'Red April' wins the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Boyd Tonkin talks to its author, Barcelona-based Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo

Although he often returns to his native Peru, Santiago Roncagliolo has lived in Spain for a decade: five years in Madrid, then five in Barcelona. Tomorrow, in the Champions League final, the latter city's almighty football team will expect to notch up yet another Catalan triumph with victory over Manchester United at Wembley. "This city is a different city when Barcelona wins from when they lose," the writer tells me. "But, as a Peruvian, I love losers. We always lose! So I wanted my son to support the losers' team in Barcelona: Espanyol. But you can't buy a flag or a shirt anywhere. My son is three years old; he doesn't really understand football. Still, he wants to be Messi. So, please win - please be happy!"

Fond of the underdog he may be, but Roncaglioglo has hit something of a winning streak himself. Yesterday, his novel Red April – both an outstandingly gripping and eloquent political thriller, and a searching meditation on the blurred boundaries between good and evil, order and chaos - took this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He shares the £10,000 award, this country's leading annual honour for fiction from beyond the English language, with his translator Edith Grossman: a true star of her exacting art, at the top of her form.

"I can't believe what has happened with this novel," Roncagliolo says. "It was bestseller here [in Spain]; it made a big impact in Peruvian society. It's amazing what a book can do." When Red April won the Alfaguara Prize in Spain, it made him the youngest ever author to take that coveted honour: he was born in 1975. His international recognition also includes a place on Granta magazine's recent selection of "the best young Spanish-language novelists".

The book prevailed for the Independent prize, which is supported by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger, within a final shortlist whose five other titles all gained warm endorsements from the panel. This year's judges - Harriett Gilbert, MJ Hyland, Catriona Kelly, Neel Mukherjee and myself – had, more than ever, a steep peak to scale. Each of the five other contenders inspired and impressed: Alberto Barrera Tyszka's The Sickness (translated by Margaret Jull Costa); Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time (Charlotte Barslund, with the author); Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence (Maureen Freely); Marcelo Figueras's Kamchatka (Frank Wynne), and Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation (Susan Bernofsky). In the end, however, we united to salute the very special combination of narrative prowess, psychological drama and social revelation with which Roncagliolo's novel rewards its page-riffling reader.

Yet Red April's gilded pathway begins in mud, blood – and fear. It follows the fictional events of Holy Week in the city of Ayacucho, when bizarre and spectacular religious ceremonies are partnered by a series of gruesome murders, day by anguished day. This is 2000, though, and the vicious cycle of terror and counter-terror that set the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas against the state in Peru has, officially, come to an end. What is going on to revive the nightmare of slaughter and dread? Assistant prosecutor Félix Chacaltana, a high-minded innocent plunged into this still-bubbling cauldron of resentments and injustices, must investigate the case. But amid this darkness, physical and moral, every faint line between right and wrong seems to vanish.

To the reader of modern English classics, Red April's chilling, colourful portrayal of the frail forces of reason and order beset by revolt, repression and superstition may recall forays into the indigenous life of Latin America by Malcolm Lowry and Graham Greene. To those who know the continent's more recent home-grown fiction, Death in the Andes by Peru's Nobel laureate in literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, will inevitably spring to mind. Red April, it could be argued, digs deeper and strikes harder than works by any of those august excursionists.

Roncagliolo's father, a political scientist, took the family from Lima into temporary exile in Mexico in 1977. So his son felt the disruption and displacement of the continent's tormented 20th-century history from an early age. On their return, he recalls, "In Peru I was foreign when I arrived. I often feel as if I'm a tourist everywhere. The narrator of my novels is often a foreigner in some way. Sometimes, you have a clearer view if you come from abroad."

After studying literature, he took a job at Peru's human rights commission during the messy final acts of a peasant-Maoist insurgency led by the "Shining Path" that began in 1980. Two decades of mutual carnage were marked by savagery towards civilians by both the rebels and the security forces. "Both sides justified their own crimes and accused, as criminals, those on the other side who were doing exactly the same things," Roncagliolo says: "70,000 people died, and it was half-and-half, the state's and the terrorists' casualties." When I check these figures later, I find that – according to an official commission's report in 2003 - he's exactly correct.

