Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Gonzo factor detracts from real political issues
THE Devil's Curve in the title of this ambitious but frustrating book is a bend in the main highway through the resource-rich area of Peru near the Amazon.
One day in June 2009, army commandos camouflaged themselves on a hill overlooking the bend, while other soldiers marched towards the thousands of Awajun natives blockading the road.
The Awajun had been protesting for 57 days against the granting of oil and mining licences to foreign corporations, including Canadian companies, on their historic lands.
Arno Kopecky watched the resulting violent clash, caught on video by local journalists, on his TV in Vancouver, where he was "an unemployed journalist, broke and adrift."
Deciding he had "nothing better to do," he applied for and received a $20,000 grant from the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation for a "closer look" at development issues in Peru and neighbouring Colombia, with a focus on Canada's role.
While he has written for prominent newspapers and magazines, including the Globe and Mail and Maclean's, this is Kopecky's first book.
It is an eclectic blend of travelogue, character study, political history and personal journey.
The book's greatest strength is Kopecky's ability to gain the trust of his sources, who invite the gringo into their homes and into their confidence.
Not only does he hear from the articulate, well-educated leaders of the native groups, he travels far into the jungle and talks to ordinary villagers who were at Devil's Curve that day.
"The moment the attack began, I saw them shooting my children! My brothers! My sisters! They beat us up and shot us from the land and from the air, even though we were unarmed," Tomasita Tatse told him.
"Everyone I knew who was shot, was shot in the back. We were running away and they shot us in the back."
Despite such powerful eyewitness anecdotes, Kopecky repeatedly casts doubt on the native death toll, while accepting and emphasizing the death of several dozen soldiers and police officers at the hands of the natives.
Killing each other is deeply ingrained in the South American psyche, Kopecky says, tracing officially sanctioned violence from the Spanish conquerors through the 1928 slaughter of striking workers by the United Fruit Company, political kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s and then violence surrounding the cocaine trade.
Through it all, ordinary Peruvians and Colombians, native and Spanish-descended alike, suffer the deaths and injuries caused by the crossfire.
The book's biggest shortfall is the author's failure to deliver what he promised on the Canadian connection.
His visit was inspired, he says, by Canada's negotiation of free-trade agreements with both Peru and Colombia. Only the U.S. has a stronger presence in Peru than Canada. A Canadian mining company was at the centre of the Devil's Curve clash.
All that determination to get to the bottom of Canadian complicity in the violence disappears once the author gets there.
Kopecky gives us way too much information on how much he had to drink and how hungover he got. He even goes on a trip, a la Carlos Castaneda, courtesy of ayahuasca, the local hallucinogen made from Amazon plants.
Even when he finally arrives in the region close to the Canadian mining operation, he only describes its blasting in the distance.
He doesn't go there to see it, nor does he speak to any of its officials, in Peru or back in Canada.
This book would be much better if Kopecky had stuck more to his original plan to produce solid investigative journalism, and been less distracted by the temptations of Hunter S. Thompson-style gonzo journalism.
Donald Benham is the director of hunger and poverty awareness at Winnipeg Harvest.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 J8
(1 of 23 articles for this week)