Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Santiago Roncagliolo's "Red April" is a hybrid: it is a novel about Peruvian people, their recent history, culture, and politics, but also a crime drama (a whodunit) about the search for an exceedingly brutal serial killer. The book has been highly praised by critics and won a prestigious award for the best Spanish language novel in 2006. Alas, I am ambivalent about Mr. Roncagliolo's work. While the political/social side of the book indeed is close to a masterpiece, the mystery aspect - although promising and enthralling up to about midpoint of the book - deteriorates eventually into a silly jumble of gratuitous plot twists.
Felix Chacaltana Saldivar serves as a prosecutor in Ayacucho, Peru. A badly burned body with an arm removed is found and Mr. Chacaltana is assigned the case that will bring further gruesome murders with mutilations. The criminal plot is not that important, though; it serves only as a sort of foundation underpinning the essential themes of the novel.
The story takes place between March and May of 2000, several years after the collapse of the guerilla war started in 1980 by the Communist Party of Peru, better known as Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path). Yet some guerilla fighters still remain active despite the government's proclamations that the terrorist movement has been totally eradicated during the brutal military crackdown of the 1990s. To me the major theme of "Red April" is the vanishing of moral boundaries between terrorism and counterterrorism. Sendero Luminoso guerillas used extreme violence to further their goals; the military forces fighting the insurgents used equally brutal violence and committed numerous human rights abuses. The peasants (campesinos) suffered the most during the war and during the crackdown, from both sides.
Ayacucho, whose name roughly means "dead corner" in Quechua, the language of indigenous Andean people, is famous for being the site of the decisive 1824 battle of the Peruvian War of Independence. It was also used by Sendero Luminoso as the base for their campaign against the government. One can learn a lot about the indigenous peoples' culture as the story is punctuated with colorful descriptions of religious holidays observances, from the end of carnival, through Lent, to the end of the Holy Week. Mr. Roncagliolo vividly portrays the parades and colorful processions, which feature carpets of flowers, hundreds of mules and llamas and which attract numerous tourists. To me, the most fascinating theme of the novel is the amalgamation of the Christian tradition with the indigenous people's beliefs and customs.
Mr. Chacaltana comes off as quite a strange person. While I understand the author's reasons for his main character's transformation, I am afraid it is not convincingly written. The prosecutor is well portrayed at the beginning, but towards the end he becomes somewhat of a caricature, a vessel to carry the author's message.
Two brutal and graphic scenes close to the novel's ending are poignantly sad, yet the meandering plot obliterates the haunting images. Why spoil a very good novel with ridiculous plot twists? Why do so many authors believe that when writing a mystery they have an obligation to make sharp turns at the end?
Three and a half stars.
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