Children of the Sunset

Children of the Sunset is my first novel, which I began while on the University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA. An extract was published in the UEA Creative Writing Anthology 2008. I am currently seeking representation by an agent.

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SunsetSynopsis

Blending magic realism with the page-turning pace of a political thriller, Children of the Sunset is an epic tale of love, revolution and clashing ideas set in the sprawling Amazon rainforests and vast stretches of the Andes against the backdrop of the Bolivian Gas War.

On October 9th 1967, the world’s most famous revolutionary, Che Guevara, is shot in the remote Bolivian village of La Higuera. The only witnesses: a young boy brought by a vision and the mysterious omniscient being that narrates the tale.

Forty years later, in a country embroiled in civil unrest, the firebrand populist Colonel Álvaro Medina Bolívar stages an opportunistic coup. Greeted as a liberator of the poor, Bolívar and his wife, the dashing popstar María Duardo, become overnight sensations on the world stage. But as economic collapse forces Bolívar to follow the path of so many Latin American populists to neo-liberal reform and increasing repression, he soon finds himself facing an intransigent rebellion led by his former comrade, Katari Herrera Márquez, with whom he shares a past as rich and painful as their country’s history. Embarking on a series of nationalistic stunts in an effort to inspire the people and bolster his flagging regime, Bolívar calls upon Inca expert Dr. Julian S. Morrow – a brilliant but quite autistic Cambridge academic whose only passion, besides numbers, is Sophie Eloise Paris, the student who destroyed his marriage – to search for a legendary national symbol in a city lost in its own myth.

But danger awaits Morrow at every turn in the lightless jungles. Guerrillas stalk the night forest, the dead refuse to stay silent and a timeless game is played between two immortal beings for the direction of humanity.

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Chapter One:

The End of History and the Last Man’s Last Laugh

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution…”

- Francis Fukuyama: ‘The End of History and the Last Man’

Call me what you will. Names, like anything else, are just a choice. And they say there’s a world in every choice, a divergent reality built on each of history’s momentous decisions. I was there for most of them. It might not have been me riding that tank while they fought a war with lightning and a generation of Germans, but I was there in 1924, sitting in number 11 Landsberg Prison whilst my cellmate dictated a different kind of struggle. I didn’t stick around long in Saint Petersburg after they painted the town red and saw it was time for a change in name, but I was present in the heady days of ‘48 when Karl and Friedrich set it all in motion. I wasn’t waiting in the wings when they nailed the son of a carpenter up because the Holy Land had one too many prophets as it was, but I was around when they came to write about it later, not because history is written by the victors, but because it is written by me. And yes, I was there in 1967, in the tiny Bolivian village of La Higuera, when The Doctor’s Son came upon the schoolhouse.

They build a statue here later. A monument to the greatness of a great man. Or the petrification of the petrified. That’s always the way isn’t it? It stands, in your time, beside a humble cross in the shadow of rolling moss-green peaks thick with foliage. I suppose one could say it is my time too, for all time is my time. But enough of me.

Emerging from the shade of the tree-line into the heat of the semi-tropical spring sun, the boy wiped a little hand across his bronzed mestizo forehead and drew a darker line of sweat and dirt behind it. It had not rained here in some days. The sun burned like an old god of this land high overhead in the white-wisp-flecked blue bowl that stretched out over the hills and trees and squat single-storey houses with their run-down roofs of chipped tiles and thatch and walls of brittle brick and brown baked mud. His clumpy shoes, half a size too big for his still-growing feet, scuffed little dust storms as he picked his way as quietly as he could along the track of parched earth cracked in an atlas of lines. He’d heard the soldiers talking earlier, their hushed tones and hoarse cigar-cut voices turning to the gut-laughter of a victory, their automatic rifles catching the light as they scanned the darkness beyond their perimeter. No one was in sight now. The village seemed dead to him. The brush around though, the bushes in hundreds, thousands of shades of green, was alive with chirping cicada song. Somewhere not too far away he heard a dog barking. Gruff rolled r rrrooofs. And a man’s muffled cry.

The Doctor’s Son stopped a moment, sat down on a heated half-shaded slab of grey stone next to a rickety roadside shack leaning over him in its decrepit parallelogram. There he sighed and pulled off his shoes and socks, releasing the footsmell of sweat into the gentle breeze that brushed the mess of his soggy black hair. Rubbing his aching soles, he willed the blisters back into his feet. He had walked far. Through the warmth of a milder yesterday, into the night and morning. Far from the comfort of home, far from the safety of the sleepy cobbled town in which his father chose to practice his medicine, miles over rough terrain, through the jungle, along dirt tracks into the hills. Brought by a dream. A vision in a dream: nothing more than an idea in its most abstract. It was not until he was nearing this isolated campesino backwater, until, hiding in the bushes, he had overheard the passing soldiers bragging of their new prisoner, the limping Argentine, that he had truly understood.

