Felix Chacaltana Saldivar is an unlikely hero. A naïve, paper-pushing bureaucrat in Ayacucho, Peru, Chacaltana reminds one a bit of Norman Bates, with his creepy fetish for a deceased mother. But Chacaltana, an associate prosecutor seemingly at the center of numerous murders, becomes more a victim than a criminal in this thriller/political novel.
Author Santiago Roncagliolo starts Red April with the discovery of a mutilated, incinerated body. In charge of his first murder investigation since leaving Lima, Chacaltana attempts to do his usual “proper” investigation – in other words, a cursory handling that lacks any true substance. In this case, however, he remains haunted by disturbing details. Chacaltana fears that Sendero terrorists are most likely responsible for this death, even though the chain of command (the ambitious and egotistical Captain Pacheco, two-faced Judge Briceno, and the father-figure, Commander Carrion), insist that there are no longer terrorist cells operating in Peru in the year 2000.
It is amusing how dense Chacaltana is as his superiors strive to keep him from pursuing or publicizing his suspicions. With the help of Faustino Posada, the cigarette-smoking, chocolate-eating forensic pathologist, and the begrudging minutes allotted by the extremely busy Father Quiroz (the time frame is Holy Week), the bumbling prosecutor comes ever closer to the truth as the body count advances. As Chacaltana realizes that those who are dying have all spoken with him, he
“suddenly felt guilty of a death. It never would have occurred to him that one could be responsible for a death just like that, by default, without having done anything to produce it. Perhaps he was not the only one guilty. Perhaps there were more, in fact, perhaps he lived in a word where everyone was guilty of something.”
Counterbalancing the investigations is the developing romance of Chacaltana and Edith, the new waitress at the prosecutor’s usual restaurant. As the relationship progresses, we also see the changes that both fear and power are exacting in Chacaltana – a microcosm of what happens to a population living through an age of terrorism and police brutality.
Extremely well-written with a touch of humor offsetting the gore, Red April enlightens as it entertains. In addition to learning about the sins of the Fujimori administration, military and Shining Path revolutionaries, readers gain perspective on Peruvian Holy Week celebrations from both the institutional religious viewpoint, and the native belief in ancient tales.
Roncagliolo became the youngest winner of the prestigious Alfaguara Prize (for Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American literature) when he was awarded it in 2006 for this novel. He is also the author of the novel Prudishness, a biography of Abimael Guzman (the leader of the Shining Path guerillas), numerous short stories, plays and children’s books. Award-winning translator Edith Grossman (perhaps best known for her work on Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera), does her usual exemplary job with this novel.