Books: Stages on the rocky road from tyranny to triviality

Scarred South American exiles meet London liggers in a timely fictional encounter. Jonathan Myerson admires the result
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The Independent Culture
The Silver River

by Ben Richards

Review, pounds 14.99, 310pp

A FORMER Tupamaro terrorist opts for the quiet life as an office cleaner. His son becomes an Internet obsessive who rejects politics. A documentary producer wonders if there's more to life than clubs and coke.

But this is a London still quietly unaware of Augusto Pinochet. Appropriately, Ben Richards's third book is all about the people who care, the people who don't yet, and the people who never will. It's a quiet and humane novel that explores the consequences of action and inaction. But it is also willing to explore the people who care too much - there are feckless researchers and passionate liggers, with girlfriends who wear agit-prop commitment like a medal.

Richards writes luminously about the grime and glitter of London. But this is merely the backdrop to a world of indecision and easy pleasure. Richards knows these people well. His writing brings a harsh light to bear on the compromises of his two central characters. Nick is a journalist, Orlando a cleaner, but both are running from their beliefs, embarrassed by their own political passions.

Nick is producing documentaries for a miscarriage-of-justice series when he bumps into a school friend, George, now a bouncer. At their comprehensive, it was George who made sure that middle-class Nick avoided getting beaten up. But then Nick shipped out to a private school.

George plays on Nick's discomfort, until Nick agrees to follow up a wrongful murder conviction. This "innocent man" is a fellow-bouncer who stomped on a 20-year-old's chest until his rib went through his lung. The "victim" was a local dealer.

The leads merely lure Nick back into the world of rooftop parties, coke and sexual misadventure. In the club at the centre of the investigation, Nick notices Orlando. The foreign cleaner becomes Nick's salvation.

Orlando's voice acts as the moral guide. A guerrilla, a true believer, he looks back on his time in Uruguay, his flight to Chile, Argentina, and then Britain. Orlando - his hair greying, his idealism cauterised in the stadium basement - is content with his job.

He will not risk rediscovering his political drive. In South America, he lost home, career and marriage. The chapters which deal with the coups, the arrests and the tortures are unshowy. Richards doesn't dwell on the gory anecdotes (too easy at this time) but picks out simple moments of compassion and cold-heartedness. He knows this lack of detail leaves the reader as much in the dark as all those mothers standing in the square with their photographs. We don't deserve to know more than them.