There was a rustle in the thicket behind, a glint of red. The boy turned and that was when he might have seen me, had the first and vaguest of impressions that I might have been close by, but I had not come to him yet. Not fully. No doubt he doubted his eyes, keen and wide and dark and full of wonder as they were. He removed his glasses – those thick black rectangles with their great wedges of convex glass that covered a full third of his face – and with a pinched corner of his brown thorn-shredded t-shirt wiped the steam from the lenses. The squawk of a passing macaw turned to another, more human, screech and something told him then he didn’t have much time. Reaching into his pack, he pulled out his knife and ran, barefoot, straight for that horrific sound.

That was how The Doctor’s Son came upon the dilapidated old schoolhouse: a long, low building of crumbling mud bricks the Bolivian soil would have soon reclaimed were it not for the structure’s famous prisoner and its future pre-eminence. And that was how he stumbled upon, stumbled into, one Sergeant Carlos Domingo Lozada. The boy had run around the corner of a subsiding house, straight into his stomach, arms flailing, arms entangling, and bounced off where he tripped and skidded and fell backwards, elbows scraping the dust. The soldier was startled, jittery from recent combat, and his instinctive reaction had him reach for his holster. In a practice-perfected instant he’d unclipped and pointed his pistol. It was only then that he realised he had his weapon trained not on a revolutionary fighter, but the flushed and flustered face of a young boy.

“Buenas tardes!” Sergeant Domingo said with a sigh of relief, replacing his pistol and offering the boy his hand.

“Gracias,” the boy replied warily, taking the proffered hand and allowing the soldier to hoist him to his feet. Domingo’s grip was strong, powerful, it unnerved the kid.

“What is your name?”

The Doctor’s Son did not answer.

“I am Carlos. Sergeant Carlos Domingo Lozada.”

Still the boy remained silent. Was he in trouble? He eyed Domingo from his boots to his cap. He was tall, over six foot, heavy-set and muscular, but soft-faced, despite a few days black stubble, high-cheekboned and handsome. He couldn’t have been more than twenty, the boy thought. The same age as his cousin, barely eight years older than himself, not the imposing adult presence he had expected. And for all the terrifying power of the gun the soldier had only seconds before wielded, it was the look of surprise, the look of terror, in his own eyes as he’d reached for it that The Doctor’s Son recognised.

Domingo smiled. “It’s ok. I won’t hurt you.”

Saying nothing, the boy returned the soldier’s smile and knew he spoke the truth.

“You’re not from here are you?”

“No.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Vallegrande.”

“That’s a long way to travel on your own. Are your parents not with you?”

The Doctor’s Son shook his head.

It was at that point that Domingo’s eyes fell upon the knife that had dropped from the boy’s hand as he’d tripped. Stooping to retrieve it from the dirt, he examined the sharp serrated edge of its thick curved blade. “Why does someone so young carry the knife of a hunter?”

The boy shrugged. “Why does someone so young carry the gun of a soldier?”

Domingo laughed at this. “I like you chico. You remind me of my little brother. That kid’s got spirit, I tell you. Maybe too much. He’ll either end up running the country one day or in front of a firing squad. Listen, you take this back.” Domingo handed him the knife by the blade. “But in future, perhaps you shouldn’t run with it.”

“Gracias.” The boy grinned awkwardly, took the knife, sheathed it at his belt and turned to go. And then he stopped and turned back. “Señor, may I ask – what’s in the schoolhouse over there?”

Domingo suddenly stopped smiling, his face following the orders from way up the chain. “There is nothing in the schoolhouse.”

“But-”

“Now run along chico.”

“Señor?”

“Niño bueno.” Domingo unbuttoned the pocket above the right knee in his camouflage trousers, reached into it and produced an army ration chocolate bar. Handing it to the boy, he ruffled his hair with a firm hand and said “Get back to your parents.”

The Doctor’s Son was about to protest when he heard other voices, heavy foot-falls, more soldiers coming their way, and the look on Sergeant Domingo’s face told him that he should get out of sight quickly. Without hesitating, the boy ducked around the building, circling behind it. There he waited a few moments until he heard the Sergeant moving off, and then doubled back on himself. He had come too far to be deterred now. And Domingo’s reticence had communicated more than his tongue. Now The Doctor’s Son knew where they were keeping the prisoner.

Peering around the corner, one hand on the sun-warmed wall, he could see Domingo fifty yards or so away and he’d been joined by three other soldiers, rifles slung over their backs. The four of them were standing in a tense square by the entrance to the schoolhouse, speaking in raised voices, shaking heads, pointing fingers, arguing about something. He could not make out what they were saying, but he thought he knew. Keeping low, keeping to the shade, he ducked behind a stone wall and ran along its length. From where he was now, he could no longer see their faces, but he could hear Domingo talking.

“No, Mario, that is not fair,” Domingo was saying. “Why should you be the one to do it?”

“Carlos, Carlos,” the one called Mario replied, “have you ever executed a man before?”

“I am a soldier, I know how to kill.”

“It’s not the same. Killing in battle, their bullets flying at you, your bullets flying at them, you or them, them or you, there’s no time to think. Killing a man in cold blood, you have time to see his face, time to hear his words, and both will stay with you.”

“I don’t see why we have to kill him anyway,” a third soldier said. “Surely he’s worth more to us alive than dead. He said so himself when we took him.”

“These are our orders, José. They come from President Barrientos himself. You heard the code. Five hundred, six hundred, that’s what Felix said. And you know what that means. The President wants his head on a spike in downtown La Paz and we’re going to bring it to him.”

“I don’t trust any of this, Mario,” José said. “Why are we doing the bidding of the Americans against our own brothers? Sons of the south.”

“The Argentine? Goes to whip up his hate in some tottering state, then comes here? To fight in our Bolivia? That is called an invasion. He is an invader. And we must follow orders. I understand if you don’t want to do it.”

“I never said that!”

“Mario, you’re talking this up!” Domingo said. “I know you. You want to be the one to do it because he’s famous. Because you will go down in history, your name a footnote to his.”

Mario laughed. “Can you say any different, Carlos?”

“No.”

“Well then, how do we decide? Do we flip a coin?”

“Sí.”

“No!” the fourth soldier interjected. “That’s not fair either! What about me? What about little Alberto? I want to do it!”

“Wait,” José said, and after some consideration added, “me too!”

“Then we draw straws,” Mario decided. “Whoever gets the shortest gets to be the one.”

“Straws?” Domingo groaned. “We always draw straws. Who gets the last cigar? Straws. Who gets the whore with the biggest pechos? Straws. Who gets-”

“To kill the world’s most famous revolutionary?”

“Straws,” the soldiers chimed together.

“Then it is agreed.”

“Agreed.”

“Sí.”

Peering over the wall, The Doctor’s Son saw the soldiers distractedly searching the dirt for suitable pieces of straw. Their backs were turned. This was his chance. Without stopping to think or look round, he dashed the few feet across open ground to the door of the old schoolhouse. Hurriedly pushing his way in, he closed the flimsy wooden door behind him, placed his back to it and let out a sigh of relief. That was when he heard another sigh. A gasp, a moan, a pained whimper. At first all the boy could see through the dingy gloom of the interior were two points of red that could have been hot glowing embers in a hearth in the far corner. Training his eyes, he could soon make out other things. Shapes. A table. A chair. Some piping. A man handcuffed to it.

Che!” the prisoner exclaimed in that Argentine way for which he was well known. “Che!”

Looking upon him, The Doctor’s Son knew then that he was now a part of history. How could he have known what part it was to play in his future? The prisoner looked so different from his iconic photographs – the one that would later come to decorate student bedrooms all across the world – sprawled out on the floor, crumpled in a hurting heap, bleeding from a bullet wound in the leg, his beret gone, his shaggy black hair, his beard, unkempt and overgrown, his face pale and frightened.

“Che!” he said again. “Who are you?”

“I-” The Doctor’s Son began.

“What are you doing here?”

“I do not know, señor.”

“You don’t know?”

“I think I came to help you.”

“There is nothing you can do for me.”

“There is, there is!” the boy cried and he ran to the prisoner, dropped to his knees on the floor beside him, drew his hunting knife and began to saw its serrated edge against the handcuffs. It was no use. Frustrated, the boy raised his hand to try to slash at the cuffs, but the prisoner stopped him.

“Stop,” the man croaked.

“There must be something I can do.”

“Water. Do you have any water?”

“Sí.” The boy reached into his pack, took out a flask of water, unscrewed the lid and brought it to the man’s lips.

Tilting back his head, the man drank greedily until the flask was empty. “Gracias,” he said. “Now you must go before the soldiers find you.”

“But they will kill you.”

“It is better this way; I should have died in combat.”

A tear rolled down the boy’s cheek and he wiped it away.

“Do not be sad,” said the prisoner. “I will tell you something. Years ago, I set off across this continent, a young doctor in the making, head full of dreams but not much sense, ready to heal the world. The things I saw, the things I wanted to be, I thought then that great men could make great changes. But what are we? Just flesh and bone, weak and brittle. Fragile. Look at me. You can patch it up for a time, but only a time. Maybe I should have stuck to treating lepers. The world is too sick for me, for one man alone. But it was never about one man. I will pass. Into history, into obscurity, it doesn’t matter. Legends do die. But ideas, ideas do not.”

The Doctor’s Son nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment he heard footsteps approaching, voices drawing closer.

Hide!” the prisoner hissed.

The Doctor’s Son had only just managed to scurry under the table when the door opened. There in the patch of sunlight he saw standing Mario: a piece of straw in one hand, a Kalashnikov in the other.

The prisoner laughed.

“I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man!”

A burst of gunfire and another a minute later.

A spent corpse riddled red.

But The Doctor’s Son was not looking as the shots rang out and Che Guevara gurgled his last bloody breath. For I had come to him.

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