Review of Red April

By the end of reading Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo I was incredible upset. Not because of any other reason than the character of Chancaltana has gone through an extreme personality shift such that when his actions outside Ayachuco – population 1,575 – are described I wished that the author continued to describe his story there. I liked it so much, in fact, that I think I may use the name of the prosecutor in one of the passages of Unravelling so that he may continue to live and struggle.

In Ayachuco, a rural region of Peru on the outskirts of civilization, where Sendero Luminosa was once a major power against any sort of Government encroachment, in an area with a large percentage of indigenous people still live traditional lives, a civil war long announced in the press of the capital and its environs continues – though only at a simmer. Commenting on the state of things in the region in a nearby town, prior to an election to be held at gunpoint, one of the soldiers openly states: “There’s no law here. Do you think you’re in Lima? Please.”

The military government decreed by Fujimori is highly repressive, it’s ranks are paranoid should their crimes against the people in their zeal for Order come to light and despite the claim that peace has been brought to the region, they still control a number of police and civilian functions. In the interactions between anyone thought to represent the government and “normal people” there is a type of abject, terrified submission to the wishes of the officials that shows just how hard the brutality is against those who did not follow orders. Bolstering their presence are loudspeakers in all four corners of the town square wherein the writing of those that submitted to the government are read aloud, examples for how to behave for everyone listening.

Santiago Rancagliolo’s literary brushstrokes of the town of Ayachuco, its people and its environs is stark and desolate. Chancaltana has arrived in Ayachuco shortly after an usually corpse has been found – badly burned and missing a limb. Within a few days a number of other corpses are discovered. As Chancaltana seeks to uncover the perpetrator, he discovers a connection between the religious calendar, which will soon draw many domestic and international tourists to the tow because of the religious processions, as well as an ancient, indigenous prophecy and the military.

Sendero Luminoso Poster

Felix Chancaltana Saldivar is an investigative prosecutor that arrives into the town following the death of the previous prosecutor. Electing to return to his town of birth following his wife’s divorce of him for having no ambition, he is an unusual fellow. While he has high-brow cultural aspirations evident in the fact that the meticulously writes reports that may only be read by one or two people. After one such creation, he looks at it and “…repeated to himself with satisfaction that in his lawyer’s heart, a poet struggled to emerge.”

By no means a sympathetic character, Chancaltana took a little bit for me to warm up to him. The government functionary type that is always relying upon legal formulas and precedence to guide him, it wasn’t until the end of the novel that his obsession with everything being by the book as well as his fixation with his dead mother finally made sense. It was a little infuriating to not know this aspect of his story for so long, but was a good tension builder for when the story is finally told it’s one suspenseful component among others that results in a crescendo of revelation. As for the romantic subplot, if one can really call it that, let’s just say that even with the norms of the place being what they are what transpires continues the trend of disdain for the character.

Civilians holding up photos of loved ones that were non-combatants killed by the Peruvian military.

I don’t want to reveal too much, as I don’t want to expose any more the elements of this suspenseful small p political thriller that should definitely makes its way to your reading list. Also, here’s a link to historical information on the civil war in Peru. If the book didn’t make you more curious as to the reality of Peru at the time, I’d be highly surprised. I, for one, just put The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency on my Amazon wish list.


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