Archive for the ‘Santiago Roncagliolo’ Category

Hi, this is Conchita

July 13, 2013


Santiago Roncagliolo came to the attention of an English speaking (or should that be reading?) audience when his novel Red April won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011, a translation from Edith Grossman that had originally been published in 2009. Now we finally have a little more of his work in English (to add to his frequent contributions to Granta) thanks to the appearance of a collection of stories, Hi, this is Conchita, from the same translator and new imprint Two Lines Press. (The first of what looks to be an impressive catalogue, with books from Marie Ndiaye and Jonathan Littell to follow).

Though published with an ‘& other stories’ tag, ‘Hi, this is Conchita’ takes up the majority of the collection – a 130 page novella followed by 40 pages of three shorter stories. It uses the conceit of a series of phones calls, presented dialogue only as if in transcript. These follow four main strands: a man phoning a sex line (the Conchita of the title); a complaint to a customer service about over-billing; a man hiring a professional killer to rid himself of an unwanted mistress; and another man leaving increasingly desperate messages on the answerphone of an ex-girlfriend. All strands involve miscommunication in what is a light-hearted and amusing read, despite its theme of loneliness. Conchita’s caller believes they have a connection and soon rejects her clichéd sex-talk for marriage:

“I’ve never found anybody who understands me like you do…Never.”

The jilted lover threatens suicide only to phone back later:

“The fact is I never really planned to do it. It was just a test, understand?”

The would-be assassin and frustrated complainant find themselves in even more farcical situations, and, yes, you will not be surprised to learn that the calls eventually connect.

It’s easy to see why a bigger publisher didn’t want this as a follow-up to Red April, a much darker book, though the other three stories are all haunted by death in one way or an another (and ‘Hi, this is Conchita’ isn’t without casualties either). In ‘Despoiler’ a woman approaches her fortieth birthday with dread: her work colleagues want her to dress up and join them in the local carnival. In the dream-like story that follows, this leads to an encounter with a werewolf, and by the end we feel her youth is certainly over. In ‘Butterflies Fastened by Pins’ the narrator reflects on the way all his friends end up dead. The final, shortest story, ‘The Passenger Beside You’, is about the experience of being dead itself, but even here there’s a certain matter-of-factness to it all:

“The rest of being dead is routine. You know what I mean, right? It’s boring, because now nobody who’s alive listens to you.”

Roncagliolo’s latest novel, Oscar y las mujeres, also seems to be in comic vein (and originally published electronically in episodes, though rather more quickly than Margaret Atwood’s Positron). It’s to be hoped that UK publishers will not be put off simply because he is a writer who is capable of more than one thing.

Red April

September 3, 2010

Red April begins with a report written by its main character, Prosecutor Chacaltana, outlining the discovery of a badly burned body. The language of the report, convoluted and over-formal, renders the event comic:

“He stood and began walking to the above referenced establishment, but when he was halfway there he experienced the inconvenience of being victimised by a sudden attack of exhaustion and decided to return to his domicile to enjoy a well-deserved rest.”

This comedy is the result of the clash between the process of law, in which Chacaltana so whole heartedly places his trust, and the reality of life in rural Peru, a theme Santiago Roncagliolo will pursue throughout the novel.

The novel mimics the structure of the serial killer genre, with a series of grisly murders, each victim suffering the loss of a limb. However, Chacaltana is an unlikely protagonist, and it is his presence that marks the novel out as something more serious. The reader has an uncomfortable relationship with him: at times admiring his honesty; at others infuriated by his innocence. His heroism is often the result of his naive belief is carrying out his duties to the letter, for example when suggesting that the first death may be an act of terrorism:

“ ‘I would not presume to discount a Senderista attack.’
He had said it. The silence which followed his words seemed to reach the entire ballroom, the entire city.”

It soon becomes clear (to the reader at least) that any mention of terrorism is unwelcome as the official line is that no terrorists exist. Chacaltana’s naivety reveals the hypocrisy of others and allows us to see the truth, but his innocence is also an impediment to any solution. For example, on discovering regular terrorist incursions into the village where he has been sent as an election inspector, he asks the police lieutenant if he has requested reinforcements:

“Reinforcements? Of course. We also asked for a swimming pool and a couple of whores.”

The reader also enjoys an unsettling relationship with Chacaltana when it comes to his personal life. He has a touching relationship with a waitress, Edith, but we also discover that his claim to have requested his deployment from Lima to be close to his mother is not entirely accurate as his mother died when he was a child. He has, however, recreated his mother’s room in his house and regularly speaks to her.

Chacaltana, then, is a fascinating creation, and even more so for the way in which he changes in the course of the novel. Faced with violence all around him, Chacaltana feels compelled to use it in his defence, initially when attacked by a suspect:

“With his right hand, the prosecutor felt around him until he found a stone, lifted it, and with all his remaining strength hit Mayta in the face.”

Roncagliolo is aware that the reader will be relieved rather than distressed by this act given that Chacaltana’s life appears to be in danger, but it is a warning sign of a change in the prosecutor’s character which sees him first carry and then use a gun, an act that has a profound effect on him:

“Yesterday I shot a man. I don’t know who he was or if I hit him. But I might have killed someone. I felt it was a kind of test, a kind of training for something. I felt that something was changing in me.”

Roncagliolo uses his relationship with Edith to indicate that this change is not a positive one.

The novel comes to an appropriately violent conclusion, but by this time Roncagliolo has gone far beyond the serial killer genre with its thin layer of spurious psychology providing motive. This is a society where everyone is touched by violence and no-one is immune. By the end, ideas of law and justice are long forgotten.