As press officer and "image counsellor", the young Roncagliolo had the task of correcting and presenting reports on atrocities and abuses brought in from the ravaged countryside. When he fashions Chacaltana, the bumbling do-gooder, as a comic figure in a tragic place, "That was autobiographical, I'm afraid! Many of the things that happened to him, happened to me. That was my life. I had this middle-class, white, urban, university-boy philosophy in my mind."

Soon he came to grasp that the brutality of law had met and matched the brutality of revolt, and so underwent "a feeling of complete moral ambiguity". "I realised the violence that had been developed to protect me - and it was no better." Early on, he had to supervise a report on women who had been raped in jail by policemen, using truncheons. "It was so horrible. And my job was to correct the commas and periods. That was my first Chacaltana moment."

Yet, murder by murder and village by village, a hard-won peace emerged. Shining Path and its mysterious, charismatic leader Abimael Guzman – about whom Roncagliolo later wrote a book of reportage - lost popular support. Guzman himself was captured in 1992. On the other side, the authorities slowly began to clean up their act. Like dissident republicans in Ireland, the Senderistas continued in small numbers to mobilise – and to kill. Hence the plausible date of Red April.

The author recalls that, by the time of the novel's publication in Spain, "Terrorism was no longer a Peruvian subject but a Spanish subject - and maybe in the UK as well. It seemed as if the world was on my side with this book." Or rather, its resonances spread far and wide.

Roncagliolo welcomes the changes of mood and creed in his continent which look set to embed a pluralistic democracy through most of the Southern Cone. "In Latin America, in general, 30 years ago when I was growing up, if you were left-wing you supported guerrillas, and if you were right-wing you supported dictators. Now they scream at each other - but they don't shoot at each other!"

Could this progress go into reverse? Prosperity, he hopes, will safeguard political stability. "There's too much money for anyone to go crazy," he believes. "Looking at it pragmatically, I think this is going to be permanent - as long as the economy goes well. When people are poor, they are desperate. But in the past few years, for the first time, people in Latin America have felt more optimistic than people in Europe."

As for the twilit, disorienting menace of Red April and its world, "It was like a therapy. This was my war. I grew up there." But, he says, "the therapy's over now. I can move forward. The country can move forward too." His latest novel, So Close to Life, takes place in the Tokyo underworld. "I needed a big change of scene. Tokyo was as far as I could go."

Meanwhile – prizes aside – he's happy to eschew a public role and discard the prophetic mantle that Latin American authors of the Vargas Llosa vintage either chose, or were compelled, to wear. "His generation is more comfortable in that role - an essential part of their job was to define ideas." For Roncagliolo, the winner who loves losers, narrative will always score over polemic: "I feel comfortable telling stories - not in the priest's or philosopher's role."

'Red April' by Santiago Roncagliolo, translated by Edith Grossman, is published by Atlantic Books

An extract from 'Red April' by Santiago Roncagliolo

"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... 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."

The commander let several minutes go by before he spoke again.

"Have you ever been in a war, Chacaltana?"

"What did you say, Señor?"

"I asked if you'd been in a war. In the middle of bullets and bombs."

The prosecutor remembered the incidents in Yawarmayo. Then he thought about the bombs, the power cuts in Lima, he remembered the night patrols, the ambulances, the buildings destroyed by explosives, the eyes of the police when they saw mutilated, bloody bodies that came out of the wreckage. No, he had never been in a war. The commander continued:

"Have you ever felt surrounded by fire and known that your life at that moment is worth less than a piece of shit? Or have you found yourself in a town hall full of people and not known if they wanted to help you or kill you? Have you seen your friends falling in battle?... Have you? When that happens you stop having friends because you know you'll lose them. You get used to the pain of losing them and simply try to avoid being one of the empty chairs that keep multiplying in the dining rooms. Do you know what that's like? No. You don't have the slightest idea of what that's like. You were in Lima, after all, while your people were dying. You were reading nice poems by Chocano, I suppose. Literature, right? Literature says too many pretty things, Señor Prosecutor. Too many. You intellectuals have contempt for military men because we don't read. Yes, don't make that face, I've heard your jokes, I've seen the faces of old politicians when we speak. And I understand. Our problem is that for us, reality is a pain in the balls; we've never seen the pretty things your books talk about."

Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar became aware that he was considered an intellectual.

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