The Reader: Fact becomes fiction in Austin author’s ‘Chasing the Sun’

When Austin writer Natalia Sylvester was 3 years old, her grandfather, a Peruvian businessman who owned a fleet of ships, was kidnapped and held for ransom. This was actually not that unusual in late 1980s and early ’90s Peru. It was a chaotic period; organized crime was everywhere.

“My grandfather was on his way to his neighborhood social club one day, and my father was already there, waiting for him to arrive,” Sylvester says. A member of the club’s staff rushed over to her father. They ran outside to find her grandfather’s car on the side of the street. Doors left open, car empty.

“The kidnappers were asking for something ridiculous like a million dollars — money our family didn’t have,” Sylvester says. Her grandmother and some family members left the city to be safe. Those who stayed now had bodyguards with them at all times. Sylvester and her family stayed home in Lima to wait for the calls and negotiate with the kidnappers.

This went on for 60 days. On the last day, when Sylvester’s father was ready with a bag of cash in hand to make the ransom drop, the police saw an opportunity. “They were able to rescue my grandfather.”

Soon after, Sylvester and her immediate family went to Costa Rica, then Miami, Florida, where she had family on her mother’s side. And then for years, decades, even, nobody in her family ever talked about the kidnapping.

Sylvester herself first learned about it when she was 12 on a family trip to Lima. “I noticed my grandfather never left the house unless he was accompanied by this man named Gustavo,” Sylvester says. “When I asked my sister about him she said, ‘That’s his bodyguard.’

“Of course I asked, ‘Why would he need a bodyguard?” and she said, ‘Well, that’s because Abuelito was kidnapped.’”

This wasn’t treated as a secret or a revelation. “I think she thought I already knew and simply had to be reminded,” Sylvester says. “But she said it in such a way, in passing almost, that I didn’t think I should ask more questions. I didn’t ask questions for years, but that didn’t stop me from having them.”

Now, it is a key component of the Austin author’s debut novel, “Chasing the Sun,” the story of a kidnapping in Lima, Peru in 1992.

Back in 2005 or so, when she was still getting her undergraduate degree, Sylvester tried writing about the kidnapping, tried building a story around it without discussing it with her family. It didn’t really work.

Then a few years ago, she asked her family about it: her mother, her father, her older sister. The more she dug, the more she realized there was a story there that was both extraordinary, by North American standards, and all too common to many of the Latin American and Caribbean populations in Miami.

“The reaction was never one of shock,” Sylvester says. “It was always more, ‘Oh yeah, that happened to my father-in-law.’ When you have these countries with severe income inequality and political instability it became a common occurrence.”

On the surface, “Chasing the Sun” has a very straightforward, thriller-ish plot. One night in 1992, Marabela Jimenez, the wife of a successful Peruvian businessman named Andres, doesn’t come home.

Here’s the clever bit: Initially, Andres doesn’t freak out because she might very well have left him. Again. As she did just four months prior.

“It is one thing to have a kidnapping take place within this perfect marriage,” Sylvester says. “It is another to have it take place in a marriage where things aren’t perfect. Maybe not in a very conscious way, Andres struggles with doing everything he can to free his wife.”

But no, it soon becomes clear she has been kidnapped. Andres is a successful printer; the kidnappers know he has money. And suddenly Andres is confronted with the difference between saving a life and saving a marriage, between his obligation to his children and his own desire.

And then there is Elena, Andres’ estranged ex-girlfriend, who has gone through a similar ordeal. What is her role in his life? What should it be, given the circumstances?

Sylvester wants to make it abundantly clear that “Chasing” was inspired by her grandfather’s experience and is not a record of it. So Marabela becomes the one kidnapped rather then the businessman himself. Her grandfather resembles Andres, the hard worker who built himself up from nothing. In “Chasing the Sun,” facts are transformed into characters, order is placed on a chaotic world.

Sylvester spent time as a journalist, freelancing and on a staff, which probably helped in organizing the research about her family and in interviewing family members. But “Chasing the Sun” is still very much a novel.

“That is the nice thing about fiction versus journalism; in journalism, you have to stick with what’s in front of you,” she says. “Fiction lets you get into the truth of something even if you don’t have all the facts.”

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