Posted by: koolwine | December 24, 2010

Peru: Red April

A socially inept prosecutor suspects terrorists are behind a series of gruesome murders.

Country Focus: Peru (Perú in Spanish)

Red April
Santiago Roncagliolo
Originally published in Spain as Abril rojo by Alfaguara, 2006.
My edition: Pantheon, 2009.  271 pgs.
Acclaim: Roncagliolo is the youngest winner of the Alfaguara Prize – one of the most prestigious in the Spanish-speaking world

To make a long story short: A burned and shockingly dismembered corpse has been discovered in a hayloft.  Despite Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar’s detailed report and strict adherence to official procedure, the police are ignoring both him and the body.  Convinced that the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso is responsible for the murder, and blind to the implications of the authorities’ pointed disinterest as well as to the political machinations going on around him, Chacaltana begins a dogged investigation that leads him to question the morality of his country’s leaders, rethink his opinion of the Senderistas, and confront his troubled past.  But as more mutilated bodies are found, Chacaltana can’t help but acknowledge that all of the evidence is pointing towards…himself.

My opinion: Crime novels don’t often feature clueless paper-schlepping protagonists, but Roncagliolo is quick to make Chacaltana comically endearing with telling descriptions like this one:

“Before going to police headquarters, he wrote once again – as he did every morning – his supply requisition for a new typewriter, two pencils, and a ream of carbon paper.  He had already submitted thirty-six requisitions and kept the signed receipts for all of them.  He did not want to become aggressive, but if the supplies did not arrive soon, he could initiate an administrative procedure to demand them more forcefully.”

I enjoyed Chacaltana’s progression from pathetic bureaucrat to budding crimefighter – a promising relationship with a waitress inspires boldness in the prosecutor – but all of his hard-won appeal instantly vanishes when Roncagliolo betrays both his main character and his readers with an ill-conceived and unnecessary plot twist.

The armchair travel experience: Most of Red April‘s action takes place in the backwater town of Ayacucho during Holy Week of the year 2000.  This setting allows Roncagliolo to touch on the effect tourism has on traditional culture, and the mash-up of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs. 

Roncagliolo assumes his readers are familiar with Peru’s recent history, particularly the government’s struggle against Sendero Luminoso*, and he offers no explanations for the under-informed; I got bogged down trying to make sense of the country’s political situation.

With the exception of  the titles Señor and Señora, Roncagliolo’s text has been disappointingly Americanized by the translator; there is more Spanish language in a Taco Bell commercial.  Local food fares better.  Since Chacaltana repeatedly visits the restaurant where his love interest works, we learn that fried guinea pig is on the menu.

*an insurgent Maoist group also known as “Shining Path”

In my book (or, what Peru means to me and maybe you, too)

I bearly remembered he was Peruvian
My third favorite bear (after Baloo and Winnie-the-Pooh) was the orange-marmalade-loving title character from Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington.  Hailing from “Darkest Peru,” Paddington wound up at his namesake London train station after his Aunt Lucy moved into the Home for Retired Bears in Lima.

In an article for the New Statesman, Alyssa McDonald writes:

But what do Peruvians think about the fact that their representative in the UK – the only one of their countrymen considered worthy of a monument here [there is a statue of Paddington in Paddington Station] – is a hapless refugee who ignores Peru’s feted national cuisine in favour of marmalade sandwiches and cocoa? Are they upset by the description “Darkest Peru” – particularly as Bond, who coined the phrase, has never visited the country?

The Peruvian embassy was insistent: “Paddington Bear is very important to British people, so the name Peru has a positive association for them from childhood. And I think ‘Darkest Peru’ is a great phrase. It has come to represent exoticism, so it’s very cool.”

Pigging out
As exhibited by the meal served to the prosecutor in Red April, some folks consider guinea pigs to be food rather than pets.  Peruvians consume an estimated 65 million guinea pigs each year.

Although I had no intention of eating him, I named my smooth-haired, light brown guinea pig after a food product he closely resembled – Peanut.  He was my first pet and he lived in a cage in my room for several years. One day, he stopped eating.  I figured Mom and Dad would take him to the vet for meds or surgery – whatever treatment was necessary.  “On their way to the vet” my parents dropped me off at friend’s house.  I had a bad feeling and rode my bicycle around and around in circles crying my head off.  Suffice it to say that I never saw Peanut again.

My rebound guinea pig was called Scruffy.  He was tufted and multicolored and not able to come with us to the States when we moved about a year later. We left him in the care of my 5th grade class – I hoping they didn’t do a unit on South American cuisine.

Jonesing for Harrison Ford
Onscreen, a man wearing a leather coat and a Fedora is striding through the jungle and above the words “Peru 1936.”   Soon Indiana Jones will be nonchalantly brushing tarantulas off his back, switching a sandbag for a golden idol, evading the world’s largest bowling ball and capturing my 10-year-old heart.  Raiders of the Lost Ark had me at “I hate snakes!”  On Monday morning I went to school, wrote “I love Harrison Ford” all over my notebook, and spent the entire recess bombarding my best friend Julie with the plot:  “And then! … And then! …  And it was the same guy who plays Han Solo! …And then…”

“The Lost City of the Incas”
While it’s true that I was more in awe of Indy than the Peruvian temple he was raiding, when it comes to Machu Picchu, it’s the archeology rather than the archeologist that grabs my attention.  This ancient, high-altitude Inca city, whose name means “old mountain”, has inspired “we’ll go someday” travel plans in my husband and I for years.

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