Grand Forks Library Director Avi Silberstein was born in Santiago, Chile in 1982 to a Canadian mother and Chilean father. This was a time when Chileans were living under the brutal dictatorship of General Pinochet, who had taken power in a bloody coup in 1973 and remained in firm control of the country until 1989.
This is the time frame and location in which Silberstein set the story of his first novel, Human Solutions (Skyhorse, 2014).
The author was in Midway Public Library last week to tell the dozen or so library patrons how the book came about.
After Pinochet stepped down, media censorship eased and reports on the atrocities that had happened while he was in power came to light. One of those stories was of a cult in southern Chile run by a German ex- Nazi who was rumoured to be doing a lot of terrible things including abusing young boys.
The cult leader, a man named Paul Schaefer (who preferred to be called Uncle Paul), was born in 1921 in Germany. Following the Second World War he found ways to put himself in jobs where he had access to young children; when the children would complain of his abuse, he would have to move on.
Uncle Paul enjoyed an incredible charisma, allowing him to control entire groups of people, and he began travelling around Germany as an evangelical preacher. He went on to create an orphanage for war widows and their children.
Accusations of child abuse again surfaced, but Schaefer had heard that the South American country of Chile was trying to increase their population in the southern part of the country and he ended up buying 4,400 acres of prime farmland in Chile and moved there with a dozen or so followers in the early 1960’s.
Over the next decade he continued to build up the land and acquire surrounding farms. More of his followers came from Germany and by the time the CIA and Pinochet staged the coup, the colony had several hundred people and included a village that had everything including mills, factories, bakeries, two airstrips, a chapel and a state of the art hospital.
It also had a fence and guards preventing those living in the colony access to the outside world. Any television footage seen by the colonists was spliced together by Uncle Paul to make it appear that society was breaking down—only war, pestilence, death and earthquakes existed outside the fence.
In the years following Pinochet’s dictatorship, investigation by police and journalists uncovered the fact that in return for making the colony available as a place where General Pinochet’s regime could torture and kill political dissidents, the Chilean government would turn a blind eye to things that were happening in the cult.
“As a young child I was really affected by this story. It affected me that there was essentially what sounded to me like a Nazi concentration camp four hours south of where I lived where a terrible man was doing things to boys. Fifteen years after that, when I sat down to write a novel, that’s what bubbled up and that’s what I ended up writing about.”
The novel is loosely inspired by the true story (Uncle Paul becomes Uncle Peter) and tells the story of Javier, a man in his late thirties who meets a woman and falls in love. It turns out her young son is trapped in the colony and Javier’s job is to infiltrate it, find the boy and get out.
“I wrote five days a week—not necessarily Monday to Friday but I had to write five days per week, Silberstein said. “I had to write 750 words a day, whether that took an hour or four hours that was the rule.
“At that pace – 3,750 words a week, 16,000 words a month – it took four months to write this book. It’s approximately 60,000 words. It’s a very short book but I myself like reading books that I am not reading for weeks and weeks at a time.” His reading at the Midway library last week was his second on this book tour. The first was in Castlegar. He’s unsure he’ll do one in his own library.
The book has short chapters so you can read it on the fly or between chores. But many readers who have enjoyed the book report the chances are good that you will be hooked in no time and will find yourself turning the page to find out what happens in the next chapter.