An Interview with Santiago Roncagliolo
With the 2009 publication of Red April, in the United States (it appeared in the UK the following year), the English-speaking world was introduced to Santiago Roncagliolo, one of Latin Americaís most original authors. On the novelís original publication in Spain, in 2006, Roncagliolo became the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Alfaguara Prize. Then in May of this year, he became the youngest ever winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, a £10,000 award split evenly between the author and his translator, Edith Grossman, who is one of the best in the business. Judge and Independent literary editor Boyd Tonkin described Red April as "a novel that will grip, excite, disturb and challenge all its readers."
Red April is the story of a serial killer who is terrorising a tiny Andean village. Itís set in 2000, at the end of the bloody civil war waged against the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), led by one of the worldís most ruthless terrorists, Abimael Guzman, the subject of Roncaglioloís book, La Cuarta Espada. But although the war is officially over, the atmosphere of fear and dread still pervades these small towns. Political corruption is both rife and strenuously denied.
Roncagliolo knows this territory inside and out. He was born in Peru in 1975 but his father took the family to Mexico, when a tense political atmosphere forced him out of the country. They did not return until the 1980s, during the war, and the horror of those years would later inform Roncaglioloís short story collection, Crecer es un Oficio Triste (Growing Up Is A Sad Business).
After studying literature at university, he began writing television soap operas, journalism, and childrenís books, but a job with the Human Rights Commission brought Roncagliolo into contact with stiff politicians who needed someone to bring the human touch to their speeches and reports. Some of the bureaucratic-speak he learned on the job found its way into Red April, notably in the po-faced, wordy reports penned by his bumbling hero, Felix Chacaltana. His most recent novel, Te Cerca de la Vida (So Close to Life), is set in Japan.
Red April is that rare thing, a tense, terrifying thriller thatís also full of black humour, dark enough to make you laugh out loud. That didnít surprise me, reading it after having met the author. No one laughs more readily or is more attuned to lifeís absurdities. We caught up again in London the day after his latest triumph, when his mood was, unsurprisingly buoyant, and laughed about many things, including my shock on hearing that he has Italian ancestry.
What do you mean Roncagliolo is an Italian name? Youíre Peruvian.
What, you thought it was an Indian name? The family legend is that the father of my grandfather was a smuggler -- well thatís true, he was -- and the legend was that he didnít really have this last name, he adopted it because it was so complicated that nobody in the courts would write it properly. He bought land in Peru. He was a clever businessman but his son slept with almost all the little town, and had children everywhere, so they divided the land among many people. Then my grandfather went to Italy to study and came back as a powerful anarchist. He collectivised the clan to give the land to the peasants, and we lost more. And then my father was a Socialist Revolutionary party member, and when the government came to collectivise the land he said that it was ok. We have no land anymore. Itís quite an Italian story.
Does your family live in Peru now?
Yes, all my family live in Peru. I lived in Mexico until I was ten years old, more or less. I love Mexico. I feel it is like a lost paradise, because we were happy there. When we came back to Peru it was the war, and my parents divorced. I had all kinds of combinations of new family -- a modern family. We restructured more than the national debt of Peru, with people coming in and out! But I learned to see that as a good thing, because itís more people you can enjoy and care about, and who care about you.
Do you remember the first time you became aware of the power of words?
I was really aware of language because I changed the kind of Spanish I spoke, so I talked differently than the others at school. I didnít know what they were talking about most of the time. I had been in a mixed school in Mexico, and came back to a religious, all male school -- like a bomb of hormones always about to explode. I realised, that there were a few gestures and words, that should make me angry or that were supposed to be funny, but I never understood. Having this socialist family, everybody at home was really open, and there were not a lot of taboos with sex, so I never made the association about what they were talking about. I just used the words without knowing what they meant.
That was my first big moment when I was aware that there were secret words, there were things that made you powerful because the one who knew more words was admired by the others. Also, I was a nerd in many aspects. I didnít play football, which was also a problem. I was condemned to be beaten by the boys, and I could never win a fight, that was clear. But I discovered that I could mock them, and that was more powerful. If you hit somebody, the pain lasts just five or ten minutes, but if you mock him the pain can last longer, because children remember. So the other boys began to respect me because what I could say was too dangerous. I still do it, thatís my idea of the satirical job I do: I cannot change something, but I can mock it with black humour.
Red April is terrifying in parts, and gory, and Kafkaesque, in other places, but at the same time it made me laugh my socks off Ė and I felt peculiar about that.
[Laughing] I spent one night with a couple of African writers a few years ago. We were making political jokes and we found that had the same jokes, we just used different names. In poor countries humour is blacker than in rich countries, and more politically incorrect. I had to moderate myself when I arrived in Spain because I would say things I found really funny and everyone would look at me.
