For the British, South America is perhaps the darkest of the continents: only rarely and faintly has it entered our history, provoked our armies, disturbed our empire and commonwealth. ‘Ford Cortina,’ said the late Poet Laureate, rather sniffily: ‘it sounds like a South American.’ We can’t easily imagine what it’s like to be one: their fiction is obscured by the charms of Magical Realism. Their political spasms trouble us less than those of Europe or Africa, Bosnia or Somalia. We might meet them in our student days. I remember a Chilean who rebuffed the college manciple: ‘Are you asking me or are you telling me – peasant?’ Similarly, Tony Gould met a Chilean caballero, when they were Cambridge undergraduates, some thirty years ago. He was called Cristian Huneeus, a young man of landed family, a gentlemanly left-winger and already a published novelist. In those days, British readers were not so interested in South American fiction as they have since become, and few indeed were those who took an interest in South American politics – apart perhaps from worrying about the imperious interventions of North Americans, so eager to counter the threat of Communism in their hemisphere.
Huneeus stimulated an interest in such matters which persisted in Gould until the Chilean’s premature death in the Eighties. Gould then travelled to Chile, hoping to discover what sort of life his friend had lived there. It must be admitted that the life and death of Huneeus do not seem very dramatic, not remarkable at all. The title is bound to remind us of Claud Cockburn’s famously boring headline: ‘Small earthquake in Chile – not many killed.’
Gould’s story begins with the undergraduate years. ‘Mostly we talked about books,’ he reports, ‘which in Cambridge at that time meant F.R. Leavis, D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad, whom we both admired.’ Huneeus was much impressed by Nostromo, Conrad’s disheartening novel about political excitement and hopelessness in South America. ‘Good God,’ Huneeus exclaimed. ‘I mean, the man hardly touched land there and yet he has written the Latin American novel.’ How could Conrad, he wondered, ‘have understood so clearly the turbulence of South American politics’? Gould immediately adds a seeming non-sequitur: ‘Not all South American states were dictatorships, of course, and despite his Marxist leanings Cristian was proud of his country’s democratic tradition and told me that Chile was known as “the England of South America”.’
Gould helped Huneeus translate one of his stories. It was about a gentlemanly young left-winger in Chile, attempting egalitarian improvements on his father’s estate – which result in intensified class-hatred, murder and deep disillusionment. The man fails, perhaps, because he is, says Gould, ‘a privileged being, like his creator’, a man who ‘can indulge in radical fantasies without being called to account’. He is also ‘a divided being: his instinctive loyalties are at odds with his perception of the world about him.’ ‘Was Cristian testing the strength of his own Marxism? And if so, did he find it wanting?’ After reading this pessimistic story, Gould continues, ‘it would be difficult, even without benefit of hindsight, to see Chile as “the England of South America”. ’
The hindsight recommended would be derived from Chile’s subsequent political history. Towards the end of Gould’s Cambridge period, in 1964, Eduardo Frei won the Presidential election for the Christian Democrats in Chile: this decent, respectable election was too boring for Huneeus, who had supported the left-wing Salvador Allende. Huneeus wrote to Gould: ‘Our candidate lost, as you may have learnt in one of your few moments of un-provincialness. Bad anti-climax it was. Everyone expecting the bloody country to occupy the news for ages as the one, first, eccentric, out-of-the-way little place that votes in a Marxist government – and we turn up an undistinguished form of lawful socialism.’
This complaint over Frei’s victory may be contrasted with John Gunther’s enthusiasm in his reliable Inside Latin America (1967). ‘Chile came close to voting itself Communist in 1964 ... But Frei, who calls himself a Christian humanist, averted this by winning the Presidency against a Marxist candidate after a vigorously contested free election.’ President Frei was ‘a man far superior to the ordinary, just as Chile is superior. We have come a long way now from the brutal provincialities of Argentina, the romantic extravagances of Brazil.’ Gunther’s fellow North Americans needed to be assured that ‘reform by the moderate left is the best means of forestalling extremist revolution.’ In happy Chile, Gunther went on, ‘the electorate is educated and responsible. The Army plays no role in political life.’
The reliable Gunther spoke too soon. Six years later, Salvador Allende won the Presidential election: his government, supposedly Marxist and extremist, lasted only until 1973, just three years, for the Army had decided to ‘play a role in political life’, under General Pinochet. There was a military coup and it was the extremely right-wing Pinochet regime that proceeded ‘to occupy the news for ages’, achieving world-wide notoriety through reports of unjust arrests, imprisonments, tortures and assassinations, eventually becoming noxious even to the United States Government – believed by many to have favoured, or sponsored, his coup. Pinochet retained power for 17 years, relinquishing his dictatorship in 1990.
During Allende’s brief allowance of legitimate power and the long years of Pinochet, Cristian Huneeus corresponded with Gould and once visited him in England. He seemed to have become much less left-wing, grumbling about the two regimes but continuing his university work and administration under them both. He died peacefully in his forties, from a brain tumour. Then in the last days of the dying dictatorship, Gould decided to visit Chile and investigate. This journey takes up the second half of Death in Chile. The first half is called ‘Parallel Lives’ and offers a brief, candid autobiography, interspersed with reminiscences of Huneeus. The memoir may be found more interesting than the journey, but it skews the nature of the book – which seems to be less concerned with Chile and Pinochet than with the development of a type of Englishman, guilty about independent schools, cross with Mrs Thatcher. Perhaps he thinks Chile really is ‘the England of South America’, a warning example? Absit omen.
