of Che [Guevara]," explains Roncagliolo.

Through textbooks and teachers, Guzmán began to recruit converts to his own revolution, eventually establishing the Shining Path in the late 1960s — with only 12 members at its inception — as an offshoot of Peru’s Communist Party. Guzmán took on the alias of "Presidente Gonzalo" and began to see himself as the "fourth sword" of communism, after Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. His plan for Peru’s revolution was straightforward: Incite genocide on the part of the Peruvian state by goading government forces into overreacting against the guerrillas. This would reveal the regime’s "fascist entrails," Guzmán argued, leading to an even wider popular uprising.

The Shining Path’s first attack — burning ballot boxes and voter registries in Ayacucho on Election Day, May 17, 1980 — signaled its effort to take down the fledgling democracy. But Guzmán never appeared on the battlefield; his was a war of intellect, strategy, and ideology. His followers displayed no such shyness, and blowing up electrical towers became the Shining Path’s signature attack: 5 in 1980, 9 in 1982, followed by 21, 65, 40, and 107 in each of the following years. "We always had to have candles at home," recalls Roncagliolo. "The only punctual things in Lima were the blackouts and midnight." 

As the war grew more violent during the 1980s and the Shining Path established its dominance in the rural countryside — often by terrorizing isolated Quechua-speaking communities — the country’s urban prisons became a new battleground. The Shining Path used them as training centers and attempted spectacular escapes; government forces responded with equally massive operations to take the prisons back, in some cases resulting in high-profile massacres that embodied precisely the sort of state overreach Guzmán hoped to foment.

By this time, the cult of personality surrounding Guzmán, rigorously enforced within the party, was starting to spread. Yet the Gonzalo phenomenon did not truly hit the country’s political and business elites until July 16, 1992, when a massive car bomb exploded on Tarata Street in the commercial district of Miraflores, an exclusive Lima suburb, leaving 26 dead and 150 wounded, and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Many thousands had already been killed in Peru’s rural regions, but "Tarata was the moment that Limeños, in particular the middle and upper classes, felt that we too could die." 

Those elites, Roncagliolo frets, remain oblivious to Peru’s realities even today, particularly to the social injustices that can lead to violent social resentment. In a comically self-righteous encounter at an exclusive Peruvian beach town, he scolds rich sunbathers for prohibiting their servants from swimming in the ocean or wearing their bathing suits. The indifferent boy has become the class-conscious writer — even if he still hangs out at posh beaches.

In essence, Roncagliolo is lamenting the loss of historical memory. He is concerned that Peru’s younger generations know nothing of the war and that even Peruvians in their 30s, himself included (and this reviewer as well), are doing their best to forget it.

Will The Fourth Sword protect Peru against that amnesia? The book has scaled the country’s bestseller lists, eliciting some praise mixed with sharply critical reviews, particularly among Peru’s feisty bloggers, who have pointed out factual inconsistencies and sloppy research. Indeed, the probing works of Gustavo Gorriti and the landmark 2003 report of Peru’s truth commission lend far more insight into the Shining Path phenomenon than Roncagliolo, who hardly helps his cause by quoting from Wikipedia to explain China’s Cultural Revolution. But even more, critics seem to resent a nonexpert outsider, even if native-born, parachuting in to explain how it all went down.

Roncagliolo freely acknowledges his outsider status. "Sometimes I feel like a tourist in hell," he writes. "Its occupants speak to me, but they know I will leave, that this hell is not mine, that I will leave them there and go write my little press report."

It’s not clear that Peruvians need Roncagliolo’s reporting to recall the past. Even today, Alberto Fujimori, the nation’s president during the spectacularly efficient capture of Guzmán by police intelligence operatives in 1992, is in the midst of a dramatic trial, facing up to three decades in prison on charges of human rights abuses after his own war on terror ran amok.

History may well trace the death of the Shining Path to that day, Sept. 12, 1992, when Guzmán finally fell captive. But if love may have started the war, Roncagliolo wonders, could it have ended it, too? When Abimael was captured in a modest home in suburban Lima, at his side was his long-time companion and future wife, Elena Iparraguirre, also the No. 2 commander of the Shining Path. In one of the few extended interviews in The Fourth Sword, Roncagliolo visits her in prison and asks her about that day so many years ago.

"Wasn’t it dangerous for the two principal leaders to live together? If one was captured, the other would be, too."

"We never measured the risks," she replied simply, a remarkable statement from a movement that enforced overwhelming personal and ideological discipline on its members.

"The great strength of Sendero was always its near religious ideological conviction that allowed it to take impossible risks and think like a single mind," Roncagliolo concludes. "But the same thing that gave them strength was also their main weakness. They were unable to control the love, hatred, and betrayal among their leaders." In the end, he writes, "It is impossible to sweep away, repudiate, or crush what they call small-minded bourgeois individualism, and what the rest of us call humanity."

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola