Interview - Santiago Roncagliolo

Santiago Roncagliolo was born in Lima, and his family temporarily left Peru for political reasons in 1977. His novel Purdor (2005) was made into a film and his political thriller Abril rojo received the Alfaguara Prize in 2006 and is published in English as Red April in 2010.

La Cuarta espadia (2007), his non-fiction novel explores the mind of Abimael Guzman of Sendero Luminoso, one of the most dangerous terrorists in the history of the Americas. Memorias de una dama (2009) traces the origins of the Mafia in Cuba; the book was censored and its publication prohibited. His new novel, Tan cerca de la vida is a thriller set in the sex market of Tokyo. His work has been translated into thirteen languages.

Lucy Popescu: Why did you decide to become a writer?

Santiago Roncagliolo: I just realised I could not do anything else. I can’t drive a car, nor ride a bicycle. When my computer stops working, the only thing I can do is cry until it fixes itself. But I can write. I never thought I could be a professional writer. I just decided to write anything possible: soap operas, research journalism, political speeches (which were a great training into fiction, by the way). Unexpectedly, I learned useful skills for literary work. Therefore, each one of my books explores different genres, stages and literary influences.

LP: Your novel Red April (transl by Edith Grossman) uses both the thriller and crime genres to illuminate the bloody war that raged in Peru between 1980 and 2000 between the military and the guerrillas. How easy is it to interweave politics into your fiction?

SR: I write about the issues that affect me personally. And that was my war. I grew up there. And working in human rights, I met personally the terrorists and the army torturers. I decided to write about a serial killer because I wanted to describe a society of serial killers. I wanted to write about how difficult it is to decide who is good and who is bad when everybody is brutally killing each other.

LP: You and your family were forced to leave Peru in 1977 for political reasons. Did you find writing Red April therapeutic?

SR: All my novels are therapeutic. But about this subject, I also wrote a non fiction novel, La Cuarta Espada. Therapy was really long. I hope it is over.

LP:  When I worked with PEN, I remember campaigning on behalf of Peruvian writers and journalists persecuted under Fujimori’s regime in the 1990s. You worked in human rights in Peru at a similar time, when it would have been particularly dangerous for you. Do you believe in “the power of the pen” and do you think writers and journalists have a moral duty to campaign against injustice?

SR: I would force no writer into political subjects. The only way to control it is civil action. What would Norwegians write about? Red April is about violence and death. It is not just about Peru’s war, but also Baghdad’s or even World War II. I just picked the violence and death I knew well, which was Peruvian. But each reader recognises his own terrible past in it.  I think it is important that citizens take part in public life, not just writers, although writers or photographers can also show the injustices to other people. Power is always to be mistrusted, no matter where it comes from. The only way to control it is civil action.

LP: Stars and Stripes, your contribution to Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, is a short story about friendship and a boy’s passion for North America as well as touching on a shady underworld. What inspired this story?

SR: An old friend of mine. But please, do not tell him I wrote about him. We all grew up loving America. Then we realized it could destroy you if you love it too much. Maybe that is the meaning of love. Real love.

LP: You use diverse voices and a variety of locations in your fiction. Your next book is set in Tokyo. How hard is it to write from different perspectives and about unfamiliar locations?

SR: I have a trick: my characters are always foreigners. Even in the Peruvian books. When you travel, you have no past or future, nor a place in society. So you see things in a very personal way. You even have a different picture of yourself. Even a more real one. The real you is the guy that lives when nobody is looking at you.

LP: How autobiographical are the stories you tell?

SR: A lot, I'm afraid. But real life is not enough for good stories. I practice plastic surgery on my life in order to get a better narrative. For example, I took my job as a public employee, and turned it into a story about a serial killer. I used my experience of travel in Tokyo and wrote a psychological thriller. Maybe I am just an exaggerated, melodramatic person. That is a very Latin thing to be.

LP: Mexico had the Boom generation and then the Crack manifesto, Chile had the McOndo. Has Peru experienced a similar literary movement in the last hundred years?

SR: It was McOndo. The editor was Chilean, but the collected writers were from all Latin America. All of them were writing about urban middle class people and pop culture. For teenagers of the nineties, like me, it was a relief to discover. We could write about things we knew. Not necessarily about people with pigtails or dictators. In fact, I ended up writing about dictators, but just because it was a part of my daily life.

LP: Who do you think are some of the best Latin Americans writing today?

SR: I love specially the non-fiction writers: Martín Caparrós, Juan Villoro, Leila Guerriero... If there is anything interesting happening in Latin American fiction it is non fiction.

LP: You currently live in Barcelona. As a writer, is the Spanish language now your homeland or do you retain your Peruvian identity?

SR: I am totally unable to answer that question: I grew up in Mexico, I have spent almost all my adult life in Spain, my son is Catalan, my last novel is staged in Japan... I like to think that you are from the place where your affections lie. That would make me Peruvian with a big dose of Spanish and a slice of Mexican.

LP: How do you turn your research into a novel? Do you use record cards? Diagrams? Character dossiers?

SR: None of that. I read and travel a lot, and I collect a lot of images in my mind. But the most important when writing is to follow the music of the prose. If you plan too much, you sometimes sacrifice the global concept in order to insert an inappropriate scene or character. You risk losing what is most important.

LP: What are you currently working on?

A non-fiction novel, but a very special one: It is based on the real story of a liar. A writer who was Federico Garcia Lorca’s lover, and secretly sabotaged Pablo Neruda’s career, and once pretended to be Jean Paul Sartre in order to share dinner with Picasso and Chaplin. A chameleon whose life is a promenade along the best of 20th century art.

Originally published in Latineos