Itís beautiful when someone tells me I made them laugh. I love to write humour and terror because I like very physical emotions. When you laugh itís your body moving, when youíre scared, itís your skin crawling. These are powerful emotions.
For us, Red April is relatively new, but you wrote it ages ago. Is it hard to reconnect with the man you were then?
Yes. Itís a date with your own past. I am surprised at what this novel did. It won the big prize in Spain, and it was a big bestseller, and keeps being reprinted. In Peruvian society it was the moment to begin to talk about the past. After I wrote about Abimael Guzman, I went to the jails to talk about the books, and it was amazing. I was talking to army people and Shining Path people and guerrilla people in the same auditorium. I would speak then they all begin to tell their own stories. It was a bit of a metaphor of what was going on in the country. Everybody had the feeling that it was time to listen to each other, even to the killers, even to the evil ones, to understand why people arrived at this place. My generation can do it, because we were children when this happened. We were innocent, we have no past. So it was like a liberation for us, and for the people participating.
You began your writing career with childrenís books, didnít you?
I studied literature at university, but I never thought I could be a writer. At the beginning of the 1990s, it was really complicated for somebody my age to think about being a writer. If you were Peruvian, you had the feeling that you had to be able to write 700 pages and be a candidate for president, to write. Writers were big intellectuals. What I wanted to do was tell stories. So I began to make childrenís literature because they were stories that begin in the beginning and end in the ending. You can be really imaginative. Other [readers] have a lot of ideas what books should be. Children just know if they enjoy the story or not. They are sometimes a cruel audience, but they always know what they want -- pleasure. That was what I wanted when I began and what I still want.
My first job out of university was the chance to write soap operas. I loved it, because all my† intellectual friends were [appalled]. But I was telling stories.
Itís a big deal, getting a job in television straight out of university.
Itís a big deal here, because television is a big industry, but not in Peru. There are not enough people with the skill. Just the fact of being able to write meant you were in demand. I went to TV and then to journalism and then to political work with the Human Rights commission.
Was that politically motivated?
They needed somebody. They wrote like Chacaltana. They were working with very strong human dramas, so they needed someone to humanise their communications. It was impossible not to be in politics. When I was working in soap operas, we had an idea to write a comical show, and the Fujimori government forbade comedians to make political shows. Then I went to write journalism, and you could not write about the most interesting things happening. So working at the Human Rights Commission, talking about what was happening, was about the most exciting thing to do, because you couldnít do it anywhere else.
Why do you move around different genres?
I was always very attached to popular culture. The first novel l I read was Peter Benchleyís Jaws. My father valued education and insisted that I read. He was a bit obsessive. When I was eight he said, "Okay, itís time to stop reading shit for children, now youíre going to read books without pictures." I said okay, if itís an order I will obey. He took me to the bookshop and said, "Choose one. No pictures." And I saw this picture on the cover of the book of a naked woman swimming, with a shark behind her, and said I want that! He was not really convinced but he took it to the clerk and said, "What kind of book is this?" The clerk said that as far as he knew it was a revolutionary book. He meant revolutionary for the science fiction and fantasy genre, but my father was from the socialist revolution and he accepted that that was a good adjective for a book.
I remember the first metaphor that I read there. A woman is pissing, and he says it is as if somebody has dropped a bag of ice on her kidneys. After this, I read a lot of Agatha Christie books. My father had a big collection, in Spanish.
Then my mother said, "Itís time for you to read something serious." I was nine years old by then. I began to read Garcia-Marquez, and all that kind of stuff. My house was full of books, it was impossible to avoid them. So for me, genre books and high literature books were the same thing. When I arrived, I was somewhere in the middle. I want the things I enjoy from the great writers, but I try not to be elitist. I enjoy Stephen King, for example. I think he is a great writer. I also enjoy other not so great writers. I try to be in the middle, because I always admired both. Genre writing is a good thing, because it gives you a plot, which you can use in a personal way.
Those of us limited to English havenít had a chance to read much of your work. There was a short story, "Stars and Stripes," published in Granta, when they named you as one of the best young Spanish language novelists, but I understand thereís a whole anthology?
That is called Growing Up is a Sad Business, and itís about me and my friends, when we were teenagers and children. It was written when I was 22. I remember my father said, "Hey, the fathers of your characters, they are horrible." I said well they are not you, this is fiction. He said, "I know itís not me, but how are my friends going to know itís not me?"
It was the beginning of a long conflict I have between reality and fiction. My friends were worried that they were the characters. Of course you borrow, but what was surprising was that I didnít borrow from the people who think that I was talking about them.
