Midway through Peru's dark decade of communist insurgency and state-supported retribution, author Miguel Gutierrez was picked up for questioning. Police suspected he supported the guerrillas. "Tell me what is your greatest aspiration," his interrogator asked.
"I told him I wanted to write a good novel," the short-story writer recalls in a later essay.
If literature serves a purpose beyond itself, that moment came for Mr. Gutierrez a few years after that low point in 1985. Under suspicion, already declared "washed up" by at least one critic, having his step son "disappear" (killed) at the hands of soldiers, Gutierrez went on to write his first adult novel. "La violencia del tiempo" ("The Violence of the Times") not only established him as one of Peru's most important contemporary authors. It has helped assuage the bitterness of his own difficult life - in which he lost several family members, including his wife, to violence.
His writing career illustrates what can come from violence - a lesson sorely needed in a country on the verge of appointing a government commission to sort through more than a decade of ruthless terrorism and brutal repression.
"Writing is an act of purification," Gutierrez says. "A character invented to bring revenge can cleanse."
After "La Violencia," he has continued to write novels: "La destruccion del reino" ("Destruction of the Kingdom") in 1992; "Babel, el paraiso" ("Babel, Paradise") in 1993, and "Poderes secretos" ("Secret Powers") in 1995.
"I have no doubt that he's the most interesting literary figure in Peru at the moment," says John Beverly, director of graduate studies in Hispanic at the University of Pittsburgh.
But in popular circles outside Peru, Gutierrez remains largely unknown. His long, densely written works have not been translated in English. Even in Peru, he maintains a low profile. Waiting for him at a crowded cafe in Lima's trendy Miraflores district, a cafe he frequents, a reporter is struck that no one seems to know him.
On this particular day, he is upbeat. After a decade of authoritarian rule, President Alberto Fujimori has fled the country and a new transition government has taken over. "These last five months, there has been an awakening: Young people who grew up in the violence in the '80s; there are new faces in the cabinet," he says animatedly. "There has never been such a movement and dispersing of opinions."
Like many Peruvians, Gutierrez remains remarkably even-handed when discussing the period of violence. "The 1980s, with the internal war, was a fascinating time," he says. "During that time, I gained insights into the Peruvian people - a facet that showed a great capacity for fighting and struggling - and for violence.... ["Violencia"] is a microcosm of all of Peru. It is a saga of several families. I show all their human flaws, just like those of Peruvians."
During the 1980s, violence rained down from both sides. On the one hand, the Marxist guerrillas, known as the Shining Path, used ruthless techniques to persuade and control the peasants in the countryside. Guerrillas gunned down his wife's uncle in the village where she grew up. On the other hand, the government resorted to violence to try to restore order, killing many, including Gutierrez's stepson, an activist convinced that revolution was the only way to reform Peru.
In 1992, two years after taking over, President Fujimori ordered a siege of Lima's notorious Miguel Castro Castro Prison, where the guerrillas had grabbed control of two cellblocks. Gutierrez's wife, Vilma, was imprisoned there and killed during the four-day battle.
Gutierrez doesn't talk directly about that difficult period in his life. Nor does he infuse his work with anger. "I try to forget, while writing about that character, about the offenses and crimes done to me and my family," he says. "I push them aside and consider and write from artistic 'reason.' The bitterness I could have, I try to transform it into fiction."
Much of his fiction deals with Peru's downtrodden. "Peru is a very complicated country," he says. "Here we speak 48 languages. Those who speak Spanish number about 15 million [out of 27 million]. There are sectors that still speak Quechua, Aymara, as well as various Amazonian languages. [But] those who have dominated in politics ... are from the sector of criollos - descendants of the Spanish conquerors.... You go on the Internet and ask for a synthesis of the contemporary Peruvian culture, you'll find a small literary sector of those criollo Peruvian authors who are writing."
But "there is a mestizo Peruvian bourgeoisie class," he adds. "In order to write about Peru, you have to start with a description of that Peru."
These people of indigenous features but mixed descent began to abandon the Andes in the 1940s and 1950s to find work in the cities. "They came to Lima, a beautiful coastal city, and did the work that urban criollos wouldn't do. But little by little, they are becoming the most dynamic part of Peruvian development." Some have worked up to high position, including Alejandro Toledo, the leading presidential candidate going into next month's runoff.
Despite these political changes, Gutierrez still worries that the poor will be left behind. "Literature is a good vehicle to expose the human condition," he says. "Writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, Mann explore the conduct of humans, the human condition."
Does writing about the poor really help the poor?
"Someday, there won't be intermediaries," he says. The most marginalized group won't need authors like me. They will tell their own stories."
Did I feel guilty? No, I don't think so; neither did I feel responsible for his death because Carlos was an adult when by his own volition and in the exercise of his freedom he made his political choices. Nevertheless, in the weeks and months that followed I didn't stop asking myself (and even now I do it from time to time) if his fate and Vilma's would have been different if I hadn't crossed into their lives. I'm not saying it would have been a better fate, but a different one, sufficiently so that Carlos would still be living.
- An excerpt from 'Celebracion de la novela' ('Celebration of the Novel'), by Miguel Gutierrez (1996)
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor