Santiago Roncagliolo [Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists]
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 21 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Up today: Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo, whose new short story “Stars and Stripes” is included in this issue.
Last year, in the run-up to announcing the longlist for the Best Translation Book Award for Fiction, there was a bit of chatter about Santiago Roncagliolo’s Red April. This “chilling political thriller set at the end of Peru’s grim war between Shining Path terrorists and a morally bankrupt government counterinsurgency,” which was translated by Edith Grossman, centers around Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar and his investigation of a gruesome, bizarre murder. It’s a very intriguing novel, one that Michael Orthofer of Complete Review gave a solid B, having this to say:
Red April is an intriguing if somewhat messy thriller, with no easy answers and culpability (of different sorts) all around. Chacaltana is, for the most part, an appealingly clueless figure in this world gone bad, though his own transformation seems a bit much by the end; his relationship with Edith also strains some credulity. Nevertheless, it’s a solid portrait of a place steeped almost hopelessly in the completely corrupted, with little sense of hope for change or a better future.
A somewhat uneasy mix of political and crime thriller, Roncagliolo does paint some very vivid and powerful scenes—but it is of a dark and desolate world.
Fellow BTBA judge, Monica Carter, also reviewed Red April and had this to say:
There are many disturbing things about this novel—the violence, the corruption and the religious overtones—which can all easily be filed under ‘amoral’ in the literary tricks rolodex of the thriller genre. But what makes this novel a little messier, a little more uncertain, is the narrator. Chalcatana is not necessarily unreliable, but for a reader, it’s difficult to overlook his peculiarities. It’s difficult to believe him. Chalcatana moves back into this childhood home where he lives alone except for the overwhelming eerie presence of his deceased mother. He keeps her room exactly the same, lays her clothes out as if she were still alive, talks to her pictures and even goes as far as behaving as if she were still alive by keeping appointments with her. Strange, yes. Criminal, no. Disturbing? Slightly . . .
Roncagliolo’s other books seem to fit a similar interest in crime, violence, terrorism. According to the Granta bio, Roncagliolo’s non-fiction novel La curata espada “delves into the mind of the most dangerous terrorist in the history of the Americas, Abimael Guzman of Sendero Luminoso.” His book Memorias de una dama is about the origins of the Mafia in Cuba and “its publication is prohibited throughout the entire world.” (Again, Roncagliolo is only 35 and already has a book banned everywhere. I’ve been wasting my life . . .) Expanding on the Mafia & terrorism theme, his latest novel, Tan cerca de la vida, is about Tokyo’s sex market.
“Stars and Stripes,” also translated by the amazing Edie Grossman, contains a few connection to underworld dealings, but these moments are reflected through the more innocent character of Carlitos. This excerpt encapsulates the seediness underlying the story, along with the sweet sort of awkward and hints of nostalgia that color “Stars and Stripes”:
bq Though Carlitos wasn’t to blame for anything, I was furious with him. Simply put, his company reminded me of my failure with Mily. I stopped seeing him. I didn’t want him to interfere with my difficult progress towards a first kiss. Apparently this served only to make Carlitos want to see me more than ever. He rang my bell six days in a row. He asked my parents about me. He telephoned me at midnight. I never responded. It wouldn’t take me long to regret that. Mily’s kiss never came, but at the end of the summer, I learned from other neighbours about the tragedy that had struck Carlitos’s family while I was ignoring him.
That year his parents had sent his older brother to study in the United States. Manuel – that was his brother’s name – had begun to travel back and forth very frequently, too frequently, but no one thought it strange. After all, Carlitos’s father had been promoted to the rank of admiral. His house was filled with armed bodyguards, and in all probability he earned a great deal of money. Sending the boy back and forth wouldn’t represent a huge expenditure for him.
What did surprise everyone was that the police arrested Manuel at the airport, when he was about to leave on one of his trips. This time Manuel had spent barely forty-eight hours in Lima, going out to discotheques at night and sleeping during the day. His family hardly saw him, and even though they were beginning to suspect what was going on, nobody felt like asking questions. They were probably confident an admiral’s son would not be arrested.
At first, no one believed that Manuel’s detention would last too long. It had to be a mistake. Or the admiral would make certain it was a mistake. But it seems Manuel was carrying too much cocaine for the matter to be ignored, or even for him to be given a light sentence. And apparently his father didn’t tolerate that kind of behaviour in his family. He used all his connections to get him a decent cell in a maximum-security prison, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t do more.
Another boy in the neighbourhood told me all this, and when I heard about it, I felt guilty for having ignored Carlitos’s phone calls. I went to see him right away. His mother received me with a sombre expression that I didn’t want to interpret as a reproach for my absence. His father didn’t even know who I was.
I found Carlitos with his GI Joes, which were beginning to seem anachronistic in a boy his age, and his American footballs, which he never used because nobody knew how to play the game. I didn’t know what to say and sat down on his bed. He didn’t say anything either. His room smelled strange, but it always smelled strange.
After a time spent in silence, the clock struck five, the time when Mily walked her dog, and it occurred to me that I could do something to make up for my bad behaviour. I took him to the park and tried to organize some lively talk between the three of us. When I thought everything was off to a good start, I pretended I had to go to the dentist and left them alone. I never found out more, and Carlitos never talked about it.
Some six or seven years later, I ran into Mily at a discotheque. We danced, laughed and recalled the old days. In the end we spent the night together. It was fun, and a little nostalgic. Before I fell asleep, I remembered the episode in the park and asked: ‘Listen, do you remember the afternoon when I left you with Carlitos? Did you do anything? Even just a kiss?’
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘I tried, that afternoon and many other afternoons, but he only wanted to show me his baseball cards.’
Not nearly as gruesome and disturbed as Red April . . . Hopefully more of Roncagliolo will make its way into English. (Especially that banned book . . . What’s freedom of speech good for if we can’t read books whose publication is prohibited “throughout the entire world”? Just that line along would help sell ten thousand copies . . . And add in Cuba . . . This has the makings of a best-seller.)
And don’t forget, Granta has a special offer for all readers of Three Percent: if you subscribe now you’ll receive this special issue featuring the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” for free.
Tomorrow: An interview with Federico Falco.