This book by Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo (seen on the right) is translated from Spanish. As I read the first few pages of contorted, stilted English, I groaned, "Oh boy, this is going to be tedious. It's really going to test my habit of always finishing any book I start. Why couldn't the translator translate into decent English?" However, all was well. That opening just set the scene; the turbid prose of Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar’s police reports alerts us to his plodding commitment to bureaucratic process.
Chacaltana is a stickler for details and follows up on a series of grisly murders, solely to complete the required documents. Authorities don’t want him to dig into the real reasons for the murders, and he’s willing to include any kind of nonsensical explanation they feed him, as long as he can move that darned report into his out tray. Based on my own experience in the late 80s, I had thought the Belgians were unmatched masters of bureaucratic process, to the exclusion of thinking about what they were doing. They were amateurs compared to Chacaltana.
However, Chacaltana is slowly drawn into the investigation of the murders. He moves from filling out forms to actually seeking the cause of the murders. He discerns the hand of the Mao-inspired guerrilla movement, the Shining Path. But how can that be? Officialdom is unanimous that the revolution is over and there are no more rebels left. This is the year 2000, decades after the horrific civil war of the 80s and 90s, when 70,000 lost their lives.
Yet, when Chacaltana is posted to a rural village to oversee the Presidential elections there is ample evidence that the rebels are still around, even though the evidence is cleaned up every morning by the police. Indeed, everyone in the book is well practised in being blind and deaf to events around them. “In this country, there is no terrorism, by orders from the top”, states a military boss.
When the scene moves back to Chacaltana's home town of Ayacucho, tourists are arriving for the Holy Week preparations, which themselves feature bloodthirsty rituals celebrating torture and pain. Chacaltana is still talking to his long-dead mother, and he’s falling deeply in love; both women have pasts closely associated with the years of terror. And Chacaltana’s almost incredible naivete and blindness is falling away in the face of the events he’s experienced. He ends up a confused man – “I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy... I begin to ask myself exactly what it is we fought against.”
This was a really good book. I recently heard someone describe how publishers undertake initial screening of the many books submitted to them. They assess whether the main character at the beginning of the book has changed by the end of the book. If so, then it’s worth reading the whole book; otherwise it hits the rejection pile. In this book, Chacaltana certainly changes between beginning and end. In my case, the reader also changed as I learned more about a period I had only cursory knowledge of. I would highly recommend this book.