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Red April, By Santiago Roncagliolo trs Edith Grossman

The bloody history of the Ayacucho region looms over an inept prosecutor as he lopes after a murderer

This sophisticated thriller drops readers into one of the most violent parts of the world: the small city of Ayacucho in the Andes of southern Peru, where the Mao-inspired rural guerrilla movement Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path – was born and was most active during the 1980s. The novel opens in 2000, and officially, the civil war that cost at least 70,000 lives is over. Tourists from Lima are arriving for the city's famous Holy Week processions when a brutal murder occurs. Others follow: a serial killer is on the rampage.

Santi Roncagliolo's investigator is associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana. No one takes any notice of Chacaltana, a fantasist loner hiding from his own incompetence and the horrors around him by losing himself in bureaucratic reports (brilliantly reproduced). The police and army deride him to his face; brutal, messy reality, such as a mutilated corpse burnt beyond recognition, cannot be explained by legalistic rigmarole.

The choice of the demented and totally inadequate Chacaltana as the central character is a particular strength of this fine novel, the winner of Spain's prestigious Alfaguara prize in 2006. He is a comic character; a stickler for procedure that is utterly inappropriate for dealing with psychopathic military thugs and ruthless terrorists. But the black comedy of his inability to investigate a crime, or indeed to deal with life at all, whether with his mother, ex-wife or silver-toothed girlfriend, offsets the otherwise unrelenting bleakness and violence. The comedy gives readers an unusual, but effective, path into the horror of Ayacucho's past and present.

"In this country, there is no terrorism, by orders from the top," a military boss shouts at Chacaltana, who believes Shining Path is behind the murders. Denial is the official line: tourists must not be frightened away. In the most ferocious part of the book, Chacaltana is sent to an outlying village to "supervise" the presidential elections. Here he receives a crash course in the terror of the Shining Path and the brutality of the military retaliation. The starving, Quechua-speaking peasants try to keep out of the way, and vote as ordered.

Roncagliolo integrates other themes that give depth to the book, such as the inter- relationships of Catholic and pre-Conquest religion, and the conflict of Spanish and Indian culture. He avoids preaching that the blank stares and silence of the Quechua speakers reflect their 500-year exploitation by the Spanish conquistadors and their descendants, but he indicates through the development of his story that this is so. The "dirty war" that raged between 1980 and 2000 between the military and the guerrillas, just one more episode in these 500 years, destroyed not only those killed and their communities, but the killers too. Both the military boss and the imprisoned terrorist whom Chacaltana later interviews would rather be dead, for staying alive is to be in Hell.

The meticulous documenting of barbarities, the magical beliefs of several characters, the colourful details of Holy Week, whose rites of blood and torture are intertwined with the murders, and the extreme cynicism of government (the novel is set during the era of President Fujimori, later jailed for murder and corruption) might imply that we are in magic realism territory. And magic realism is what English-language publishers often think readers expect of Latin American novels. However, Roncagliolo (born in 1975) belongs to a much younger generation than Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the other writers of the Latin American boom. Though he draws on this tradition, Red April, faithfully translated by Edith Grossman, can be better read as a courageous investigation of an all-too-real contemporary reality. In a direct, easy style, Roncagliolo uses the techniques of a police procedural thriller to tell the terrible story of a society without hope.