Why was growing up so sad?
It was the 1980s in Lima! [He laughs.] You donít KNOW what it was! †We had a war going on and curfews and blackouts and corpses in the streets and bombs. One friend, his house was destroyed by a bomb. The military facilities had an announcement on the walls: "Please donít park here, you will be shot." We had black-outs on all the significant dates, like Christmas, to show power. The Shining Path would keep the lights out in the streets.
Thatís ironic, given their name.
That was a name the police gave them. They considered themselves just to be the Communist Party. They would explode bombs for you to listen to in the dark, to create fear. They were good at propaganda. Then it stopped, and we realised that we were 17 years old, we had peace, and we were in the second biggest cocaine producing country in the world. So... the '90s were really heavy. Cocaine was cheaper than beer.
Did you use drugs?
If you were not using cocaine, you were not there! Cocaine is bad because unless you have really industrial use, nothing really terrible happens to you. You just stop doing things, because you get all your pleasure and all your happiness from it. But then I went to Spain and I got clean, because it was so expensive. It was use cocaine or eat, and I love eating. That was in 2000.
I wanted to be a writer, and all the professional writers I knew about were living in Spain. I was young and stupid, because all the professional writers I knew were two. But it was a good moment to try. You have no mortgage, no wife, no children. So I said okay, letís try.
I considered it impossible to earn a living from novels, but possible to earn a living from screenwriting.† Spain produces more films than anyone else in Latin America. The United States produce films, but you must write in English, which would be more complicated. And the States cost ten times as much.
But youíve done translating, from English to Spanish, is that correct?
Yes. I translated Joyce Carol Oates, last year. Lovely book.
Your books are translated into dozens of languages, but given your command of English, did you collaborate with Edith Grossman at all?
She asked questions, and showed me the translation at the end, which is not usual, for me to read, and criticise if I considered it necessary. But I was more sure of her than of me! She could perceive many social differences among the Hispanic culture and the English language culture and could translate them -- things like the legal language, for example. She really knows the language and the society and the characters. Sheís very sensitive. I always say that I have the feeling that Iím a better writer in English than in Spanish!
Edith proposed me to the publishing house in New York, and in fact, having her on the job was very good for getting a good publisher. I know almost none of my translators, but I keep in touch with Edith. You and I were talking about black humour earlier, and not taking things seriously, and being irreverent -- THATíS Edith Grossman. I love her sense of humour and we get along very well.
Your most recent novel is called Tan Cerca de la Vida. Was it really inspired by Japanese porn?
Yes. I was alone, as far away as I could from everything in my life at that moment -- and the farthest point was Tokyo. This was two or three years ago. And when I arrived, if your phone is not 3G, it just doesnít work. And the internet at the hotel was so powerful that it collapsed my computer.
I was in this glamorous hotel, but it was a really lonely experience. I had jet lag, and it was cold. So one night, at three am. I was trying to watch anything at all on the television, because I couldnít talk to anyone and I was in a troubled state of mind. So I put the porn on. In Japanese porno, penetration is pixilated. This was the only human contact I could have, and it was blurred. That, more or less, was the beginning of the novel. The character desperately needs love or communication but he can just get sex.
At the same time, in this hotel, there was a showroom of androids. Machines that are very lifelike and human, such as a robot lady programmed with twelve different emotions. From all of that came the novel. The way I work, I live things and then say okay how can we make a story with this? A book is a long process from the moment that I begin to have the experience and the feeling that I must write about it somehow, to the moment when I see the reactions to what Iíve written.
Has the rootlessness of living all over the place helped or hindered your writing?
I have come to believe that you are from the place where somebody loves you or cares about you. Iíve never been in one place all my life, but being an outsider is good for a writer. You always have to step back and put a little bit of distance between life and yourself, and that means that you can invent your life because there are no witnesses. You know what I HATE, when I go to Lima, and Iím telling a good story from when I was a teenager, and my mother says, "Nooo. It was not this way." And I donít care! The way Iím telling it is better.
Finally, do you write every day?
I am a maniac, I work a lot. I am working on a lovely story now, a nonfiction commission about a forgotten writer called Enrique Amorim, who was the lover of Garcia Lorca, and made sabotage against Pablo Neruda. His memoirs and pictures and letters are an insight into the artists of the twentieth century, but from the eyes of the loser, of the one in the corner of the picture, of the one who was trying to get inside. At the same time heís a kind of Zelig. A homosexual who was married; a Communist but a millionaire; he was Uruguayan but Argentinean. Itís not an academic biography, more like a nonfiction novel.† It is a great commission, because I have creative freedom. There are secrets in this story, but not the kind of secrets where people want to kill you -- which in my case is progress.†