Silvio Sirias comes from a Nicaraguan family who brought him up initially in the United States, but clearly bequeathed him a strong interest in finding out about the story of the region from which the family came. His latest novel is based in Panama, where he now lives, and I’ve yet to read his first, based in Nicaragua itself. I read the new book after hearing a talk by Sirias in Granada, Nicaragua, where he also lived for some years as a young man. After enjoying The Saint of Santa Fe, I look forward to reading his other work.
Like his first Nicaraguan novel, his Panamanian one is deeply political. It successfully interweaves three story lines. The principal one is that of Hector Gallego, a diminutive Colombian priest with a strong but practical line in liberation theology. In 1968 he feels called to a poor community in Panama, which he believes is in need of assistance in realising its potential and facing down the oppressive system under which the majority of the people live, in poverty. Although the storyline is nominally fictional, it strongly reflects real events, in which the man who will become known as the Saint of Sante Fe does indeed help the people of that village find the power they need to fight for improvements in their lives. Ultimately, while in 1971 he pays the price of success with his life, the people not only form but maintain for many years afterwards a co-operative through which they free themselves from the stranglehold of the local landowners.
Through this part of the story, Sirias also introduces us to Omar Torrijos, Panama’s enigmatic dictator, about whom opinions are still divided, and who himself may have been assassinated (in his case, by the CIA). Also playing a minor but probably key role is the infamous Manuel Noriega, then an affiliate of Torrijos, and later as Panamanian president to be an important player in the CIA-directed war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. (Later still, of course, he fell out of favour and was deposed and arrested in the US invasion of Panama, 25 years ago this month, in which probably 3,000 people were killed).
Linked with the Torrijos story is the second part of the narrative, involving the young sister of Hector Gallego who continues in the work her brother started and for which the priest was punished with death. Much of the novel appears to be based on her recollections. Finally, the third part of the narrative, interwoven with the other two, is the author’s own tale of pursuing the history of events in Santa Fe.
This all works extremely well, because there is uncertainty about the precise events surrounding Gallego’s death, and the other two strands of the novel help give substance to something which otherwise might have seemed vague and unsatisfactory. (The alternative, rightly unacceptable to Sirias, would presumably have been to let his imagination go way beyond such conflicting evidence as exists.) The message of the novel could have been a pessimistic one – that a good man is easily defeated by the forces of evil. But, by bringing in the other two strands, Sirias is able to give the story the positive ending that it deserves: that despite the horror of the way he probably died, the spirit of Hector Gallego still lives, years afterwards, in the community for which he gave his life.