“Associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar left the hospital feeling out of sorts, he was pale. Terrorists he thought, only they were capable of something like this, they had come back. He did not know how to sound the alarm or even if he should…..The prosecutor thought that perhaps, after all, the deceased was a case for the military courts, he did not want to interfere in the anti-terrorist struggle, the military had organised it, they knew it best.
This story read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, is set back in the year 2000 when victory in the twenty year war against the Maoist inspired Sendero Luminoso has been declared by the then President of Peru, Fujimori. Roncagliolo has chosen to treat this period by way of a crime thriller centred in the town of Ayacucho, a town which had been at the centre of the guérilla warfare which over the twenty year period up to 2000 saw about 70000 deaths or disappearances of which about half were attributable to Sendero and a third to to government security forces.
So it is against this background that associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar arrives from Lima to work in Ayacucho where he finds himself confronted with the discovery of a badly burnt and mutilated body, so badly burnt that despite the official line that the rebellion is over, he hesitates to attribute the murder to terrorists as illustrated in the opening quote. As the Holy Week festivities approach and the bodies mount up Félix Chacaltana Saldívar discovers troubling secrets about the past twenty years concerning the terrorists and the exactions of the security forces and he retreats behind his written reports to the military command, it is clear he has doubts about the past, when Commander Carrión questions him:
“You think we’re a gang of killers isn’t that right Chacaltana?” The commander’s question came after a long silence when they were already on the highway back to Ayacucho, between the mountains and the river. He was driving the vehicle himself, they were alone.
“I do not know what you are referring to commander.”
“Don’t act like a prick Chacaltana I know how to read between the lines of reports and I know how to read faces too. Do you think you’re the only one here who knows how to read?”
The prosecutor felt obliged to explain himself. “We waged a just war commander.” He said it like that using the first person, “that is undeniable but sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy and when that happens I begin to ask myself what exactly it is that we fought against.”
As Chacaltana investigates he finds disturbing links between the security forces and the church as well as links to religion in the actual murders and then in an attempt to understand the motives he visits one of the jailed terrorists, Comrade Alonso who leaves him little doubt that the Sendero Luminoso would not use religious signs and tells him the following story:
“What do you think will happen after death?“
Comrade Alonso gave a nostalgic smile, “it will be like the Indian servants dream, do you know it? It’s a story by Arguedas, do you read?”
“I like Chocano”
Now the terrorist laughed sarcastically there was something like cultural petulance in his attitude, he did not consider the prosecutor to be an intellectual, “I prefer Arguedas, they don’t let us read here, but I always think about that story it’s about an Indian, the lowest of the slaves on a plantation, a servant of the servants one day the Indian tells the master that he has had a dream, in his dream they both died and went to heaven, there god ordered the angels to cover the Indian with manure until all his skin was hidden by shit, but he ordered the rich man to be completely bathed in honey the master is happy to hear the Indians dream he thinks that it’s reasonable he thinks that it’s exactly what god will do, he urges him to go on and asks and then what happens the Indian replies the when he saw the two men covered in shit and honey respectively he says now lick the others body until it is completely clean.”
As Chacaltana realises that the main link between the murdered people is that he had interviewed them all he begins to look closely around himself amid a certain despair at the events for which Commander Carrión has the following fatalistic explanation for events in Ayacucho:
“Our work of two decades has just gone all to hell, we can’t even guarantee our own security we’ll never stop them, they’ll keep coming back. But it is our job.”
“To fight the sea?”
“After all I’ve been reading during the days that I’ve been inside, Ayacucho is a strange place, the Wari culture was here, and then the Chacana who never let themselves be conquered by the Incas, and then the indigenous rebellions because Ayacucho was the midway point between Cusco the Inca capital and Lima, the capital of the Spaniards and indépendance in Quinua, and Sendero, this place is doomed to be bathed in blood and fire forever.”
As the investigation advances, the assistant district prosecutor who begins as a quiet decent man hiding behind written procedural reports permitting him to avoid responsibility and strangely close to his dead mother whom he addresses as a living person, metamorphoses into a persistant investigator ready to ruffle feathers. The pressure he endures pushes him towards behaviour which after a few weeks leaves the reader wondering what the difference between Chacaltana and the other guilty protagonist of the twenty year dirty war would have been had he have been there over that period.
A recommended read.
First Published in Spanish as “Abril Rojo” in 2006 by Alfaguara.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “Red April” by Atlantic Books in 2010
Translated into French by Gabriel Laculli and published as “Avril Rouge” by Editions Le Seuil in 2009