This article was translated from Spanish by LARB Contributing Editor Magdalena Edwards. The original Spanish edition is included
WE THE PEOPLE OF CHILE have also had our history marked by September 11. On that date 40 years ago, a military junta brought Salvador Allende’s socialist government to an end and with it broke a democratic tradition that was part of my small country’s cultural identity. The image of La Moneda Palace, the seat of our government, in flames after being bombed by the Chilean Air Force served as the opening credits to a new history under the shadow of a military regime that would gain worldwide fame for the ruthless persecution of its opponents.
Tuesday, September 11, 1973, was the beginning of 17 years of dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. A generation of Chileans came of age during his rule while listening to their elders tell stories about the democracy that had been lost and was now so difficult to recover. This is my generation, which in contrast to our parents’ and grandparents’, was raised in a country in the midst of dictatorship.
I am the editor of an essay collection that both marks the 40th anniversary of our September 11 and invites us to remember. 17 Again is a book that brings together personal stories and private memories of a handful of Chilean writers who offer their intimate testimony of the many things the coup d’état suddenly unleashed. The title is a subtle, perhaps ironic, reference to a song of the same name written by the composer, singer, and folklorist Violeta Parra, an icon of Chilean culture known around the world for “Gracias a la vida,” popularized by Mercedes Sosa and later by Joan Baez. Parra’s song “17 Again” describes the feeling of nostalgia provoked by remembering the years of our youth. In the essays I have collected on this anniversary, the exercise in nostalgia takes on a tone of strange melancholy tinged with fear, at times diffuse and barely perceptible and, on occasion, brutally violent.
We who grew up during the Pinochet years were children and adolescents who only knew democracy by name, like a distant memory told almost always with a bittersweet yearning that was difficult to swallow; like an old piece of candy with a poisonous center called coup d’état, which creates an overpowering aftertaste of fear that will never go away entirely. 17 Again is a record of those years, the memories of a generation shaped by dictatorship.
The authors represent a varied landscape, diverse in style and arc: writers of fiction and nonfiction, distinct narrators and screenwriters and playwrights, journalists exercising their vocation, one translator of Ginsberg and one film director. Some of them come from families persecuted by the dictatorship — such as the novelist Rafael Gumucio, or Andrea Insunza, nonfiction writer and author of President Michelle Bachelet’s biography — and others went about uncovering our political reality as social tensions became unsustainable, such as the internationally acclaimed Alejandro Zambra, author of Formas de volver a casa (translated into English as Ways of Going Home and published by FSG in 2013). 17 Again should also have the texture reflective of a semi-feudal society, where class standing is fundamental: the essays bear witness, from the elegant districts of Santiago to the working class neighborhoods, from the farmers’ grandson to the provincial policeman’s son.
The history of this book and my idea of bringing together some of the best Chilean writers born between 1969 and 1979 came from my own connection to my memories from that time — a connection that, once I read all the essays, I confirmed was not only mine. My invitation was straightforward: an email to each of the writers where I explained the project in three lines. The responses were immediate and the outcome, honest and generous. 17 Again is the literature of a generation that looks at Roberto Bolaño’s work the way the prior generation read Donoso or Neruda: seeking itself in his reflection as a universal kind of Chilean. This is a generation that, at the same time, carries in its blood a shared past dominated by the memory of dictatorship, by a childhood with Pinochet as its lullaby.
I’ve selected the following excerpt of my essay “Me Acuerdo,” or “I Remember,” which opens 17 Again, for the readers of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Some time ago a friend gave me a book. That book was neither a novel, nor an essay, but rather a biography that at first glance was something like a list of prayers. As I read the pages a mantra emerged with varied endings for each repeated beginning. Every phrase described small, subtle, and stark scenes from the childhood and adolescence of Joe Brainard, the North American visual artist who gained celebrity with that book, which would soon be imitated by the writer Georges Perec.
Brainard had decided to write — with fragments glimmering like broken glass under the sun — a strange autobiography that used language like a collage of memories. Brainard’s book is called I Remember and every sentence begins in the same way:
I remember the chicken noodle soup when I was sick.
I remember wondering why, if Jesus could cure sick people, why He didn’t cure all sick people.
I remember trying to realize how big the world really is.
The friend who gave me that book probably did it because I like memories. I use them like talismans, like a stock of provisions, like my own museum that I try to visit in the way one visits a sanctuary or a church. I use memories much more than imagination. I enjoy them the way I enjoyed Brainard’s I Remember: contemplating them carefully, lingering over the details, connecting them, polishing their edges, tying them together in strands that could be pearls.
The Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero once said, “People think, almost unanimously, that what interests me is writing. What interests me is remembering.” This phrase explains me in full measure.
My first memories are in Talca, a city 250 kilometers south of Santiago, in 1978. I was four years old. My memories are connected to a dim image of an Argentine military man on the television, surely it was Videla, and a thought went through my head: the military are in charge of governing countries. This is how things are. Then, no more images, only sounds, loose words that mix together soccer and the murmurs of another possible war with Argentina over a land dispute in Magallanes, where the continent ends. The Argentines, the adults said, were going to bomb a dam along the Andes mountain range, which would flood the city, which, according to my father, would make things easier for enemy combat.
“Talca is a hole,” my father said, daring to give over as a fact a geographical detail that I never confirmed. That phrase stayed in my head, and I tried to find the horizon in the edges of the hole where we lived. And those edges were the contours of the hills and mountains that surrounded the city, the outline of the headless volcanoes in the western horizon and the curved wall of brown and parched coastal hills in the east.
There was no sense in trying to escape the eventual Argentine invasion because there was nowhere to go: they would arrive from the south and through the mountains and so to flee to the coast was useless because there in the sea was the navy, which, though Chilean was not completely trustworthy, for reasons that my father summarized by snorting in a manner that meant something between slight annoyance and the rictus of bitterness that frequently crossed his face.
In the essay by Álvaro Bisama, author of an unsettling account of the Virgin Mary’s miraculous appearances as told in his novel Ruido, my father’s unease with the Chilean Navy takes on an intimate and sadly familiar feeling. Bisama’s father, a university professor, was expelled from teaching and detained on the navy’s infamous ship Esmeralda, which served as a political jail. Some of the people detained there were never freed and their bodies were never recovered. Bisama’s father was freed, but he was not able to return to teaching for years.
Without the navy at our side, all signs pointed to the obvious — from the bombing of the dam, to the massive flooding, to the trans-Andean tanks and troops — we would all become Argentine, which did not seem to be the worst idea when I looked at the world map: Argentina looked big and was a rosy pink, while Chile was a greenish sliver that lacked the surface area to carry its own name, which dragged out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean like a buoy marking a shipwreck.
Our neighborhood in Talca housed the city’s public employees. This set off my mother’s alarm bells; she saw an agent from the CNI (Centro National de Información), the regime’s secret police, behind every pair of dark sunglasses. We had to speak in low voices. All the parents of my little neighbor friends were potential snitches in her mind, though she lowered her guard in a few cases.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I learned how to read, but I do recall the anxiety I felt about the possibility of confusing the letter “E” with the number “3.” Nor do I remember the first book I read. Those milestones were diluted in my memory and were colonized by other epiphanic moments related to reading: the deep sadness brought on when reading more and more of Miguel Strogoff’s adventures (yes, in my translation of Verne’s classic the protagonist is Miguel) and knowing that inevitably the book would end and I would have to abandon that world of permanent travel; and the intoxicating process of falling in love with one of the characters in Jane Eyre. No doubt I learned to read with an installment from a collectible encyclopedia. My father would buy me a pair every week:Fauna, Monitor, Once Upon A Time There Was Man. Many years later I would see a piece by the Argentine visual artist Óscar Bony. It is the photographic archive of a performance where a worker couple shares reading time with their young son. I thought of my father and his books and the idea of education he had planned for my brothers and me.
I was 10 years old when my father gave me Earth and Its Resources, an illustrated volume with all kinds of statistics and lots of maps. Inside it said that a military junta governed Chile, which took power after a coup d’état. The same information was in the Visual de Salvat. The Sopena dictionary, on the other hand, had been published in the 1960s and highlighted the civility and democracy that marked the Chilean people. Years later I secretly looked up the definition of the word “degollar” (to slit someone’s throat) in the Sopena dictionary — that was right after the assassination of José Manuel Parada, Santiago Nattino, and Manuel Guerrero in 1985. The three leftist militants were kidnapped and had their throats slit by the Chilean police. I did not dare ask my parents the meaning of that verb, “degollar,” because I wanted to protect them from telling me something that I intuited as far too violent for a child to hear.
What I read sent me into a deep and dark gloom that I felt again years later when I saw a piece in a magazine about the kidnapping of the student Carmen Gloria Quintana and the Chilean-North American photographer Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri. The article was illustrated with drawings of the two young people tied up and at the mercy of the military officers. The officers insulted them, mocked them, and beat them until they were lifeless and then doused them in gasoline. Rodrigo Rojas died four days later and his case marked a change in Ronald Reagan’s Chile policy. Carmen Gloria survived. I felt like I was living in a wasteland strewn with bodies with their throats slit, burned bodies, bodies like bloody rag dolls tossed to death.
My father’s brother lived in New York and each time he visited us he made my father take note of the backwardness of the city, the people, the highways, and life in general in Chile. My father listened to him with resignation. What could he say? Living in backwardness is not something one can solve with willpower. My father was not too aware of technological advances and conceded greater value to older things: he could not imagine that a Japanese car might be better than a German one or that a Sanyo radio could compete with one by RCA. He believed the vacuum tube television set had greater nobility than a Trinitron ever would.
I, on the other hand, folded at the possibility of a personal computer and still remember the first time I heard “Victims” by Culture Club on headphones. The day I first saw an electronic scale at the Caltil supermarket on Calle 1 Sur was a Saturday and it was cloudy. An intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread infused the place, which helped to consecrate the moment as I watched the little green numbers appear automatically when a bag of bread fell on the tray. That scene was, for me, a gesture of sophistication and modernity similar to the inauguration of the downtown Caracol building (literally a shopping mall with a spiral ramp inside, called “caracol” as in “snail”) with its cramped little stores selling beige clothes. I think those were the first indications of the eruption of the market in my life, a spectrum that widened with time: Japanese cars, Lois jeans, Diadora sneakers, videocassette recorders. The merchandise was a colorful and dazzling consolation prize that was not enough to go around.
Today the past comes back to us in unexpected ways. We have two women vying for the presidency: Evelyn Matthei and Michelle Bachelet, the first woman elected as Chile’s president from 2006 to 2010. Matthei and Bachelet are both daughters of men deeply involved in our country’s history. Bachelet’s father served in Salvador Allende’s government, then was held and tortured by Pinochet’s secret police, only to die in military custody in 1974. Matthei’s father is a retired air force general and was a member of the military junta. They were friends until the coup d’état separated their destinies and their families. These events seem strange, a fictional tale composed by an astute screenwriter who reminds us at several turns that our past can make itself present in infinite ways.
Chile’s presidential elections will be held on November 17, 2013.