Have you ever tried a new food and the taste that assaults your senses is strong, vibrant, and oh, so exotic? You spend the first few bites trying to determine if you even like it or not. But in a very short time you find that your mouth simply cannot be without the flavor. On a few rare occasions, a book will be that way for me. It’s the literary equivalent of my first experience with an Indian restaurant, or, in this case, authentic Spanish cuisine. Santiago Roncagliolo offers up a wonderful new taste experience with his debut novel, Red April.
Everything in this story was strange and different for me. And I loved it! Roncagliolo is a native Spaniard who writes with the rhythms of his people. The over-all feel of manners and civility permeates every aspect of the text, and adds to the atmosphere of the small Peruvian town that is the stories main setting. We are introduced to Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar. That his full name and title are used repeatedly in the text reinforces the proper, ordered structure of the society we are meant to understand. Chacaltana is an anti-hero. He is the least likely to make an impact on anything, let alone a murder investigation.
When we first meet Felix, he is a lowly public servant, without any real power. His world is reports and procedures. The more we learn about him, the more we realize how disturbed this character really is. He is divorced, lives a solitary life, and is methodically transforming a room in his house into a shrine for his long dead mother. He has no personal skills, and little understands the nuances of normal human interaction. Socially handicapped, he is a by-the-book kind of guy trying to function in an environment of corruption and legendary South American inefficiency.
We learn that due to past trouble with insurrectionists, trouble now “officially” over, this is the first major crime that civil authorities have been allowed to work. Such crimes were the exclusive purview of military intelligence up to this point. We get to watch as Felix grows into his role of investigator, and feel all of the pains along the way. But don’t think for a second that this book is merely an exercise in character development. The plot is intricate and full of gore and intrigue. It twists and turns, and with every new facet we learn more about the small part of the world between Lima and Cuzco. The more we learn, the more our attitudes about “right” and “truth” are challenged, right along with those of our ersatz hero. This is tale of finding ones place in the harsh realities of life, of gaining trust in ones self, and of the darker, animalistic nature we all possess, but are, thankfully, rarely forced to acknowledge.
This is also the story of the investigation in to a series of brutal and ritualistic killings. Roncagliolo has a knack of presenting the evidence and clues in a way that doesn’t telegraph the ending. Every new development had me reformulating my theories, and at times I was left simply dumbfounded. Chacaltana’s journey had me guessing the whole way, and desperately eager for the next clue. From the third chapter , right through the end, this book was rating a 5 in the back of my mind. I was never disappointed. The romantic element was vital and compelling. The setting was truly a different world, yet very real. Chacaltana’s growth and continuing neurosis held me spellbound. The climax is tight and concise, with a tension filled action scene that is not overdone. The closing pages put a tragic and profoundly moving capstone on a beautifully crafted novel.
I cannot adequately convey my appreciation of this book. and I would recommend it vigorously to all but the shallowest of readers.
Rating:Tags: Crime, Murder, Torture