Santiago Roncagliolo, Red April

Red April marks the English-language debut of the Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo, and it has the benefit of bearing the name Edith Grossman, who has garnered international acclaim for her vibrant translations of Don Quixote and every Gabriel García Márquez book since 1988’s Love in the Time of Cholera.

Unfortunately, that’s the only way Roncagliolo’s novel, a tepid religious thriller set during the Fujimori regime in turn-of-the-millennium Peru, will get mentioned in such illustrious company.

Our hero is Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, a mousy associate district prosecutor in Ayacucho so committed to his duties that he’s more loyal to the letter of the law than to his actual bosses. Protocol dictates the prosecutor’s every move; when he spied a suspect jumping out a window to avoid questioning, Chacaltana “thought that pursuit was the responsibility of the National Police, and if he ran after the man, he could be liable for usurpation of duties.…He considered his official activities over for the day.”

One book Chacaltana hasn’t studied, however, is the Bible, which is bad news indeed when a freshly revived network of communist terrorists starts murdering people in ways that eerily mirror the town’s massive Holy Week celebrations. Indifferent superiors dump the case on the hapless prosecutor’s desk, leaving him to wade through nationwide corruption and an increasingly disfigured string of corpses to try to make sense of things.

The story has a basic intrigue to it, but Roncagliolo writes every scene with his foot on the gas, zipping from one crime scene to the next and generating boilerplate descriptions like “Pacheco looked at him with hatred” and “his last words cut Chacaltana like a knife”.

For all the novel’s talk about Ayacucho as a place between heaven and hell, law and chaos, life and death, it’s somehow fitting that Red April itself exists in a kind of liminal space: too caught up in religious spookery to work as a strait-laced detective novel, and too grounded in logic to sell a mystery involving symbology and amateur crucifixions.

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman. Pantheon, 288 pp, $28.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, June 11, 2009)