Red April

Certain novels are so potent that they seem to infiltrate not only your brain but also your bloodstream. As you read, the rhythm of your pulse keeps pace with the rhythm of the narrative; the temperature of the characters becomes your temperature. This sensation may be pleasant or chilling — but in either case, it tends to stay with you after the last page is turned. Red April, the extraordinary new novel by Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo, produces such symptoms: a mild delirium that heightens our perceptions even as it skews the world around us.

The novel’s hero, Associate District Prosecutor Feliz Chacaltana Saldivar, is an unlikely conduit for such potency. He is, after all, a consummate bureaucrat who takes pride in tirelessly writing meticulous reports. The novel opens with one of his best: “On Wednesday, the eighth day of March, 2000, as he passed through the area surrounding his domicile in the locality of Quinua, Junstino Mayta Carazo discovered a body.” In exquisitely dry language, Chacaltana describes the burnt torso that is stumbled upon by the drunken “deponent” and observes with satisfaction, as he edits his final draft, that “in his lawyer’s heart, a poet struggled to emerge.”

We immediately recognize a familiar comic hero: the little man with grandeur in his soul. This meek Chacaltana seems poised to take his place alongside Walter Mitty, Charlie Chaplin, and a host of other refugees from reality. When we meet him, newly transferred from Lima to the Andean city of Ayacucho, he perceives the world with an almost idiotic certainty. “Nothing can change much from one day to the next,” he reflects when only yesterday’s newspaper is available for purchase. “All days are basically the same.” The novel will violently refute this assumption — but only after Roncagliolo begins to reveal some disturbing aspects of Chacaltana’s personality. He admits, for example, that “the corpse in Quinua produced a vague mixture of pride and disquiet in him. It was his first murder in the year he had been back in Ayacucho. It was a sign of progress.” During his workday, he becomes concerned that he has not yet checked in on his mother. His dead mother.

Chacaltana, we gradually suspect, is not merely dull but numbed, and within a few pages we see that the world he inhabits is similarly afflicted. The sierra outside the city, for example, is a place where Chacaltana suddenly notices “that he could not hear anything. Not a sound. He felt whistling in his ears, the acoustic illusion produced when there is silence around us. The plain was transmitting the music of death.”

This is not poetic exaggeration. Peru in 2000, the period during which the novel is set, remains stunned by the terror of the 1980s and 1990s, when Maoist Shining Path guerillas slaughtered whole communities in the name of their insane mystical ideology and when the government counterinsurgency imposed its own brand of terror. All of that supposedly belongs in the dreadful past. “There is no Sendero Luminoso here anymore,” a military commander tells Chacaltana. “We finished them off.”

The declaration, however, rings hollow. When Chacaltana is dispatched to oversee presidential elections in a remote town, he finds the streetlights festooned with the bodies of hanged dogs wearing signs that read “This is how traitors die.” There are bonfires on the mountainside, nightly attacks, and “howl from the hills. Long Live. The Communist Party of Peru. President Gonzalo. They seemed to grow louder and surround him, suffocate him.”

Returning home to a city convulsed by the lurid parades that mark the Catholic festival of Holy Week, the shaken prosecutor is soon faced with another mutilated corpse. “On the left side a mass of bones, muscles, and arteries erupted. What did not erupt was an arm.” The pathologist helpfully explains: “The first time it was the right arm, now they’ve cut off the left. It seems these gentlemen want to make a puppet.” When the next victim surfaces, burned and crucified, in the middle of a Holy Week ceremony, the symbolism is terrifyingly clear: here is Andean, Catholic, and Shining Path mysticism intermingled and made charred flesh.

Chacaltana informs his superiors that “they” have returned, and the response from his commander is, “Don’t see horses where there are only dogs.” Imagination now seems to be the dull prosecutor’s chief defect. Indeed, as the horrors mount and as Chacaltana’s official reports become absurdist versions of the abominations he encounters, the prosecutor begins to lose his moorings. Roncagliolo conveys this disintegration with great subtlety and acuity. A profoundly compassionate writer, he even allows us to hope. For Chacaltana, in the meantime, has begun to court Edith, a young waitress who is a wonderfully surprising creation. Her presence and the sweetness it elicits from Chacaltana relieve the novel’s growing tension, but only briefly.

At every turn, Roncagliolo rejects the easy conventions that would turn Red April into a straightforward thriller, a broad satire or a novel of redemption. When Chacaltana is attacked by a fleeing murder suspect, for example, and regains consciousness on a desolate hillside, he simply walks to the nearest village and takes the bus back to the city, his “official activities over for the day.” There is exquisite humor here, of course, as there is in the pathologist’s appalling quips (of the incinerated corpse: “Two days ago he was taller”) and in the novel’s inspired dialogue (” ‘Do you understand?’ He did not understand anything. ‘Yes, señor.'”) But Roncagliolo’s comic genius not only makes us laugh, it also keeps us off balance. There is a sense of queasy descent as we are propelled backward into Peru’s brutal decades and inward to the personal past that has formed the tragically odd Chacaltana. Yet as the novel’s darkness deepens and as the plot develops menacing shadows, individual scenes acquire a startling simplicity and humanity. The second corpse, for example, has “feet splayed from walking through the countryside.” In a peasant house, “the sofa was on bricks instead of legs and had a blanket thrown over it. Two children watched curiously from the hand ladder that went up to another bare brick space.”

This remarkable clarity intensifies as Chacaltana’s investigations lead him back to the local church, where he contemplates images of the crucified Christ with “His perforated hands. The crown of thorns circled his head like a red and green tiara.” When the priest expounds on the persistence of Andean blood sacrifice in Christian ceremonies, his words carry lethal meaning for Chacaltana, who begins to recognize what is before him. “If you start looking, everything has a transcendental meaning,” Father Quiroz insists. “Draining someone’s blood is draining the body of life in order to offer all that life to a different soul.”

Chalcatana never wanted to start looking. He never wanted to confront a deranged killer, to visit an imprisoned Shining Path intellectual, to learn of the military’s unspeakable atrocities. He never wanted to doubt, only to believe. “One needs a present,” he observes, “in order not to think about the past.” This fearless novel, however, allows no such amnesia.