The thrill of uncertainty

Santiago RoncaglioloI had three reasons for choosing Red April or Abril rojo on my reading list. One, this novel had won its Spanish author, Santiago Roncagliolo, the prestigious Premio Alfaguara, the highest Spanish language literary award, in 2006. Roncagliolo was the youngest writer to receive the award at the age of 31. Two, this is a Spanish original translated by Edith Grossman, the translator who introduced us to Garcia Marquez and Cervantes. The third reason was rather “Nobel” too; a literary report that claimed that Roncagliolo is the biggest challenge to Llosa on the Peruvian literary scene. In 2011, this novel won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Red AprilRed April is a fast-paced political thriller placed in Peru’s violent history in the year 2000. Set in the town of Ayacucho, a small city in the Andes ranges of South Peru and in a time frame of a run-up to Easter, the backdrop is rather relevant. Ayacucho was the cradle and playground for the 1980s Maoist, rustic guerrilla movement of Peru, the Shining Path or the Sendero Luminoso.

Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, Associate District Prosecutor, is the protagonist and what one might call a “consummate bureaucrat”. His chief joy in life is writing investigative reports, those dry inert brilliant ones which no one reads. The novel in fact opens with one of these strokes of “brilliance”: “On Wednesday, the eighth day of March, 2000, as he passed through the area surrounding his domicile in the locality of Quinua, Junstino Mayta Carazo discovered a body” — and how he goes on to describe a scorched torso.

But this is a man who cannot deal with a real investigation, nor can he deal with the routine and people in his life. His real world is rather distressed. His relationships with the women in his life, his ex-wife, his mother and his girlfriend aren’t really the uplifting kind. His life leaves him and he is obsessed by his mother’s memories and is in the process of creating a shrine for her in his house. In fact, till he takes on this rather bizarre case, Felix is a rather unremarkable person.

Soon we know that the caricature of this man is meant to be more than a mere character sketch. It leads us to visualise a society in which insurgency by a frustrated group of idealists and counter-insurgency by the rulers compete to impose terror on the common man. The hour also requires that these traces of terror be hidden to let the tourists arrive into a semblance of normalcy. The official line declares: “There is no terrorism, by orders from the top.”

Felix, also the narrator, is at the bottom rung of hierarchy when we meet him but the story moves along his vicissitudes. His chase heats up and it’s a serial killer that runs ahead. And Felix, who was to be a part of the solution, discovers the thin line that distinguishes a terrorist from a counter-terrorist. The sketch of Felix is resplendent with the classic elements of black comedy. The ordinariness of Felix is a stark outline against the gross violence that marks the progress of the story. What differentiates right from wrong in a political context is a universal concern. Our protagonist echoes this sentiment, “We waged a just war, that is undeniable, but sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy, and when that happens, I begin to ask myself what exactly it is that we fought against.”

The climax is a tight one and the build-up to suspense is excellent, with not a single moment of let-down. Roncagliolo breaks free of the mantle of magic realism of his literary predecessors from Latin America, and writes in an easy style. He narrates a straight story of a society with little hope, yet his craft is simply beautiful and doesn’t make your creative juices of comprehension work overtime in an existentialist struggle.

Roncagliolo writes with the vision of a generation who “were not suspects or participants in their violent histories”. As he says in a press interview, “The 20th century was easy: You were a communist or a capitalist. But for my generation there was the fall of the Berlin Wall, then of Wall Street…” Edith Grossman proves her capability as a translator yet again in Red April. The legal, illiterate and noir are treated with a literary but readable exactitude that is simply brilliant.

In a capsule, the novel makes brilliant reading and Roncagliolo proves himself fit to carry the mantle of the Latin American greats. Quoting Roncagliolo from a Granta article, “Vargas Llosa has often said that he envies the certainties of the religious. I envy Vargas Llosa’s certainty. I would love to be that sure of something — of anything. But I think it’s precisely that lack of certainty that makes me a storyteller. My stories show a world without truth, where the line between good and evil has become very blurred.

Santiago Roncagliolo
Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman
288 pages.

Originally published in the Business Standard which you can read here.


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