I was very excited to get my hands on Santiago Roncagliolo’s Red April. Knowing shamefully little about Latin American literature, but feeling the need to broaden my horizons beyond the ubiquitous Roberto Bolaño and Daniel Alarcón, it seemed a good place to start. Roncagliolo is the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Spanish Alfaguara prize, and is included Granta’s current issue of ‘’The best of young Spanish language novelists”, so I had high hopes for Red April, and I’m pleased to report that it did not disappoint.
Plot-wise, it’s a murder mystery with a political twist. Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar (aka Chacaltana) becomes obsessed with solving a spate of killings which occurs in the town of Ayacucho around Carnival time – holy week in the year 2000. He fears a resurgence of Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), the violent communist guerrilla movement which was active in Peru during the 1980s, and which had its base in the regions surrounding Ayacucho.
Chacaltana is a well meaning but naïve, faintly ludicrous functionary, optimistically looking out for signs of progress in his beloved but damaged country. He has what could be described as an unhealthy relationship with his dead mother: he keeps a room in his house dedicated to her, in which he has recreated her bedroom as he remembers it from his childhood. He talks to her frequently, choosing a photograph to accompany him at the table as he eats. Chacaltana’s mother died in an accident, unlike many of the book’s ghosts who died on account of the war.
“The prosecutor … remembered how difficult it is to question Quechua speakers, especially if they also do not feel like talking. And they never feel like talking. They are always afraid of what might happen. They do not trust anybody.”
About half way through the real horribleness starts to kick in with a string of bloody and gruesome serial murders, and it’s all the more striking after the comedy of the preceding chapters. Chacaltana’s mission brings him up against state lethargy and more deep-seated resistance as he tries to cajole police and military into doing their part to get to the bottom of the crimes.
“The prosecutor brought his handkerchief to his mouth in anticipation of what lay underneath. The light flickered. No one had fixed it since the last time. No one would ever fix it. The pathologist uncovered the table. This time the body was not as decomposed as the last time. It was a recent corpse, unburned, the body still bruised by the onset of rigor.”
Red April’s reality is a complex and absurd one, in which echoes of Peru’s troubled past collide with new imperatives. Chacaltana is climbing the ranks, or he is completely screwed. Terrorists are outwitted by military experience, or innocent villagers are oppressed by depraved colonels. Terrorism does not exist, but it must be covered up at all costs. At a certain point it turns out that ‘little Chacaltana’ is in fact an intellectual (he eventually solves the murders but it doesn’t do him any good).
It feels like a fresh take, the product of a sophisticated interpretation of issues which, although taken from Peru’s recent history, are relevant far beyond. But the book wears its intelligence lightly; if its only purpose is to entertain, it’s happy with that. Roncagliolo’s writing transitions skilfully between dryly funny, surrealist narrative; pompous bureaucracy-speak and the illiterate scrawlings of a would-be serial killer – and none of it seems to have been lost in Edith Grossman’s excellent translation.
Any Cop?: The first book I read in 2011, and it may well be the best. Read this even if you don’t feel the need to broaden your horizons – it’s truly excellent.