By Mike Gonzalez
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Red April

This article is over 11 years, 8 months old
Santiago Roncagliolo, Atlantic Books, £10.99
Issue 347

The Peruvian city of Ayacucho is a meeting point between very different cultures – its Spanish architecture echoes the colonists who conquered and dominated Peru. But the high Andes that surround it contain an indigenous community who were its victims, yet who still speak the languages of the pre-Hispanic world. And from the late 1970s it became the centre of a very different conflict, between the implacable guerrillas of the Maoist Sendora Luminoso (Shining Path) organisation and successive Peruvian governments whose pursuit of Shining Path justified state terror and the repression of peasant resistance.

Felix Chacaltana, the central character in Roncagliolo’s often surreal detective story Red April, was born in Ayacucho before going to Lima to study law. He returns as the assistant public prosecutor and comes face to face with a series of savage murders. By the time he returns, Shining Path, which caused havoc for a decade, has been beaten and its leader, the delusional President Gonzalo, is in jail. But the atmosphere of violence and fear persists. For the defeat of Shining Path at the hands of the new president Alberto Fujimori has served only to install a new regime of military terror.

Felix comes back with his pencils sharpened and his rule book in his hand; his reports are impeccable bureaucratic documents. But the reality he must investigate is chaotic and violent. In the streets the bloody Christs carried through the town in the Catholic Easter ceremonies create an eerie backdrop to these particularly nasty murders. The local authorities in the mountain communities he visits blame Sendero for the murders – and the guerrillas had no reservations about murdering their opponents, of the right or of the left. On the other hand, the military did not hesitate to torture and murder in the name of the anti-Sendero campaign; the bodies of students and a lecturer from the University of Huamanga were buried for years in waste ground outside Lima while the government denied their abduction.

Felix’s dreams of his mother are full of images of fire and rivers of blood. His attempts to make sense of this world are countered by the apparently arbitrary murders and the strange and oppressive atmosphere of the city and the mountains around it. Violence threatens from every side, and is echoed in the bloodthirsty religious rituals in the background.

It is a neat footnote to this compelling novel that today Fujimori, his sinister sidekick Vladimir Montesinos and the leader of Sendero Luminoso occupy adjoining cells in a prison in Callao. But as the country’s indigenous communities fight the multinationals for control of their lands, the battle for justice continues.

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