According to research done by novelist Avi Silberstein, when ex-Nazi and cult leader Paul Schäfer discovered that many of his Chilean followers at his “Dignity Colony” were enthusiastically anticipating the coming winter holiday, he came up with a strange solution. He invited the kids to gather along the banks of the river, where he had arranged for a man dressed as Santa Claus to float by on a raft. When the festive figure appeared, to jubilation from the youngsters, he took out a gun and started firing.
Though he didn’t actually hit the man (he was aiming for the surrounding water) the volunteer had been instructed to fall over and float away as a corpse.
“Paul didn’t want anyone celebrating anything but his birthday, which they called Uncle Paul’s birthday. So that was the end of Christmas. Santa Claus was dead,” said Silberstein.
It was chilling stories like these that first fascinated Silberstein, who was born in Chile. He followed the multi-year saga surrounding Schäfer’s crimes, which included him spending a decade in hiding in Argentina. The cult leader ultimately died in prison in 2010.
“I’d heard about all of this as a kid. I was born in the early 80s, right in the middle of General Pinochet’s dictatorship. There were media reports about terrible things being repressed. Essentially he had created a bit of a concentration camp in southern Chile,” he said.
The issue Silberstein found himself facing, though, when it came time to sit down and write his book Human Solutions, was that the truth was so outrageous he wasn’t sure how to fictionalize it.
“I could’ve ended up writing a non-fiction book. I could’ve just kept researching, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to write a novel that just happens to be based on the real-life situation,” he said.
To that end, Silberstein invented Javier Gonzales, an extraordinary social engineer who uses actors to manipulate situations to his clients’ needs. He runs a company called Human Solutions, in which people can pay to have their lives altered.
For instance, the team may tweak a work environment to help a client receive praise from their boss. Or they’ll invent situations in which someone will be tricked into falling in love.
“I’m not sure exactly how I came up with the idea,” said Silberstein. “There’s definitely hints of viral marketing, viral advertising. It occurs to me all the time: two people riding on the bus, saying how much their love their iPhones? They may be secretly working for Apple,”he said.
“I want to explore how and why we trust people.”
In the book, Gonzales becomes entangled with the cult, which has kidnapped the son of one of his clients.
“He decides his team will infiltrate the cult and find the boy,” he said.
Silberstein originally started writing short fiction, publishing in literary journals such as The New Quarterly and Grain. He even finished a collection a few years ago. But when he went to publishers, they encouraged him to produce a novel first.
“They told me it’s hard to sell short stories unless you’re Alice Munro,” he said.
But there are challenges to marketing his novel as well, as he feels it doesn’t clearly fall into any particular genre. He compared his work to that of Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, who write literary fiction with fantastical elements. Human Solutions, he said, has thriller and mystery elements but is best described as literary fiction.
Silberstein will read from his novel and discuss the book at the Nelson Public Library at 7 p.m. on December 2.
For more information visit avisilberstein.com