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The Interview | With Santiago Roncagliolo

An innocent immersed in politics, murder

Santiago Roncagliolo won the Alfaguara Prize in 2006. Santiago Roncagliolo won the Alfaguara Prize in 2006. (Erik Molgora)
By Anna Mundow
May 3, 2009
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Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo gained international recognition with his 2005 novel "Pudor" ("Prudishness") and in 2006 became the youngest writer ever to win the Alfaguara Prize for his novel "Red April." In this superb novel of politics, terror, and human frailty, Felix Chacaltana, an assistant prosecutor, confronts a series of murders that may have roots in Peru's resurgent Maoist guerrilla group, the Shining Path. A masterful creation, Chacaltana ranks alongside Schweik, Mitty, and other legendary innocents.

Roncagliolo has written a biography of the Abimael Guzman, Shining Path's founder, as well as children's books, short stories, and plays. He spoke from his home in Barcelona.

Q. Is "Red April" a political novel or a thriller?

A. It's both. And it depends on who's reading it. For Latin American readers, the political violence is paramount. In Europe they read it as a thriller. And I like that. I wanted the book to be a meditation on violence in a political context.

Q. Chacaltana is a wonderfully odd character.

A. Well, he's more or less like me, really. I worked in human rights in Peru in the '90s. Like Chacaltana, I was this ridiculous little figure who saw himself as enforcing the law and upholding order. His process is the same process I lived, which was gradually realizing that the state and the terrorists could be really similar. I didn't have a serial killer to track, but I saw a lot of serial killing. I was probably not as ridiculous as he is, but for sure I was a bit ridiculous.

Q. You wrote similar reports?

A. Part of my job was correcting the grammar in reports; that's how I learned police language. I loved Edith Grossman's translation of the novel, by the way, because one of the many problems with this book was how to translate this ridiculous institutional language that is used often by uncultivated officials who want to sound cultivated.

Q. Do you use that humor to keep the reader off balance?

A. There's a moment when blood comes strongly to the book, and it's more shocking because there was humor before. For us in Latin America - and in poor countries generally - a sense of humor is a defense mechanism. Some readers in Europe, for example, see Chacaltana as a caricature, but in Latin America, where they know the kind of person, they comment on how realistic he is.

Q. Why did you set the novel in 2000 in the aftermath of the worst violence?

A. In that year I went to observe (clearly fake) elections that happened during Holy Week, and this has a lot to do with the Andean myth of the Incan empire being resurrected. That was 20 years after the start of the Shining Path military action, so it was a powerful place to set a thriller.

Q. And also to give it a mystical aspect?

A. Yes, because in the history and traditions of the region of Ayacucho, death is really present in life. Mourners, for example, arrange a dead person's beloved objects and stay up all night with them. Chacaltana's preservation of his mother's room is a maniac version of this tradition.

Q. What research did you carry out?

A. I had already written a nonfiction book about the leader of the Shining Path guerrillas. But the research on political violence was also research in my own life because I was a child when this was happening. This was the war around me. So writing was also therapeutic because when your country goes through such violence you just try to forget. But when you examine those memories you understand why you - and your country - are the way they are.

Q. How was the novel received in Peru?

A. Great. Even the biography of Guzman, which was more risky, was greatly received. I think this is because both books are about the ambiguous essence of all conflicts; the thin red line between good and evil. This is also a moment in Peru (and in Spain) when people are considering their violent histories, searching for a new way to understand. And remember, in Peru we are the first ones writing on this subject who were not participants, not suspects. And we are writing at a time when there are no absolute truths. The 20th century was easy: You were a communist or a capitalist. But for my generation there was the fall of the Berlin Wall, then of Wall Street . . . .

Q. Yet your country's war inspired you?

A. It's true. A horrible reality is probably better for writers because it provides so many stories. I often wonder what my Swiss friends write about (they say write about Germans). But I would prefer Switzerland. We could do without the good material and have a better life.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached at ama1668@hotmail.com.