“¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?”: At what moment had Peru fucked itself up? This question, which famously interrupts the opening paragraph of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1969 novel Conversation in the Cathedral, has many answers.
You could cite 1532, the year rapacious conquistadors arrived to decimate the self-sufficient Inca economy. Or the nation’s early postindependence period (1824—1845), when its blanco elite began colonizing Peru’s highland Quechua majority. You could cite 1948, the year Gen. Manuel Odría overthrew Congress to begin his eight-year dictatorship. Or 1968, the year Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado engineered his coup. These answers all have their merits. But it’s clear, whether you’re on the left or the right, that the day modern Peru really fucked itself up was May 17, 1980, when a fringe guerrilla group called the Shining Path stole ballot boxes in the town of Chuschi and burned them in the public plaza. This act of vandalism marked the start of the “People’s War,” which within two decades would leave about 70,000 dead.
The “time of fear” has understandably haunted much subsequent Peruvian fiction. Vargas Llosa grappled with the Path’s fanatical impulses in his rather conservative novels The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1986) and Death in the Andes (1993). The protagonist of Daniel Alarcón’s more recent Lost City Radio (2007) searches for “disappeared” people in the aftermath of a civil war. Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s debut novel Blood of the Dawn, published in November by Deep Vellum, marks a departure within this tradition. Not content with addressing the causes and effects of Peru’s civil war, Jiménez sets out to conjure the experience of the atrocity itself. The result is disquieting, though not at all in the way you’d expect.
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Founded in 1970 by a philosophy professor named Abimael Guzmán, the Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso) got its start in Peru’s interior highlands. It was an area of “crushing poverty and racist oppression,” writes historian Marc Becker, and Guzmán set out to organize the disenfranchised Quechua population, who were far “removed from a small urban elite that defined the country’s economic, political, and cultural life.” That makes him seem noble, a Peruvian Subcomandante Marcos. But Guzmán’s model was more Khmer Rouge than the Zapatistas. Using the brutally simplistic metaphors of “disease” and “cleansing,” he sold campesinos on the belief that their emancipation required the total annihilation of bourgeois Peru. Ritualistic violence was central to this agenda. As Sendero grew from a small group of bandits to a national terrorist threat, it left behind a wake of delirious horrors. Reporting in 1993, Alma Guillermoprieto drew up this litany: