Sunday, May 09, 2010


I recently read an uncorrected proof of a newly (or soon-to-be) released NYRB classic, Clandestine in Chile, by Gabriel García Márquez, which I'd received as a part of prize pack. The proof contains only García Márquez's brief introductory comments, with a preface by Francisco Goldman still to come, which means I came to this story pretty cold and uninformed.

Previous to reading this book, I had never heard of Miguel Littín. He's a film director, and a Chilean in exile (due to chaotic circumstances following the coup that ousted Allende in 1973).

This is the story of Littín's return to Chile in 1985, under a false name and disguised as a Uruguayan businessman (an elaborate covert operation effected by the Chilean resistance), to film a documentary about life under Pinochet.

(Don't you love the cover? The placement of that title square is genius!)

"This may not have been the most heroic action of my life, but it is the most worthwhile," Littín told García Márquez. This report is assembled from 18 hours of interviews and retold as a first-person narrative.

Littín has some trouble finding the unhappiness he'd assumed would be so rampant under dictatorship. Misery is not always directly related to physical circumstances. Littín finds it people's restrained gestures, their pace, their lowered gaze.

I went off alone to a restaurant on the heights of the city that Ely and I used to frequent when we were courting. The place was the same, tables out under the elms, a profusion of flowers, but it seemed to have stopped being. There was nobody there. I had to complain to get waited on. Even then, I waited nearly an hour before my order of grilled meat arrived. I was finishing my meal when a couple came in whom I had not seen since Ely and I were regular customers there. Ernesto and Elvira, proprietors of a gloomy little shop a few blocks away that dealt in engravings and medallions of saints, rosaries and reliquaries, funerary decorations. They were an irreverent and fun-loving pair, and we had enjoyed staying late with them on Saturdays in good weather, drinking wine and playing cards. Seeing them enter now, holding hands just as before, I was surprised by their loyalty to the restaurant after all the changes in Chile and I was struck by how much they had aged. It was a mirror in which I suddenly saw an image of my own old age. Had they recognized me they would undoubtedly have stared at me with the same stupefaction, but I was protected by my Uruguayan mask. They were eating at a nearby table and talking in loud tones but without their usual intensity. Occasionally they would look over at me without curiosity, without the slightest inkling that we had once enjoyed each other's company at the same table. It wasn't until that moment that I realized how long and devastating the years of exile had been. Not just for those of us who left — as I had thought until then — but also for the ones who stayed.

An unexpected dimension is the role of the youth in Littín's view of Pinochet's Chile. Their political fervour is lacking; the youth cannot remember life under democracy.

This report was first published in Spanish in 1986. Some 15,000 copies of this report were burned in central Chile, on orders from Pinochet.

At just over a 100 pages, it's a quick read, and a pretty interesting one; however, I do think it's reads better as a piece of reportage. There's not much of a voice in it; the writing is far from great, repetitive at times, and García Márquez is nowhere in evidence. This makes the story sound drier than perhaps it ought to, but what's key is to recognize the truth in it. This really happened! And that's what makes it an intriguing story.

Review: New York Times.


Sarah (tuulenhaiven) said...

This is our non-structured group read for December. I hadn't heard much about it, but your review is highly intriguing. Looking forward to reading it - it will be only my second Garcia Marquez, so it will be interesting to read something that is less his usual style.

Isabella said...

Seriously? Crap. I should pay more attention. If I'd known it was scheduled, I might've held off so as to join in. As it was, it was the perfect size, and I couldn't resist.

Sorry if I spoiled anything for anyone!

Emily said...

You didn't spoil anything, Isabella - if anything, I'm more interested to tackle this come December. I am actually not a huge fan of Garcia Marquez's fiction, so I'll be interested to read a nonfiction piece by him - maybe I'll like it better? In any case, I know very little about the whole Pinochet regime, and am looking forward to learning more via this book. Thanks for the taste!