Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo

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.

My rating:
6 out of 10

Have you read any books by Peruvian authors?

3 responses to “Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo

  1. I’m sorry to have missed the discussion for this one.

    Like you, I struggled with this book. I found I had to read it in large chunks, and I also had to go to the wiki page about Peruvian political history so that I could understand the background of what was going on.

    I thought it was horribly gruesome and shocking in places. It made me angry, too, because of the tyranny, terrorism and military rule. But it made me think about so many different things I’ve not really considered before: for instance, how prepared would I be to stand up for what I believe in if it meant I might be executed?

    But as a good, entertaining read, I’m afraid I didn’t like it much. I’m still tossing up whether to give it two stars or three (out of five).

  2. It is really interesting to read your perspective on this one. I really enjoyed it. I liked the way it managed to combine the thriller elements with more serious issues – it made the book so much more readable/enjoyable than if it had tried to do just one of these things.

  3. You know what I have been thinking about this and I think it fell down for me because it became a little formulaic and a little cliched whilst not quite being sure of what it was trying to be as a book. I didn’t feel I was reading anything fresh rather lots of churned out bits from other books. Maybe thats unfair!

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