Red April – Santiago Roncagliolo

I would never have imagined back at the start of the year that I would end up reading a Peruvian political thriller. However it is thanks to Armen’s latest choice for the face to face book group I am in, the Riverside Readers, that I had no choice but to give the book a whirl. I was slightly worried that I would be out of my depth with this one. I threw myself in regardless though because I always like to finish a book group book, it’s a rare book that I will give up on, which one was this?

Opening ‘Red April’ and reading the first report from our protagonist Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar (quite a mouthful) I wasn’t quite sure what this book was going to be about as the cover so heavily makes you think this is going to be some highly religious book. However reading the report of a murder, by burning, you get the instant impression that this is going to be a thriller. In reality you get a little bit of both but one the whole, for me at least, you are also getting a glimpse into the cultural turbulence of Peru, something I didn’t really know that much about.

However the burnt body is the first in a series of killings during Holy Week in Ayacucho all baring striking similarities soon Felix believes he is on the trail of a serial killer which leads him into the offices of politicians, the crypts of priests, police stations and prisons and through all walks of life as he tries to solve the mystery. This of course gives Roncagliolo the perfect way of showing you how things are in Peru from girls who have to marry their rapists, the terrorism outside of the main cities and the corruption. Some could say it’s a biased view and yet you get the feeling the only sides there are out there are the bad and the worse. Back to the plot, well I don’t want to give too much away. I will say that it starts slowly but surely before building to a heady, verging on almost confusing, climax which you won’t expect – despite the fact there are quite a lot of clues from the start.

Interestingly for me one of the books weaknesses and strengths is Felix himself. From the start you know there is something not quite right about him, starting with the obsession with his dead mother (which I found both creepy and quite fascinating) the feeling of needing to be recognized for who he is and what he does. It seems to be a common theme in thrillers; your protagonist needs to be a little bit messed up, maybe a loner. Is this not at the same time therefore rather a cliché? In being the way he is I found it rather unbelievable when he starts dating a much younger girl, Edith, who becomes fairly pivotal yet the meeting and pairing is so unlikely (maybe it’s the dish of guinea pig involved) that it undermined the tale for me and niggled at me throughout.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was something that I am unsure if was the fault of an editor, the author or the translator (Edith Grossman translates this beautifully) but why on earth did we need to be introduced to Felix with his full title of Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar almost every time a chapter started, or on occasion a new paragraph. It’s a small thing but again it broke the spell of the novel and began to irritate. This was a shame for me as it took me away from what was a rather gripping dark story that I wanted to get enthralled with and could never quite. I would recommend it though, it’s something different and you will learn all about Peru which makes for eye opening and sometimes shocking reading. 7/10

I am getting a little bit wary that I am using the expression ‘I have never read anything quite like this’ a lot on the blog over the last few weeks, I honestly haven’t though again in this case. I am actually seeing it as a good sign I can’t compare too many of the books I have read with others. I think it shows both through book groups and also through my reading in general I am pushing myself a little bit more and trying more out. Maybe I am fooling myself? What books have you read that have pushed you out of your comfort zone of late?


Filed under Atlantic Books, Book Group, Review

21 responses to “Red April – Santiago Roncagliolo

  1. Hmmm… I don’t believe I’ve read anything Peruvian so this sounds like a good one to start with. Introducing the character with his full title all the time would get annoying, I would definitely agree – I feel it would break the reading. That being said, I love the idea of seeing into the workings of Peru!

    • We discussed the introducing the character by his title each and every time at the book group and some people said its just the way some latin writers are, its like a cultural thing. So I forgive it that… a little bit lol.

  2. winstonsdad

    llhaso is only peruvian i ve read ,outside my comfort zone oh just starting cites of salt by jordanian writer munif it fairly long and seems little different ,all the best stu

    • I have read no Jordianian writers it has to be said Stuart. I am wondering actually if I should make a list of countries which I have not read any authors from and seeing how I can get through more.

  3. We have a pet guinea pig, and could never imagine eating him (even though I know they do that in South America). The horror! Rufus is to be loved and adored! Honestly, I’d seen this book everywhere and thought it was something religious. At least now I stand corrected. One thing that drives me a little bit nuts with thrillers is the cliche of the psycho. Has a dysfunctional relationship with mom, has religious fanatic tendencies, is a loner, yada, yada, yada. That may be the profile, but I’m tired of reading about it.

