A latter-day Candide gets a crash course in Peruvian terrorism and counter-terrorism in Roncagliolo’s precocious debut, winner of the 2006 Alfaguara Prize.
Though he’s spent most of his fledgling career in Lima, Félix Chacaltana Saldívar is back in his birthplace in Ayacucho as an associate district prosecutor when he’s called on to take charge of an unspeakable murder. The unidentifiable body, discovered on Ash Wednesday 2000 as the village is just coming off a three-day pre-Lenten bender, has suffered the loss of an arm and has been doused with accelerant and reduced nearly to ashes itself. Armed with an Olivetti typewriter and a manual of procedure, Chacaltana makes the rounds of the local citizens. But no one, of course, knows anything, and Captain Pacheco, of the local police, alternately toys with Chacaltana and impedes his investigation. Only silver-toothed waitress Edith Ayala shows the slightest concern for Chacaltana, and that’s by serving him meals he never eats. At length he ignores the obvious evidence that Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, was behind the assassination and instead writes a ludicrously improbable report that endorses the view of Commander Carrión, of the Army of Peru: “In this country there is no terrorism, by orders from the top.” As a reward, he’s sent as an election observer to the far-off hamlet of Yawarmayo, a hellish landscape where violent Senderistas battle corrupt officials without quarter, trapping naïve associate district prosecutors in the middle. As he continues his investigation into the widening circle of violence, Chacaltana can’t help but notice that “all the people I talk to die.” The case will make a mockery of the detective story’s foundational convention of individual guilt, leaving its unlikely hero alone to trace the steps of Christ’s passion and death as Holy Week leads inexorably to the bleakest Easter imaginable.
An angry, despairing dispatch, punctuated with illiterate notes from a killer and equally meaningless reports in bureaucratic doublespeak, from a land torn apart by civil war and official denial.