Book review: Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

Red April
by Santiago Roncagliolo
translated by Edith Grossman
Atlantic, 2010; first published in Spain 2006

Red April, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize this year (2011) and the Premio Alfaguara de Novela prize in 2006, is a highly recommended book. Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to read it partly because of the cover (!) and partly because I already know something of the political history of various South American countries, via direct experience (Venezuela) or by reading (Venezuela again, Argentina, Bolivia and, without so much repressive violence, Brazil). Many years ago, reading the works of Isabelle Allende, starting with the searingly marvellous The House of the Spirits, was a rewarding but horrifying experience for me, only exacerbated by non-fiction such as The Open Veins of Latin America and various works of Che Guevara. Essentially, I’d had enough of the hopelessness of it all. (Not quite as good as her brilliant debut, but perhaps more relevant to the book under discussion here, is Allende’s second novel, Of Love and Shadows.)

Nevertheless, persuaded by various excellent reviews as much as its literary prizes, I decided to try Red April. It turns out to be a reverse Kafkaesque novel which opens with Felix Chaclanta Saldivar, a prosecutor in the provincial Peruvian town of Ayachuo, writing a brief but perfectly constructed report on a death in his jurisdiction. The corpse is burned beyond recognition and, via knowledge acquired at the post-mortem, has had its arm removed (before death). Chaclanta’s main problem, from his perspective, is that the police and judicial authorities (the military) will not perform their part in the bureaucracy: they will neither contribute their part to the official report nor acknowledge receipt of it when Chaclanta sends it on.

Chaclanta, a mild man we are led to believe, has a one-track mind on this topic, refusing to let the matter lie despite the fact that all the relevant authorities are too busy protecting their jobs, indulging in politics and cover-ups, or just plain lazy because they resent their postings away from Lima (the capital) to this provincial outpost. It is Chaclanta’s persistence, and the official reactions to it, that form the bulk of this “innocent abroad”-style narrative in which Chaclanta ignores all the evidence of oppression, injustice and violence around him in his goal of dotting his is and crossing his ts in his report – a goal that takes him to various locations (a remote village on election day, a high-security prison and so on) so we can witness the full corruption of the society in which he lives and observe the scales gradually falling from his eyes.

Apart from this slightly artificial method of narrative, Chaclanta’s personal life becomes clearer as the book continues. He has an obsessive relationship with his mother, which is rather repetitively described. He lacks ambition, we are told, hence his wife has previously left him and he’s been transferred to Ayachuo from a higher-profile job in Lima. His chance meeting with a waitress seems to offer him the opportunity for a fresh start, if only he could either find any time to spend with her or summon up the courage to take the relationship beyond that of a customer and a diner at the restaurant.

After a while, in a story punctuated with the discovery of more deaths and a more complete picture of the hierarchies of oppression in April 2000 in Peru – with the Indians at the bottom, the poor Peruvians slightly higher but not much, and the professional classes concerned with the twin aims of self-preservation and personal promotion – Chaclanta comes to a sudden realisation that the deaths are connected and may not be the action of random “terrorists” whose threat hangs like a miasma over everything. Chaclanta deduces that the perpetrator must be one person or group and the method of killing is related to an ancient legend. To his horror, he also believes that the victims are the very people he has met and questioned during his investigation. This galvanises him into various out-of-character actions which comprise the end of the novel – not least of which is a major misunderstanding that, by Chaclanta’s refusal to listen to any contrary evidence, leads to a predictable end for the most (only?) likeable character in the book. The ending, with the revelation of who has been writing the illiterate, “killer’s view”, letters that punctuate the main story, is unconvincing and flat, undermining the serious message of the novel – a message in which the method of the murders can be seen as an allegory for what has happened to Peru itself.

So what to make of Red April? Many reviewers have praised it for its political and cultural perspective on this cruel period in the country’s evolution. I personally learned nothing about these aspects that I did not previously know, but if you didn’t have any prior knowledge then I am sure Red April would be compelling on this account. As a crime novel, however, it is not of the quality that is common in the best of the genre – not least in the crazy plot resolution (perhaps meant to be a satire in itself, I am not sure). The translation seems excellent (apart from those “mind of the killer” passages but probably nothing could have saved those). There are quite a few gruesome descriptions which though hard-hitting are not offensive in context, as well as some tragic accounts of atrocities (and suffering mothers). In summary, although I don’t think Red April is a bad book by any means, it failed to engage me as I could not sympathise with the main character or become involved in the plot – although not a long book, it is a slow one – and I have to admit I am rather puzzled as to why the book, perhaps a 3/5 for me, has won a prestigious “mainstream” fiction award.

I borrowed this book from the library, but was previously sent a copy by Kim of Reading Matters blog. Her excellent review of the book is here.

Other reviews of Red April: The Complete Review (provides links to many other reviews), The Guardian (good review providing some details of the events in the background of the book), The Game’s Afoot, International Noir Fiction, To Be Read…, Mysteries in Paradise, The BookBag and The Crime Segments.

8 thoughts on “Book review: Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

  1. Maxine – Thanks for such an excellent review. I’ve debated whether to read this one. I’ve read raves of it and other reviews more negative than yours, mostly highlighting the same limitations you point out here. I still haven’t made up my mind, to be honest. But you’ve done a wonderful job with your review, and given me yet more to think about. I always find it interesting when a book generates such very different kinds of reviews..

  2. Not that all your reviews aren’t appreciated but this one especially so as I have been wondering about the book and had similar misgivings as you did. Thanks to what you have described I shan’t read this one.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your kind comments, which given the excellence of your own reviews and posts, I appreciate very much. I too like comparing different reviewers’ conclusions about a book (or do I mean differing concusions?!).

  4. An excellent commentary, Maxine – and thanks for mentioning my (enthusiastic) review. Although I have visited Peru, read a reasonable amount of South American fiction, and have a little factual knowledge, I found Red April hugely illuminating, giving a fresh perspective on incomprehensible events.

    I would concede most of the weaknesses you highlight but stand by my five stars and would be surprised if I am not still turning over these points when I get to the final stages of selecting my best reads of 2011. Which is rather fun…

  5. Politically, this seems like a good, informative book and an expose of many atrocities and corruption in Peru, which would probably benefit many readers.
    However, I know some of what went on and I’m not sure that I could deal with the violence portrayed in the book, although it’s probably and sadly, true. Also, the cover is bothersome, not what I want to be looking at in the wee hours when I’m reading.
    I think I’ll skip this one, glad to not tempt my credit card for once, nor add to the TBR Mount Kilimanjaro, which has tipped over so far that one more book and it’ll fall down.

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