The Gringa, Leo, is loosely based on the story of Lori Berenson who was arrested in Peru in 1996 and sentenced to 20 years in gaol as a terrorist. I was instantly into this faux-biographical novel, carried away by its sweeping epic tale and Altschul’s stylish narrative, fiction that is political but not polemic intrigues me. That was before I found the most fascinating thing about this novel, The Gringa really pivots on the contrast between two fictional stories and their intersections; Leo, explicitly portrayed, and Andres, the narrator, implicit in the telling of Leo’s story. Ostensibly this is the story of the north American rebel girl, Leonora Gelb, (or Andres version). Exploring whether she was a terrorist or a simple activist? A dupe, seduced and abused, or a true revolutionary? However, this is as much about Andres and the pit falls of laying a life bare in print. It can’t be done without the narrator imprinting something of the time, place and self into the tale, his bias and interpretation. No biography can be created that isn’t at least in part about the writer as well as the subject, Altschul explores this in his fiction.
So this is Leo’s story, The Gringa terrorist/activist, a sexy, potent protagonist, one small woman standing up to the weight of history but also it is the story of the way Andres sees her, the way we see her through his eyes, the two may not be the same. The question the novel appears to address is what turns an ordinary, kind hearted, responsible college girl into a terrorist? But that isn’t what is going on here at all. We never quite get to that, not fully, not convincingly, that would matter if this was a thriller, but it’s not what Altschul wants to get to in my opinion. The inner truth we find is more likely to be our own than Leo’s. The Gringa is more about the author’s reinvention of character and presentation of history as a reflection of his values, his schooling, his thinking, it’s the reinvention of a person, which, once in print, is as indelible as the reality whether it matches or not. The meaning of words such as terrorist, or partisan, activist or even democracy shift through time and from place to place, they can’t be pinned down. They can only be interpreted at any given point, meaning floats, it is not fixed. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, one age’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. This central meditation on the fluidity of ‘truth’ distinguishes it from other accounts of well off, middle class, young people from settled wealthy parts of the world seeking adventure in troubled poorer countries, becoming rebels, terrorists, freedom fighters – we’ve seen that before. The narrator’s tale can’t be separated from the author’s tale because it can’t be separated from the environment it’s created in. I like this pondering on the nature of history, the past, a life is opaque, it is what we make of it not what actually happened that is what we believe.
The backdrop is South American politics, and recent Peruvian history; Shining Path, Maoism, war, rebellion, dictatorship, repression and economic crisis. The preface to The Gringa appears in the guise of an author’s note, eleven pages that throws out more by way of story than some novels manage in their entirety. Gringa is a meaty political and personal tale, just be aware of who’s personal story we are reading, Leo’s? Andres? And, what does it’s telling say about us?:
“I suppose it’s also true that my background, my obsessions personal concerns, play a role, whatever my best intentions.” [Andres]
Leonora Gelb, Leo to her family, Comrade Linda to her revolutionary compatriots, hates America:
“She hated it’s heart and soul, its sick mind and its flabby diseased body.”
Lima 25th August, 1998. The day of the ‘infamous press conference’, where the regime unveiled the foreign combatant to the press, a little ‘girl’ between two heavily armed soldiers, snarling at the tamed press corp., like a: ‘Doberman on a leash’. She has been in prison for three days, abused, raped, beaten, normal for a Peruvian prison, yet she is still defiant, contemptuous of a country that abuses it’s own people the way Peru does.
“The real danger to Peruvians is not the Cuarta Filosofia, it’s their own government! The worst violence in this country is state violence!”
Leo’s clenched fist masking her vulnerability, betrayal and innocence:
“How to explain this incongruity, to bridge the gap between the bedraggled figure and her iron fury? How to sort out the truth from the lies?” (already loaded with judgement, opinion)
Ten years on the writer tells us he has to piece together Leonora’s life, the ‘real’ Leo. He tells us he’s doesn’t feel qualified for this task, the first sign that this novel is not exclusively about its subject but also its narrator. Her mother says Leo wouldn’t harm a fly, her ‘sweet, brilliant child’. So did this studious, intelligent, thoughtful young woman become a die hard revolutionary, is she a champion of the down trodden, a stooge, a mercenary, a criminal, a lover, a terrorist?
Middle class and Jewish Leonora Harriet was born on 9th August, 1971, to David and Maxine Gelb of Cannondale, New Jersey. At Stanford she met controversial political historian, Gabriel Zamir. Zamir was assumed to be the one who put her in touch with Cuarta Filosofia, one of the militant groups that brought Peru to the brink of collapse in the 90s. He always denied it but spoke up about the deplorable way she was treated after her arrest in a raid in which six of her comrades were killed. Her fate was sealed by that press conference. The President called her a demon, waving her American passport, equating the revolutionary with a CIA stooge as if she could be both. Was this a Zionist conspiracy? Her trial in a covert military court was a forgone conclusion, Leo was sent to El Arca, the notorious military prison, 14,000 feet above sea level, thin air, bitter cold, it left her with many health problems.
She wanted to talk about injustice, they wouldn’t let her be heard. Was she the girlfriend of Augustín Dueñas? Did she know her friend Angelica Ramos was Shining Path? Where is Mateo Peña? Is she a terrorist? Years later what will the people shouting at her think of her actions? How will she see them herself, differently – more kindly, harsher?
Was Leo a terrorist, capable of armed attacks, of bombings, of overthrow of the government, of killing, was she prepared to die? How did she feel? They wanted to know if she slept with all the other revolutionaries, she asked; ‘is it terrorism to hate injustice?’ The headlines read:
¡YO SOY TERRORISTA!
Why did Leo hate America? It’s hypocrisy, insincerity, the unshakeable and wholly wrong belief it’s a force for good; “It meant someone, somewhere else, was dying for you.” What became of the activist? An act of violence in the desert, a shanty town, where the poor tapped the electric supply illegally, no running water, the garbage dump was the toilet too, no one should live like this. The bulldozers crushed the place just before Christmas ’97, Leo witnessed it. She wanted to fight, everyone else knew they had to get The Gringa out of there, (Gringo narcissism).
“How do you know my name?”
“Everybody knows your name. You’re the Gringa. The one who came to help us.”
College arrests, Guzmán is captured, the Cuarto Filosofia goes into hiding, they plan, plot but gradually it becomes more about Andres and how he sees Leo, an idealised version of the real woman, how he reinvents her to suit his image of what she was, who he wants her to be.
The novel has an epic quality, the style is fragmentary. Andres says he lacks objectivity; “qualities natural to responsible journalists, seem not to be my strengths.” But no one tells this kind of story without an angle. Is there a truth to be found? Who’s truth would that be? How do we separate a myth from reality, can one supersede the other, is meaning simply a political football? The nature of history is under the microscope, answers are rarer than questions, confusion is common.
This is a very readable book despite the complex ambition of the author, it’s fun, exhilarating, provoking. The tour de force is the psychological portrait of the biographer, Andres, still it’s only one version of Andres.
Paul Burke 4/3*
The Gringa by Andrew Altschul
9781612198224 Melville House Hardback March 2020