    • They don’t do it in all of South America I have been reliably informed by The Converted One, well they certainly don’t in Brazil to his knowledge!

      I found there were a fair few cliche’s in this one. I enjoyed it but sometimes felt it was written to a formula that would make it sell. The religion angle etc.

  4. This sounds VERY interesting. I’ll have to check it out. I’ve never read a Peruvian novel that wasn’t by Mario Vargas Llosa.

    • I haven’t read Llosa but I have one of his about the war between Peru and Brazil which I will be reading for my ‘Reading for Brazil’ sort of mini challenge.

  5. My mom is from Peru’. My aunt ate churichis (fried ants – tastes like bacon.) I don’t think my family has eaten the guinea pig.

    The name: A person’s name tells a lot about the person. The first last name is that of the father and the second of the mother. My mom knows people who have changed the mom’s part of the name to gain acceptance or because the combination of the last names don’t sound “right”. One family who changed their name was the PAN DURO family; the combined last name means hard/tough bread 🙂

    The title of the person means a lot also. Thus, the repetition of the whole name and title, so you don’t forget whom you are reading about.

    (The thing with the last names and title apply to most of the Americas, except the US and Canada.)

    Marrying the rapist – haven’t heard about that, but it’s possible.

    Terrorist – Shining Path and the other gangs started in the provinces. There is a lot of poverty and the hope of a better society through Communism sounds great.

    Dating – a large age difference is common. My godfather was in his late 30s when he married; the bride was 18 or so.

    • Thank you so much for all that Isabel because its made the book make a little more sense.

      I hope you didnt think I was being anti-Peru in my review as thats not the case and I love learning about other cultures. I was asking The Converted Ones lots of questions but told ‘Brazil and Peru aren’t the same Simon’ oops.

  6. Reading certainly opens doors doesn’t it. This one certainly look interesting.

    Re “I have never read anything quite like this” – that’s one of the pleasures of reading and presumably makes us more rounded individuals. In the last month I’ve read about Catalonian peasants, Siberian gangsters and Finnish cartoonists.

    • It does indeed Tom and as I mentioned to Stu above I really want to figure out which countries I have not read any authors from and see if I can change that. I think America, India, the UK and Japan would do very well I am not so sure about the rest of the world.

      I do like it when I can say I have never read anything like this, though with this book the more I have thought about it the more I have realised I actually have.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this one. If you liked this then I recommend seeking out other books that have been translated by Edith Grossman – she really is the Queen of Spanish translation!

    • I have heard she is the queen of all sorts of translations, she was on the radio the other day which was really interesting. I did like this, it didn’t blow me away but I found it insightful and it made for great conversation.

  8. I appreciated reading this one, because it introduced me to an entire world/political system I was not familiar with, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

    • I quite enjoyed it at the time of reading it and then once I had finished it I started to be a little annoyed by all the cliche’s that I had spotted along the way. Glad I read it though, was sorry you missed the discussion.

  9. cmgmac

    Am in the middle of reading the book right now, and am absolutely hooked. I spent a month in Peru last year, and a lot of what Roncagliolo describes matches what I learnt, heard, or saw for myself in the country — the tension between the Spanish-speaking authorities and the Quechua-speaking ‘indígenas’, the time-wasting paper-chases of police bureaucracy, even the (perfectly normal) eating of ‘cuy’ or guinea pig! Anyone who enjoys this book and wants another window into Peru’s not-so-distant past might like to read MArio Vargas Llosa’s ‘Death in the Andes’ … same background of Senderista insurgency.

    • I don’t have that Llosa sadly as I would love to learn much more about Peru. It sounds like having been there really gives you that extra flavour into the book! It was something we all picked up on with the book but yet in the same vein you never got Peru described in too much detail.

  10. In Peru, Vargas Llosa would not be “Llosa” because that would be his mother’s name. They use both of his last names because by themselves they are common names and they wouldn’t identify him. VL, like Roncagliolo (he doesn’t need two names because the name of his father is very unusual) exploits the exoticism of explaining violence by ancient rituals and religion. The sendero movement was founded by a college professor of European ethnicity and at least half of the violence of those years was done by the police and military. It’s a very complicated time in history, perhaps not best described by “magic realism”

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