June 13, 2010


by Santiago Roncagliolo
271 pages, Atlantic Books

Review by Marc Nash

I invested in this book on the strength of a review I read. I hope I can transmit the same fervour to you now having read it. Forget your "2666", this is as they say in the Old World, 'the dog's bollocks'.

Red April is set in the post civil conflict of Peru, with Sendero Luminoso's (a Year Zero Communist guerilla movement) leader Abimael Guzman jailed and the movement having faded away. Sendero's campaign was brutal, as was the government's counter-insurgency to meet it. Guzman himself and some of the ideology of the group suggest much of mystic Cults. Sendero Luminoso itself means "Shining Path".

The book takes place over the prolonged Easter celebrations in Ayacucho province, the founding place of Sendero, as the country tries to settle back down to rhythms determined by agriculture and Catholicism. A partially burned body missing a limb is discovered and Assistant Prosecutor Felix Chalcaltana Saldivar is given his first serious crime to handle. Saldivar is a very middling functionary, adept only at writing reports. There is humour, pathos and slight lunacy in his relationship to his mother, written into his character. He is a middle class everyman, adrift from the bucolic peasants and the churls in the police force.

The author effortlessly conducts us via his protagonist through the Kafka-like bureaucracy that undermines his role at every turn. From stationary requisitions, to the system of grace and favours in order both to attain the ever dangled promise of promotion (and a "Datsun") and even to gain access to seeing a superior in rank in the course of your work. This is the Third World depicted in all its corrupt, feckless venality and it's no surprise it's where a revolutionary ideology sought to sweep everything away and revive the soul of its ground down people.

Saldivar is a naif steered increasingly blindly into the strange world of the case itself. Without revealing spoilers, he is cast between the Scylla and Charybdis of both the authorities and terrorists playing him. Gradually he has his eyes opened and through him the author guides us into some fascinating territory whereby the forces engaged against one another are far larger than the mere fate of these mortals. For this is an eternal battle being fought out across centuries, even if the uniforms and the weapons of the two hosts have changed. This is ancient Andean gods of blood sacrifice and renewal as much as Sendero, and the more recently imposed Catholic God. "We want to live forever. That is why we save bodies for resurrection". In order for either to offer renewal and resurrection, it has to deny the other, by cutting up their body and preventing it ever coming back together again. A chilling notion. This is a war of back and forth. No one can win it. It is as ingrained a rhythm as the seasons. This is the analysis, the context I felt was missing in Bolano's interminable chapter of murdered women. "This is the history of a country" and it really is. Sendero have been beaten, but the violence lurks everywhere, threatening to break out again like a prairie wildfire.

Saldivar is sucked into increasingly desperate behaviour as the pressure and the death toll mounts. By the end, this carefully constructed figure who elicited our sympathies at the outset, has sacrificed them all and falls apart. Now the question being asked seems to be, do all men possess these innate animal tendencies (what we used to call evil) just waiting to be triggered, or can even decent men be brutalised by their surroundings into committing heinous deeds? I did think the author lost a modicum of his sure-handedness in his treatment of this right at the end, when he did lurch over to one side of the debate, but still the build up towards it is superbly woven.

Whether you know anything about recent Peruvian history or not is immaterial. This book is germane to all Latin America and should hopefully lay to rest the sentimentality of magical realism that has long had its day as a cipher into the complexities of the region. Peru is a big cocaine exporter to the US, put that in your magical realism pipe and smoke it. The author deservedly won the prestigious Alfaguara prize for Spanish literature with this debut novel and is the youngest ever winner, two notable achievements.

See, reviews can lead you to a rewarding read. I think this is my favourite new book so far this year. And considering it doesn't do anything tricksy with its form, that is saying something coming from me.

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