By David McPherson
Medellin (Colombia), May 25 (EFE).- US author Douglas Grant Mine weaves a gripping tale of lives upended in a flash and revenge served cold in his recently published second novel “April and the Gardener,” a book that draws in part on his experiences as a journalist during the 1979-1992 Salvadoran civil war.
The picturesque, volcano-ringed colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, in the mid-1990s and guerrilla-held areas of war-stricken El Salvador in the mid-1980s are two of the settings for the novel, which offers a sympathetic look at impoverished Central Americans who either took up arms against the state or aided and abetted those who did.
It also recounts the genocidal tactics those US-backed regimes employed to hold on to power.
“The Central American revolutionary movements were a response to egregiously oppressive and exploitative governments. They were situations in which the vast majority of the people were very poor and a small slice of society was wealthy,” the novelist said late last month in an interview with Efe from his home in Italy’s Le Marche region.
“So these revolutionary movements – the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, for example, or the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) in El Salvador, which were trying to change this situation – were relatively easy to sympathize with because they were against the oppressors and the exploiters,” Mine, author of the 1988 novel “Champions of the World” about Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship, told Efe.
The middle portion of “April and the Gardener” is set in 1980s El Salvador, when Mine lived and worked for five years in the small Central American nation as correspondent for The Associated Press.
The author spent two years in Antigua with his family (two of his sons were born there) in the mid-1990s, and later served as senior editor of Efe’s English Service from 2002 to 2007.
His journalistic commitment to accuracy and eye for detail is apparent in his portrait of the guerrillas’ lives: their nights spent sleeping in the rain on thin rubber mats, their daily diet of tortillas and beans, their search for cover from howitzer fire in tunnels dug into hillsides and their long treks to the Honduran border to procure medical supplies.
But Mine’s interest in the region also extends well beyond the armed conflict.
In passages sprinkled throughout the novel, published this year by Stacked Stone Books, the author pays homage to ordinary Central Americans who, he says, “lived through war and poverty and earthquakes and volcano eruptions (yet) continue to demonstrate this amazing capacity to continue working and striving.”
Those detailed snapshots showcase the labor these people do with their bare hands or simple tools: rustic lumber sawyering and diving to riverbeds for sand, the one-knife slaughtering of a young bull, the desperate rescue of a birthing cow and her breech calf and the expert curing of inconsolable infants.
Other chapters serve as tributes to the meticulous science of archeology, allowing the reader a front-row seat as a US university professor and his local colleagues shed light on the distant past.
Yet Mine explained that although he drew to a “great extent” on his own experiences in writing “April and the Gardener,” his main mission was to blend fact and fiction in a way that would keep readers riveted to the page.
In that regard, he recalled Peruvian Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s insights into great storytelling in a 1990 book of essays.
“Vargas Llosa, who like myself started his road toward fiction-writing as a journalist, wrote a book called ‘La verdad de las mentiras,’ the truth in the lies,” Mine said.
“And the thesis of that is basically that real human drama can only be transmitted beautifully through art by means of fiction that crystallizes life’s experience and condenses it and leaves out all the boring and routine stuff.”
Some may find Mine’s novel initially disorienting, as the setting shifts from Antigua to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to Los Angeles and backward and forward in time.
During those opening chapters, he introduces and gradually fleshes out his three main characters: University of California, Berkeley professor and documentary filmmaker April Tashima, Cornell University archeology professor Joseph Guinness and Salvadoran-American student-athlete and avenging angel Juan Cano.
The lives of the three protagonists will come together in Antigua, yet much of Juan’s compelling backstory is revealed through his first-person recollections captured by April’s video camera and later transcribed by Joe.