Posted by: cousindampier | 30 October 2014

Clandestine in Chile

A review of Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez (the story of Miguel Littín)

As a child, some things seize a person and never let go. It can be an enjoyment of riding horses, or a lifelong love of a sport, but it grabs you at a young age and becomes a guide.

Perhaps rather obviously, mine was travel. As a child, I was imagining other places thanks to maps and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and to dive further down that rabbit hole, certain places attracted me more than others for no apparent reason.

This is, obviously, about Chile; the Chile I imagined and the Chile I’ve come to know, and the Chile I may find when I visit, for South America, and Chile in particular, drew my fascination at that young age. Perhaps because it was shaped so differently – a long, thin country bordering the Pacific with enormous mountains and a catastrophic desert – or perhaps it was because to my six-year old self, Chile was a food (Hungary is another country I’d quite like to visit).

It was a place I wanted to go, but it was a place I knew almost nothing about. Allende and Pinochet were names and vague stories, but simply that. I doubt I knew Salvador and Augusto until my late teens.

In his memoir, Christopher Hitchens shares an anecdote about the other September 11 – The Chilean day. Speaking at Whitman College in Walla Walla on September 10, 2001, he optimistically declared that the next day was to be a landmark day for human rights, as the family of a murdered Chilean general was to bring suit against Henry Kissinger in Washington D.C. Things transpired differently, and 9/11 is viewed as a landmark day for human rights in a very different way, but knowing about Pinochet and that day in 1973 gives 9/11 an additional level of tragedy.

Marquez’s tale of Miguel Littín’s return to Chile is, of course, supposed to bring those emotions to bear. It is a tale of Chile – repressed, pushed down, kept in check. It contains its elements of sadness, not as much for the way things used to be, but rather of the hope which was lost when Allende was overthrown and died. Overnight, the reality in Chile did not just shift; it completely changed. In 1973, Littín was Chile’s most famous filmmaker, having directed quite possible the most popular Chilean film in history. Barely escaping execution during the coup, he was exiled to Mexico, and in the 1980’s moved to Spain.

Spawned during this time was the idea of returning to Chile in disguise and filming a documentary about life under Pinochet. Dramatically changing his appearance and accent, Littín became a Uruguayan businessman interested in filming a commercial in Chile; and to this end, stationed three film crews throughout the country, each ignorant of the other’s presence, each there to interview resistance leaders and film Littín’s journey.

The most powerful part of Littín’s journey is discussing the cult of Allende and the memory of Pablo Neruda. Amongst the people Littín talks with, Allende is still revered, still referred to as the president; and as his grave and Neruda’s residence both sit in Valparaiso, that city is the center of the romantic death of Chile’s future.

Littín’s journey is also a tale of remembrance, and the impossibility of going back. He finds the leaders of the resistance were grade-school children when he left, and while he still views Chile for what it was, they view Chile for what it is and could be. This difference brings another heartbreak to reality, the heartbreak of the impossibility for Littín to ever return, for even if Pinochet falls the Chile of the future will never be the Chile he remembers.

Pinochet’s coup, and the military dictatorship which followed, governed Chile from 1973 until 1990. American involvement stemmed from the black and white nature of the Cold War: Allende was a marxist, and therefore was on the Soviet side. Thousands of people went missing and hundreds of thousands were banished into exile; and before Pinochet relinquished power an Amnesty law was passed to protect members of the military junta from prosecution. He was arrested in London in 1998 on the grounds of universal jurisdiction (under which crimes committed are considered crimes against all, and not simply within one state). He returned to Chile in 2000 to find the amnesty system broken, and was brought to trial in 2004 for kidnapping and torture, only to die in 2006.
It is difficult to find words to say about the Allende tragedy. The Cold War brought out the extremes in both America and Russia; some of the best scientific advances and some of the worst human rights abuses occurred during those 50 years, and Littín’s journey brings home a sense of embarrassment. Knowing Chile’s history since the 1990’s, one might say the Chilean people have made a remarkable recovery – but it still necessitates a recovery.

It is an obvious first question to ask any Chilean, but it has proved to be a difficult one to get an answer for. Asking someone how they feel about the most traumatic moment in their nation’s history has no easy answers, especially for those whose memories are largely post-Pinochet, but whose parents still remember. I know how I feel about the latter 9/11; I don’t know how I feel about Vietnam, or the American Civil War, outside of answers in a historical context. I’ve visited the Vietnam Wall several times, and while the grief is not literally tangible, voices get quieter, children stop running, and people move a step slower. What I understand is, simply, that I don’t, and perhaps never will.

And yet it adds to an interest in Chile, an interest which existed back to the days I wanted to sail the Pacific and search for treasure, but one coached in a context I did not understand then. I have a number of friends in Chile – friends I’m excited to see, who will show me the country and tease me for my poor Spanish – and it is a nation of extremes and outdoors adventure I dream of visiting, and with it comes a history I can see but never really touch, except through a Littín and Marquez, Bolano and Neruda, and, if lucky, through the stories of people who lived it.



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