Leonora Gelb came to Peru to make a difference. A passionate and idealistic Stanford grad, she left a life of privilege to fight poverty and oppression, but her beliefs are tested when she falls in with violent revolutionaries. While death squads and informants roam the streets and suspicion festers among the comrades, Leonora plans a decisive act of protest—until her capture in a bloody government raid, and a sham trial that sends her to prison for life.
Ten years later, Andres—a failed novelist turned expat—is asked to write a magazine profile of “La Leo.” As his personal life unravels, he struggles to understand Leonora, to reconstruct her involvement with the militants, and to chronicle Peru’s tragic history. At every turn he’s confronted by violence and suffering, and by the consequences of his American privilege. Is the real Leonora an activist or a terrorist? Cold-eyed conspirator or naïve puppet? And who is he to decide?
In this powerful and timely new novel, Andrew Altschul maps the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, author and text, resistance and extremism. Part coming-of-age story and part political thriller, The Gringa asks what one person can do in the face of the world’s injustice.
|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Andrew Altschul's work has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney's, Ploughshares, Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and O. Henry Prize Stories. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford, he was the founding books editor at The Rumpus and is a Contributing Editor at Zyzzyva.
Read an Excerpt
Any beginning is an act of violence. A shattering of silence. The past flares up like a rag soaked in kerosene. I’ve been asked to tell the story of Leonora Gelb. Where else to start but with an act of violence?
Los Muertos. A tiny settlement in the desert south of Lima—shanties and shipping containers, broken stone, plastic cisterns on rickety stilts. From above it must look as though a freight train fell out of the sky, the wreckage scattered over the dunes, scrap wood and metal clinging to the edge of a desiccated plateau. Only a few of the shacks have electricity, tapped illegally from a larger settlement half a mile away. A nearby arroyo serves as garbage dump and communal toilet. No running water. No police or doctors or schools. No one should live like this. But in Los Muertos more than a thousand people do.
It’s almost Christmas, 1997. The bulldozers arrive at first light, grumbling across the desert in a long, hazy line. One moment there’s nothing, brown pallor, an ocean of dunes and steep gullies. The sky a colorless sweep paling at the horizon. Then the dust-plume appears: a faint smudge in the distance, a growing blur on the hard-packed road below. Now the faint sound of engines, the curtain of dust, glints of metal—a disruption, an arrow through the stillness. A beginning.
From the rocky scarp at the edge of the cemetery, the best vantage on the road, Leonora Gelb hugs herself and watches the caravan approaching: bulldozers, SUVs, troop carriers, the rear brought up by five gray schoolbuses. An acre of bleached niche walls and half-toppled crosses spreads behind her, sinking into scrub and trash. The air smells of woodsmoke, a thin tang of metal, like adrenaline rising.
She turns to the woman standing next to her. “¿Por qué los buses? What are the buses for?”
“There are still a lot of people to remove,” Nancy says, without taking her eyes off the road.
“Also, probably, they expect problems. Hija, you shouldn’t stay.”
“Did someone tell them we would be here?” Leo says, gently emphasizing the plural, nosotros: we.
Nancy presses her lips together. She’s short, heavy around the middle, but with a cloud of wavy black hair that Leo envies. She’s Leo’s mother’s age, or a bit younger, with the same flat, frank way of speaking easily mistaken for coldness. “Of course someone told them. There are no secrets in this country, only informers.” Her walkie-talkie rasps and she coughs into it: “Sí, mi amor. They are coming now.”
“But why would anyone inform? We’re trying to help these people.”
Nancy squints at the demonstrators, some scattered among the wood shacks and roofless blocks of concrete, others clustered around a man standing on a crate in the road. Mange-scarred dogs root in piles of trash, heavy teats dragging in the dust.''
“These people are very poor. The government can make promises we can’t make.” She nods at the still-distant caravan, its rooster-tail of dust falling in sepia air. “You do them a favor, you never have to see this place again.”
Los Muertos is the newest sector of Los Arenales, a vast and jumbled patchwork of settlements an hour from the colonial pomp of central Lima. Nancy has lived in Los Arenales most of her life; in the early 1970s, when the military government opened the land to homesteaders, hers was among the first families to build, foraging for scrap wood and thatch, sharing one small generator to run what tools they had. They were llama herders, subsistence farmers, illit-erates from the provinces fleeing starvation and infant mortality. A barren plot far from the city was the only chance they’d ever have. They built it from nothing, asked nothing from Lima except to beleft alone. Twenty-five years later, Los Arenales has half a million residents, shopping malls, a vocational college; Nancy’s house has three floors and a satellite dish.
And it keeps expanding. Each year a new wave of migrants—“invaders,” as they are commonly called by limeños of greater means—arrives with cloth bundles, no shoes, desperate to get their children under shelter before the heat sets in, before thieves strip them of clothing, photo albums, even their Bibles. Nancy’s NGO, Oportunidad Para Todos, provides some assistance as they struggle to tame their patches of dirt: to find jobs, diapers, medicine; to hang on long enough to demand services from the government. Los Muertos is no different from these earlier settlements, except in one respect: they built too far west. On a clear day you can see out to the ocean, an expansive downhill sweep of virgin dunes and empty beach. Bidding opened over the summer; in October, the govern-ment awarded the lease to an international chain of golf resorts.
The bulldozers have turned off the main road and begun the long climb to the cemetery. Again, Nancy counts the demonstrators, troubled by their meager numbers: a few dozen local residents, teachers, shopkeepers, and members of the neighborhood councils, all gathered now at Los Muertos’ one tiny bodega—a gray concrete cube that sells cigarettes and powdered milk through a locked grate.
* * *
Here’s what I knew about the war: I knew there’d been one. A dirty one, though like most Americans I didn’t yet know what that meant. I’d heard of the Shining Path—maybe in some long-ago history class or cable documentary—but I couldn’t have told you the first thing about their beliefs or their tactics. I couldn’t have said when the war began (1980) or when it ended (1992), or how close it came to bringing down the Peruvian state. When friends referred to “Sendero Luminoso,” I nodded gravely, mirroring their grief. But I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t want to know details, body counts, who butchered whom. I didn’t want to hear the arguments, though I knew they still festered; the fury and righteousness, the fear of one’s neighbor, were too familiar, reminders of a life I’d tried to leave behind.
But Sendero was a nightmare—a long, bloodcurdling, wing-flapping horror whose shadow still loomed years after the country awoke. Anyone who would write about Leo Gelb has to understand this. From the moment their leader, Abimael Guzmán, launched his Maoist revolt until his unexpected capture twelve years later, Peruvians lived weightlessly, vulnerable at every moment, trapped between a violent personality cult and the vindictive rage of a lawless state. Between them, Sendero and the Army produced seventy thousand corpses, strewn from the Ayacucho highlands to the ancestral homes of Amazon tribes to Lima’s most exclusive enclaves. They lay in mass graves and secret prisons, they lay on busy streetcorners, or they lay nowhere at all—unidentified, unaccounted for, deep wounds that could never close. No one was immune, everyone at every level of society knew someone who was killed, or kidnapped, or disappeared, a generation wiped out as if by meteor or plague.