x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Peru's Santiago Roncagliolo uses a thriller to probe his country's past

The Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, uses a crime thriller to examine the problems of his nation in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Santiago Roncagliolo’s forthcoming book is set in Tokyo.
Santiago Roncagliolo’s forthcoming book is set in Tokyo.

When the Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last week - the annual £10,000 (Dh60,000) award given to the best work of contemporary fiction translated into English - it was tempting to call it a shock victory. After all, the impressive shortlist contained an author who had already won it once before (Per Petterson), and the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's love story The Museum Of Innocence. But anyone who has been keeping an eye on Roncagliolo - at 36 the prize's youngest recipient - will know that last week wasn't the point at which he burst on to the scene. It was when the English-speaking world caught up.

In Latin America, he is already considered something of an inheritor to the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa's throne. It's not difficult to see why. Vargas Llosa's novel Death In The Andes expertly framed the bloody Maoist insurgency and guerrilla war in 1980s and early 1990s Peru around a whodunnit. And Roncagliolo's Red Aprilalso uses the crime thriller to delve into the aftermath of that time when, it's estimated, more than 70,000 people were killed. As the prosecutor Chalcatana investigates a series of gruesome murders suspected to be the work of a serial killer, he worries that Maoist terrorism may be slowly returning. The book expertly moves from straightforward crime fiction into something far more thoughtful, socially aware and satisfying.

As the chairman of judges Boyd Tonkin confirmed at the prize ceremony on Thursday, it "deploys with tremendous skill and cunning the arts of the political thriller in order to dramatise the struggle between love and hate, creation and destruction, in a community, a country - and in the human mind itself".

It's apt that Red April's translator - who shares the prize money equally with Roncagliolo - is Edith Grossman. She not only translates Mario Vargas Llosa's books, but those of the other giant of Latin American fiction, Gabriel Garcia Marquez - including, most notably, 1985's Love In The Time Of Cholera. It's the fate of every new author from that part of the world to be compared with Marquez - and there are elements of Red April that do revel in the magical realist style that Marquez popularised, particularly when he's describing the Holy Week during which the drama plays out. But Roncagliolo is very distinctly his own man. In an interview with The Independent after the award ceremony, he argued that, rather than being a philosopher in the vein of the Latin American luminaries who have gone before him, he was a storyteller. Accepting the award, he was keen to talk of the influence the English graphic novelist Alan Moore - in particular his 1991 comic series From Hell - has had on his work.

"Moore talks about Jack the Ripper but also about London at the end of the 19th century, and little by little you discover an entire society," he said of From Hell. "I wanted to do something like this: to have a serial killer in order to talk about a whole society of serial killers."

And perhaps such interest in a very English story does suggest Roncagliolo's appeal is broad. For the past 10 years he has lived in Spain, where Red April was a bestseller and won the prestigious Alfaguara Prize. "Terrorism was no longer a Peruvian subject but a Spanish subject," he said, when he was asked why a book about a specific time in Peru's history had such effect thousands of miles away. "It seemed as if the world was on my side with this book."

Interestingly, Roncagliolo does seem to have a refreshingly global view. His next book, Tan Cerca De La Vida, is set in the Tokyo underworld. A story in Granta's recent Best Of Young Spanish-Language Novelists was ostensibly set in the Peruvian capital Lima, but had its two friends meeting in California. In that sense he possibly has more in common with the immensely popular late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano, whose characters crop up in Africa, Barcelona or Paris.

Still, trying to package Roncagliolo neatly as a typically Latin American writer is an invidious task - not least because his previous novel was a rather light family drama and he has also written a non-fiction book about the Cuban mafia.

And anyway, as he said in the interview that accompanied the Granta short story, "just what is a Latin American writer? I've no idea."

Whatever the answer to that question, one thing is for sure. Right now it's pretty exciting being Santiago Roncagliolo.