This small but elegant novel is well worth reading as the author exposes the heart of a former Argentinean revolutionary who escaped that country after his wife was taken prisoner and doubtless executed. Sailing away with others avoiding the long arm of the government, the protagonist goes first to England and later to Italy, where he remains working as a gardener for a rich man. But his violent past looms, unexpurgated; he is still a wanted man.
The narrator is connected to the earth, his world narrowly defined through the soil, the daily tending of trees a nostrum for the soul. At half a century, he has come to a place of peace at a distance from chaos and heartbreak where his needs are few. Then he meets Laila, a young woman who sells her body but awakens thoughts of his lost Argentinean wife, the sweet mysteries of such an entanglement drawing him into a complex mix of past and present: “Being with her is like life in Argentina, without a day after.”
When an African stops at the garden gate to request flowers to sell at market, the two men strike up a friendship. Though they exchange few words, the presence of the two men brings a quiet reflection to them both and a bond is formed. The gardener remains adamant that he has finally finished running, that “now my verb is to stay. There is a woman to love.” After reading the ashes of their fire, Selim tells his new friend that he must leave: “The ashes see blood, including yours beside it. The ashes don’t say love.”
The gardener has been too long without comfort to imagine leaving, too old for running, although the habits are ingrained - the nearest exit for escape, a vigilant scanning of unfamiliar faces in a crowd, the days in Argentina imprinted on the layers of years. Killing used to be as natural as breathing, but now the former revolutionary has learned of the subtle burden that is shifted to the perpetrator: “at night you sleep and every sleep contains absolution, and no matter, the murdered one is still there, attached to you.”
With her easy affection, Laila recalls him for a time, for she is young and does not understand how actions can alter destiny. Laila’s request will bring the gardener back into the sights of his pursuers, but he is helpless in the face of this woman’s love and her imminent danger. What she asks requires much, for he has grown contemplative, the gun in his pocket replaced with a book, his words carefully measured.
On every page, DeLuca’s prose is riveting, beautifully crafted, phrases that beg to be remembered. The Argentinean revolutionary turns philosopher, a man with a particular history who has heeded life’s harsh lessons, grateful to enjoy the bounty of nature and the warmth of the sun upon his hands.