Fiction – hardcover; Atlantic Books; 288 pages; 2010. Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.
Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo isn’t your usual crime novel. Perhaps it might be better to describe it as socio-political thriller. Whatever the case, it’s definitely hard boiled, as I guess you’d expect given it’s set in one of the most violent places on Earth: the city of Ayacucho in Peru, where the communist party (Shining Path) began its bloody reign of terror in 1980.
According to Wikipedia, Ayacucho is also famous for its 33 churches, one for every year of Jesus’ life. Holy Week, the religious festival held in the week before Easter, is a significant event on the calendar, and it is in this particular week of March 2000 that Red April is set. But the carnival-like atmosphere and the procession takes a back seat to the gruesome discovery of a burnt and mutilated body in a hayloft.
Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar is put onto the case. But he’s out of his depth and seems strangely at odds with the military and legal rulers to whom he must report. When more bodies turn up, suggesting a serial killer may be on the loose, Saldívar buries himself in paperwork (his preposterously written reports are included in the text) and unwittingly becomes mired in a corrupt investigation that looks likely to end in Saldívar’s own death.
His only saving grace appears to be the love of two women: his long-dead mother, to whom he’s built a shrine in the bedroom in which she used to sleep; and Edith, a local waitress, with whom he develops a fledgling romance.
But, for the most part, Saldívar’s story is an unrelentingly bleak, violent and oppressive one, only matched by the terror and barbarity of the guerilla war being waged around him. At times the book is incredibly shocking and disturbing, no more so than when Saldívar is sent to Yawarmayo, a rural outpost, to supervise the presidential elections. After a hellish seven-hour bus ride and a two-hour walk, he arrives to find slaughtered dogs hanging from the streetlights. The entire scene is described in all its gruesome, stomach-churning detail.
It’s hard to fault the brooding atmosphere of this novel, which builds and builds as more mutilated corpses are discovered. But the story felt strangely distant to me, as if I couldn’t quite engage with the characters, because I was too busy trying to make sense of the cruel and corrupt society in which it was set. Everything felt incredibly alien — and terrifying.
Red April is definitely not for the faint-hearted. It’s a very male book (there is little reference to females beyond their “use” as sexual objects and all the characters are macho and difficult to like) and is full of bloody violence and power struggles. There is not one ounce of hope in the narrative. I suspect those who like intelligent hard boiled crime novels will find a lot to like here, but if you’ve a weak stomach you might like to give this a miss.
Red April won the Alfaguara Prize, a prestigious literary award for an unpublished Spanish-language novel, in 2006.