Monday, May 18, 2009

political crime novel/satire from Peru

Though pitched by the U.S. publisher (Pantheon) as a Peruvian political thriller, Santiago Roncagliolo's recently translated Red April (the translator is Edith Grossman, which is our--and the author's--good fortune). But Red April bears more resemblance to the dark satires of Evelyn Waugh than to the average political thriller. As in Waugh, the central character is an innocent, through whose eyes we see almost everything, even though it's a third-person narrative (there are a few passages from another point of view, that of a very bad speller, as well as an epilogue by another character). Associate Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar has requested a transfer from Lima to his former home in Ayacucho, and the novel begins with his very bureaucratic report on the discovery of a badly burned body. In his zeal to push the case forward, Félix runs up against a recalcitrant police captain as well as the local military commander, both of whom fail to understand Félix's drive to solve the case. Both the police and the military are avoiding the case as best they can, until Félix's persistence forces them to take another tack: they push the prosecutor into a dangerous duty that he unexpectedly survive, and then they use him as a sort of cat's paw in the larger pattern of politics, revolution, and counter-revolutionary repression. This is all happening during Holy Week (a big celebration in Ayacucho) in 2000, as elections (which President Fujimori will steal), in a time when the revolutionary campaign of the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso/Shining Path has been declared by the government to be defeated. Ayacucho, called the Seville of Peru, is between the colonial capital, Lima, and the Inca capital, Cuzco, and was also a center of the war between the government and the insurrection. Its centrality to all of Peru's political and religious stories is an essential quality of the novel.

Holy Week provides a structural and metaphorical frame and the corrupt government and the perhaps not-so-defeated revolutionaries provide a narrative metaphor linked to the larger history of Peru's conflicts going back to the Spanish defeat of the Inca empire. And the tone of the novel (which is comic in a very dark, Waugh-ian way) is provided by the ironic distance between Félix's sincere devotion to the letter of the law (more bureaucratic than ideological on his part) and the reality that the reader (but not Félix) can glimpse. Félix does learn as he goes along, but rather than becoming a hero, our original pity for him turns into something else as the political and personal environment in which he is trapped poisons his life. Félix is devoted to his mother (and there will be revelations about that relationship), he is isolated in the dangerous city he has chosen to live in, and his horizons are very narrow. The comic dimension rather than any identification with the character draws the reader along until the full impact of the metaphorical/political and even mythical dimensions deliver the novel's considerable impact. Red April is a good example of literary craft that embodies and extends a popular genre without condescending to it, and the novel is a substantial achievement at all levels (literary, satirical, crime novel, thriller), making its demonic conclusion all the more effective. As an aside, it's interesting that the U.S. cover uses a quiet (though very red) symbol of Ayachucho's Holy Week while the Spanish edition uses the collision of Catholic and indigenous cultures in a more graphic way--I'm actually not sure which I prefer...

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