Robin Kirk, The Monkey’s Paw: New Chronicles from Peru

Robin Kirk, The Monkey ‘s Paw: New Chronicles from Peru  (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), pp. xiv + 215, £12 .95 , pb.

The subtitle ‘New Chronicles from Peru’ is only one of the many references to Peruvian history in Kirk’s book. Like Guaman Poma’s ‘Coronica’, Kirk’s chronicles are concerned with times of change, of violence and fear, and sometimes of courage and hope. Guaman Poma’s manuscript was intended to present the truth of the Conquest to a King who would then benevolently act to curb its excesses. Kirk’s chronicles, true to this postmodern era, present views rather than truths, as well as doubts and questions, mostly the author’s, but soon the reader’s.

From the start, Kirk freely admits that her object of enquiry is an ‘idea’, or perhaps a question, rather than Peru itself. She asks: ‘how is it that people craft moral lives in times of trouble, against temptation, when choices are few and hard, and what message do those lives hold for me?’ The author’s preoccupation with people rather than processes and structures is a welcome and much needed change from the grandly theorising and ultimately faceless accounts of Peru’s recent history of violence. Although Kirk’s style is at times journalistic, it is, nevertheless, informed by a close familiarity with the academic literature on Peru generally, as well as that on Sendero Luminoso and revolutionary movements.

Frequently, however, the author welcomes the reader into a private world of emotions. Soon, one finds oneself prying into a private diary. For the stories Kirk tells, and tells well, are not only those of the chronicled, but also those of the chronicler. Kirk guides the reader through a series of encounters: the village of Tunnel Six and its ronda campesina, that of Betty, an ex-Senderista whose only regret is that she is not dead, Kirk’s own middle-class landlady, Maria, with her pettiness and racism, Carmen Rosa and Cromwell Castillo’s private struggle to bring the killers of their disappeared son to justice, or that of army officers Big Banana and Centurion of the Huanta army base in Ayacucho. All these encounters are presented in both an objective and subjective manner, and they are the better for it. One particularly poignant example is Kirk’s experience in a prison wing controlled by Shining Path women, the Shining Trench. During an initial visit Kirk is exposed to the full panoply of Sendero discipline and ideological zealotry: the orchestrated marching, singing, as well as the robotic answers to her questions (Q: Do you have children? A: That is secondary. It is secondary where my children are too. (.) Q: Do you want your children to join this war? A: That is secondary! That will be decided by history. Q: But if they decided not to, could they still see you? A: That is not a problem. That is secondary. You have to analyse these problems politically). Eventually Kirk is invited to dance:

‘One of the cadres invited me to dance. She had a narrow face and eyes as slanted as a cat’s. She tried to make it look spontaneous, but it wasn’t. Zambrano evidently wanted a gesture of sympathy before we left. She wanted a convert. Even as I said no, I knew that I should dance if I wanted to return, if I wanted to get to know them, if I wanted to get past the pat answers. But I couldn’t.’

Kirk later returns to see the women. Prior to her visit, the police had been sent in to take control of the Shining Path wings, at the cost of 50 prisoners and three policemen dead. The women were moved to another prison. Kirk describes the appalling conditions: ‘The women had not been allowed to take any belongings, not even a change of clothes. Since so many items had been ripped and bloodstained, each two and three woman cell only had enough clothing for one person, the others waiting their turns, covered their nakedness with a blanket’. One prisoner, a woman who had killed an admiral, holds out her hand, defying the ban on physical contact:

‘At their strongest, when I visited them in the Shining Trench, I refused their invitation to dance. If anything, their deeds since, especially the murder of Maria Elena Moyano, had made them contemptible to me. Yet I would have let her take my hand, for any good it might do. I had no illusions about the feeling that woman had for me at best, I was a conduit through which her message might reach a sympathetic ear or the murder she had committed, freely and sound of mind. I felt pity for her, pity beyond my ability to express in words. Through the bars, our heads almost touched. I kept mine there, thought the smell of her sweat, her rotting teeth, her hot fury made my eyes twitch and tear. Finally, fed up, the guard pulled me away.’

Time and again in The Monkey’s Paw, Kirk succeeds in transmitting the human dimension of Peru’s ‘Time of Fear’, without recourse to melodrama or over sentimentality. Peru’s war comes across as a human tragedy: the social, economic and political dimensions and consequences of the war can only truly be comprehended in their human dimension. It is this dimension that is found wanting in most accounts of Peru’s recent history, particularly those that limit the protagonists in the war to Sendero tout court and the Peruvian Army. It is to be hoped that The Monkey’s Paw will become required reading for students of Peru’s recent history.

Published originally in Journal of Latin American Studies 31:02 (May 1999), pp. 501-542