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From Barnes & NobleSpeak, Memory
Scott Anderson experienced his first gunfire when he was 23, a backpacker-gone-stringer caught by snipers in the ruins of a building in Beirut. "Being in a war gives me this incredible burst of adrenaline," he says, his voice nasal, slow, cool. "I get to where I can hear faraway things, and I get this better than 20-20 vision. It's fascinating and thrilling and awful all rolled into one." Anderson is the author of Triage, an extremely autobiographical debut novel fashioned from experiences he's written about in such publications as Harper's and The New York Times Magazine. Reviewers are hailing this intense and well-crafted first outing as a contemporary A Farewell to Arms.
Anderson considers himself a "war junkie," sometimes traveling around the world, skipping from war to war, to get his story. He recounts an experience while covering the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan guerrilla group: "We were in this camp where they were about to get wiped out by the army. They were incredibly paranoid and got the distinct impression we were spies. So they brought out this woman, whom they said was a spy and had been torturing. They sat her across from us. We were her last hope to survive. She was begging for her life, begging us. We tried to intercede, but...." Anderson clears his throat. "It was the first time I really understood the complicated role a journalist can have in a war." This is one of the many stories that still haunts Anderson, one that also haunts his main character, Mark Walsh, a freelance combat photojournalist.
Triage opens exquisitely, preparing the reader for the sure and affecting prose to follow: "He lay beneath a blanket of torn flowers. They were scattered over his chest, gathered about his neck like a garland. Occasionally, the wind found his resting place; the stems shifted, loose petals took flight." Mark Walsh is in Kurdistan, a casualty of an Iraqi artillery attack, lucky to be alive. His best friend, Colin, also a combat photojournalist, has been killed in the explosion, though Mark, stricken with selective amnesia that leaves him hospitalized, has no memory of his death. Even after he returns home and is questioned by Colin's pregnant wife, his brain won't allow him to access the horror of his ordeal.
Mark's Spanish girlfriend, Elena, works for the UN, reuniting displaced families around the world. One afternoon, she's visited by Lewis Perez, a businessman who asks her help in learning the fate of his long-lost father, who disappeared after the Spanish Civil War. Known as The Beast of Olía, Perez's father had been the leader of one of Franco's blood squads responsible for decimating entire populations. Enter Joaquín Morales, Elena's grandfather, who was the chief physician at Franco's postwar psychiatric clinic "devoted to the treatment of those patriots who have fallen victim to their lesser instincts." His job was to purify men like The Beast. Unfortunately, some of these men -- those responsible for the worst crimes -- did not respond to treatment. To make room for other "victims," Franco ordered the dismissal of all "incurables" and their files destroyed. But Morales knew these men intimately, and knew which ones would murder again. So he quietly killed them himself and buried the bodies in unmarked graves.
"I've always been fascinated by men who have done unspeakable things in their past," Anderson says. "Men who in different settings can be totally normal human beings. That's why Joaquín was so interesting to me." Joaquín learns of Mark's deteriorating mental health and is convinced he's the only one who can help. A septuagenarian, he considers it his last effort to assuage the murderous guilt he's carried for so many years. The relationship that evolves between these two heavy-hearted men produces some of Anderson's smartest and most powerful writing. Joaquín helps Mark break the silence, remembering story after gruesome story, which finally triggers Mark's memory of the gory events of Colin's death, which in turn helps Joaquín put his own devils to rest. These were tough grounds for Anderson to navigate. "My natural impulse is not to talk about things," he says. "It's hard. What you see. What you take with you. About the woman in Sri Lanka, I don't remember telling anyone about that story, ever. Well, maybe a total stranger at a bar. But I was with a woman for five years and never told her. When I first wrote about this story for Harper's, I remember thinking that I was about to tell a quarter of a million people something that I wasn't able to tell the people closest to me."
Triage is a landmark book in American fiction, one that will appeal to both male and female readers. Anderson attributes his well-wrought female characters to having grown up in a family of strong women. Most important, he has found a formula for bridging the gap between literary and commercial fiction, a task many have attempted -- Bradford Morrow's Giovanni's Gift comes to mind -- but few, if any, have achieved. But Anderson isn't planning on starting another novel any time too soon. "I belong in the field," he says. "I need to get away from my computer screen, get back into the world and have some adventures."