Book Review | Red April

Decorated Peruvian author makes his English-language debut, and Rose Lapira finds this brutal but 'easy to read' narrative engrossing.

Santiago Roncagliolo has published other works in Spanish, with Red April winning the prestigious Alfaguara Prize.
Santiago Roncagliolo has published other works in Spanish, with Red April winning the prestigious Alfaguara Prize.

While plenty of literary awards thrive on hype, I still believe them to be important when it comes to attracting the reading public to new books: more so in the case of international books translated into English. Novels coming from outside the Anglo-Saxon sphere serve to give us an insight into worlds which would otherwise be alien to us.

Red April by Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo is such a book. Described as 'a novel that will grip, excite, disturb and challenge all its readers', it won the UK Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011.

The author has published other works in Spanish, and Red April has already won the prestigious Alfaguara Prize, but with this translation he makes his debut in the English-speaking world. It is interesting to note that the £10,000 award is split between author and translator, in this case the celebrated Edith Grossman (well known for her translation of Cervantes).

Born in Lima in 1975, Roncagliolo's family left Peru for a time, but returned in the 80s.  At the time, still a child, war was all around him and he grew up with curfews, bombs and corpses on the streets. A savage war was raging between the Maoist insurgents of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and government counter-terrorists. It is estimated that during this period more than 70,000 people were killed.

In 1993, Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa describes this period in his novel Death in the Andes (also translated by Edith Grossman). Roncagliolo's novel Red April is set in 2000, in the aftermath of two decades of guerilla war and counter-terrorism.

The events recounted take place in the short time leading to and including Holy Week, to Easter Sunday. The protagonist, Felix Chacaltana Salvidar, an associate district prosecutor, is sent from Lima to Ayachucho, which is in the rural area that had seen much violence by and against terrorists.

Salvidar, a quiet and conscientious eccentric, is sent to investigate a horrible murder: a burnt, mutilated corpse is found on Ash Wednesday. He follows procedures meticulously, questioning the local population and sending in reports. Soon, more bizarre murders begin to take place, with corpses turning up with missing limbs and other savage mutilations. Though he believes the victims are linked to the senderisti, he has to abandon this line of investigation, for the official line is: 'there is no terrorism by order from on top'.

During Holy Week, Ayachucho is renowned for its 10-day celebrations, when Indian rituals are combined with Christian traditions. In Andean legend, Holy Week becomes one with the mythical resurrection of the Incan Empire. Many people come for the festivities, including tourists. So Salvidar is pressed to close his case as quickly as possible, and to regard the murders as the work of a serial killer.

The prosecutor keeps on interrogating people but finds that these are ending up dead, even when he questions a terrorist in prison.

The author at one time worked for the Human Rights Commission, and had interviewed many terrorists held in prisons, so he has first-hand experience of these interviews. However, Roncagliolo says that while similar facts, as found in his book, did actually happen, the story is to be seen as a work of fiction.

Readers may be tempted to see this story as belonging to the crime genre. But is this really a thriller, or more of a political novel? The author raises moral issues on the ambiguous nature of conflicts; on the fine line that separates good from evil. Terrorists and counter-terrorists often behave in the same way. Political violence is paramount, and the only certainty in people's lives is death, which bestrides the country, like Goya's colossus, leaving destruction in its wake.

Even our naïve, pedantic protagonist, who preserves his dead mother's room and talks to her daily, discovers a capacity for erupting violence, when he encounters the sweet young  Edith. After brutally raping her, he reflects that 'he had not been looking for sex but for a kind of power, a kind of domination, the feeling that something was weaker than he was, that in the midst of this world that wanted to swallow him whole, he too could have strength, potency, victims'.

Violence begets violence, and I agree completely with the author who said that this book is 'a meditation on violence in a political context'. Red April is worth reading, if one (not the faint hearted) wants to know about the nature of conflicts, all conflicts, and the ever escalating violence they beget. This is not just about a difficult period in Peru's recent past. The book is also well-written and easy to read; and is presented in an excellent translation, as one has come to expect from Edith Grossman.