"As I was reading the novel I found myself looking forward to encountering Zahir, an interesting and compelling character. Where did he come from?"
"I know what you're saying. I also grew to really feel a lot of affection for him. He's basically a pawn in a very large game and accepts his part in the grand tragedy. He has more honesty about it than Rey, who is more educated and has more access -- he's from the city and is not, like Zahir, a poor man in a poor isolated part of a poor country. I respected him.
"The war in Peru that took 70,000 lives doesn't happen without people like Zahir. He's not based on anyone in particular so much as he's based on an entire class of people. Perhaps his version of things has more integrity than a lot of others."
"Is the practice of tadek that you describe in the book based on something in reality, or is it from your imagination?"
"I was thinking a lot, at the time, about wartime justice. It happens in every state that deals with terrorism. The real solution to terrorism is intense police work -- critical, nuanced, diligent, tedious police work, you know. The kind of brutal, clumsy, repressive, awkward response where you say, 'Just throw them all in jail and we'll sort it out later,' is certainly something that happened in Peru. I wanted to throw out in the open how arbitrary wartime justice can be.
"I was reading a book about Haile Selassie, and it described a traditional Ethiopian system of justice that I ended up modeling tadek on. It's not something that existed in Peru. But, in the same way that this country that I describe in my book is not Peru, but an amalgamation of many countries and many situations and many wars, I drew freely from all kinds of sources.
"I specifically didn't want it to be Peru because I didn't want to be tied to the details of the war. I wasn't trying to write a history. There are so many ways that I think Peru is emblematic of a lot of things that are happening."
"When you talk to groups about Peru, or even in introducing the subject matter of your book, what can you count on Americans bringing to the table in terms of background knowledge about Peruvian culture, history, and politics?"
"There's a lot you have to fill in. I think only specialists know about the war and the political, economic, and racial background that led to the war. It's probably not even fair to ask your average American to keep all of the conflicts in the global south straight. People in the House Armed Services Committee can't even tell the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, you know.
"It's a lot to ask the average American to remember anything beyond the name, Shining Path, which is a wonderfully terrifying name that they came up with. I think Americans know about Machu Picchu and, in certain large cities, they know about ceviche and Peruvian cuisine, and that's the extent of it.
"When I talk about the war or try to place this novel in context, I try not to bring it down to a history lesson. I talk about a country divided by class, divided by race, divided by geography, where conflicts become ripe and become bloody on a generational cycle."
"Last week in the London Guardian you were identified as part of the 'literary renaissance' in Peru. What is happening there?"
"I think there's something happening, but I also think there is the realization that there's something happening. A lot of the commentary has revolved around the notion that Peruvians are finally starting to write about their war. That's not accurate.
"There have been writers dealing with the war for years. What is actually happening is that mainstream, middle-class writers from Lima are starting to write about the war. By the time the war got to Lima, it was so bad in the countryside. The inconvenience of a power outage was nothing at all compared to what was happening in the Andes. The Shining Path would come in and demand food and support, and if the people didn't give it to them, they'd kill them. Then the army would come in two days later and say, 'You supported Shining Path,' and they'd kill everyone that was left. The kind of literary trend that people are talking about is simply Lima finally realizing what the hell happened.
"On the other hand, there is more publication happening, which has to do with the relative stability of the Peruvian economy. There is more money left over for the arts. The magazine which I am so thrilled to be a part of, Etiqueta Negra, has not been a small player in this renaissance."
"Tell me about the magazine and how long it's been going."
"We are in our fifth year. We're trying to be the Harpers or The New Yorker of South America. We focus mainly on nonfiction. We commission three or four articles a month on different topics and translate writers that wouldn't otherwise be published in Latin America. A lot of the writers who have passed through our pages are part of the movement people are talking about."