In the Andes, passing through on a bus, you'll see, every now and again, gatherings, colourful, particular, taking place in a carpark on a cold dusty plain or a field set back from a twisting road. You'll catch a glimpse of something you know you don't belong to and you would never belong to even if you lived in this place for hundreds of years. Which is pretty much the experience of the descendants of the Spanish as they co-exist with the descendants of the indigenous peoples they colonised, once upon a time. A people which continues to live alongside them, speaking a different language, wearing different clothes and, presumably, thinking different kinds of thoughts. The highlands of the Andes are as segregated as anywhere else in the world and still the retain the feel, perhaps, of an uneasy truce; an accommodation with history as much as an acceptance of it.
This world has been captured effectively in the films of Claudia Llosa: Madeinusa and La Teta Asustada. In Madeinusa, a stranger arrives in town and finds himself caught up in ancient traditions which overwhelm him. Red April’s hero, Felix Chacaltana finds himself similarly consumed in Roncagliolo’s literary take on the same theme. He is a prosecutor in the Andean town of Ayacucho, charged with solving a series of murders in a place where the guerilla campaign of Sendero Luminoso has never quite been extinguished. The book comes into its own when it starts to trace the ways in which the native cultural heritage has continued to thrive, even if this is under the guise of an adopted Catholicism. The indigenous attitudes towards death, explained by the priest, open the door to a completely different way of thinking which runs parallel to the Christianity adopted by the native population, part of the colonization process. This offers a fresh twist on the serial killer trope, as well as providing an insight into a culture which frequently seems closed and mysterious.
There is a debate to be had about whether the author is adopting an approach towards the native characters he employs which Said might have described as Orientalism. To a certain extent the book’s narrative twist confronts this. It is one of the problems literature continues to face in the twenty first century as writers attempt to come to terms with the crimes and misdemeanours committed by colonialism. How to create a space in the narrative for the “unspoken” perspective; and whether in so doing you effectively take advantage of that perspective as much as the colonisers did before you. Roncagliolo’s highly successful book seems conscious of these inherent contradictions, just as Llosa’s films are, but at times it felt as though it might have taken the reader further in its journey into the mindset of the other.