Well, what mixed bag of opinions there were about Red April at my latest book group! I myself had very muddled feelings about this novel which I will try to explain as clearly as possible.
Red April is what I can best describe as a political thriller / serial killer novel written by Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo. From the cover and comments on the flyleaf I expected a murder investigation of a religiously motivated killer, but the plot is thicker than that. Roncagliolo sets the story amidst the heavy atmosphere of military rule under Alberto Fujimori (1999-2000). The story is set against the backdrop of violent ‘terrorist’ insurgent activity against heavyhanded, corrupt and downright confused rule by the state. When a man is brutally murdered, prosecutor Felix Chacaltana finds himself mired in a gruesome investigation.
I’m not sure if this is partly due to my reading this book when I was having a busy week but I did get a sense that it was quite disjointed. The story covers a wide variety of scenes and circumstances including a paricularly gruesome episode where Chacaltana is sent to a godforsaken village in the sticks where terrorists regularly attack and leave mutilated dogs hanging from posts as their calling card. While I found this fascinating reading I occasionally felt that the author was trying to pack too much in by making a not too subtle political commentary at the same time as constructing a complicated murder mystery. I really enjoy learning about the history and culture of a country through its literature, but not feeling that prior knowledge of the political circumstances are a prerequisite. I felt this about Red April and this made it more difficult for me to get a full picture of the motivations of different characters in the book.
That said, the story was gripping and I didn’t guess who the murderer was. I enjoyed being led down the garden path and was oblivious to the red herrings. While I didn’t like the character of the prosecuter I did think that he was an interesting protagonist and Roncagliolo took care to really develop his character. I found the story gruesome, perhaps satisfyingly so in the sense that it felt like a gritty expose of civilians living a hellish existence. I found myself wondering how on earth this could have been happening at the dawn of the millenium and I was completely oblivious.
So the reason why my rating for this book is so critical is not because it was badly written (which it wasn’t) and not because I didn’t find it insightful (I did), but because I feel that it had the potential to be really excellent but fell down somewhere. For me, Red April tried too hard to be a thriller and also say something meaningful so that neither aspects were as slick as they could have been. I also felt as if it could have subtly given me more background on Peruvian politics rather than assuming I should already. I probably should but then teaching people through fiction is an art which was only partially employed here. An eye-opening if slightly frustrating read for me.
6 out of 10
Have you read any books by Peruvian authors?