Tony Gould was a sporty public schoolboy, farming in Devon with his father, a Conservative and a member of the Vermin Club (that rather feeble riposte to Aneurin Bevan). During his National Service, young Gould was commissioned in the Gurkhas but was invalided out with polio: he was pensioned off in 1960, aged 21, and he still needs sticks to walk with. He became, he thinks, rather left-wing: a girlfriend, ‘a child of the Sixties’, induced Gould (a subaltern of the Fifties) to wear denims and a CND badge. Then a teacher called Bill, a Labour man of the Fifties, tutored him for university acceptance: ‘A product of grammar school and provincial university, Bill might have stepped out of the pages of Lucky Jim or Hurry on Down.’ In 1962 Gould was attracted to Centre 42 and set to work with Arnold Wesker and his allies (about whom he writes rather sourly), promoting the arts in a left-wing environment. He took up with Marxists in London, with middle-aged working-class socialists and with the youth-conscious Ray Gosling – whose ‘homo-erotic picture of the pop star as sacrificial victim was something new in my experience.’ Awarded a place at Cambridge, to read English, he hoped to find a Centre 42 atmosphere, but was disappointed.
He did, however, meet Paz, the first wife of Cristian Huneeus. Gould thought the young couple were like 18th-century aristocrats on the Grand Tour. They became a trio: their holiday snaps looked to Gould like an Antonioni film and Paz thought of the threesome in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. She and her husband had extra-marital affairs, quarrelled bitterly, produced a baby and returned to Chile. Gould married and fathered a child. He worked for the BBC, was gently eased out in BBC style and became literary editor of New Society: he divorced and remarried. He wrote a book about a Conradian episode in the British Empire and another about working-class unemployment – which was not, he suggests, very ‘left-wing’, not overly victim-conscious. He was beginning ‘to distrust political indignation in general and the self-righteousness of the extreme left in particular’.
Meanwhile, what of Cristian Huneeus? From his correspondence, Gould learned that he had become involved with the magazine Mundo Nuevo – a South American version of Encounter, quietly sponsored by the CIA. He had applied for university posts, securing one in the humanities department of an engineering faculty, where he liked to encourage revolutionary sentiments among the students. His father had died and he spent less time at the university than he did running the family’s estate, along with a discotheque and an advertising agency. Under Allende, he became the chairman of the humanities department but he lost this post in 1975, under Pinochet. He spent more time on his farm and continued publishing fiction.
Gould, in England, had sent his child to an independent school and therefore wrote to Huneeus, admitting that he could no longer call himself a socialist. Huneeus (under the Pinochet regime) wrote back, approving his decision: ‘I’ve ended up by avoiding the use of that word ... We all got so fucked up with socialism in Chile during Allende.’ Huneeus was calling himself a ‘liberal leftist’, but Soledad (his third wife) had told him he ‘shouldn’t fool around with words and should face up to his present reactionary conservatism’. When he came over to Devon, with Soledad, he was not communicative: quite bald from the treatment for his brain tumour, he looked sinister, like a typical South American dictator. He went back to Chile and quietly died.
Not very exciting so far. We may expect more when Gould lands in Chile and meets Huneeus’s old friends and wives in the dying days of Pinochet’s dictatorship, but the conversations are cautious and disappointing. He tape-recorded several Chilean ‘writers and intellectuals’ for hours, but got little out of it. Most had something amiable to say about Huneeus, but there is a suggestion that he was rather too willing to collaborate with Pinochet in his university work of administration. Gould was told that Allende’s left-wing government had chosen certain trusted men to act as interventores – inspectors, supervisors – ‘taking over businesses that were not working properly’: these interventores made Allende unpopular with wealthy men and helped to provoke Pinochet’s coup. The Pinochet organisation was just as keen on interventores, with a different standard of political correctness: they concentrated on educational establishments. Huneeus was appointed as an interventor for the Pedagogico, where teachers were trained.
Gould’s informant said that, as a result, ‘the faculty was virtually swept away ... The old Pedagogico, now known as the Metropolitan University of the Science of Education, is as right-wing as you could get. It is a college totally supportive of the regime.’ This doesn’t show Huneeus in a very good light, though it might be argued that he was reacting against the left-wing political pressure he had himself suffered under Allende. Trying to be balanced, he had sacked a right-wing book-keeper and a left-wing librarian: no trouble from the former party, but left-wing students had kicked up a row over the librarian. They had called Huneeus a land-owner, a bourgeois and a gringo, they had occupied his office and burned an effigy of him.
No one had much to say in favour of Huneeus’s writing. One acquaintance, a poet and a former ambassador (under Allende), told Gould that Huneeus had been an hechizo, a manufactured artist, a fake, a poseur: he had written a fatuous autobiography in which he ‘treated himself as if he were a celebrity, but a very modest celebrity, revealing that he is, after all, only a human being’. This sharp, critical man, Armando Uribe, had written a book about the gentlemen of Chile (Caballeros de Chile or Ces ‘Messieurs’ du Chili). He had exiled himself in Paris for most of the Pinochet years: he was returning to Chile now because he believed the dictatorship was nearly over. Gould noticed that returning exiles were more forthright than those who had stayed put, surviving or collaborating. The latter sort, nice people, speaking good English, are not very useful informants about a dictatorship: they are too discreet. I was reminded of people I met during visits to Iraq in the Eighties and to Greece in the Seventies, under the Colonels.
Besides the exiles and those who stayed put, keeping their heads down, there is a third category among the Chilean ‘writers and intellectuals’, under Pinochet. These are the people who were accused of resistance, who were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Gould managed to interview one of the political prisoners, Ledy Castro, and he reports on the horrible treatment of another, the late William Beausire, but his book is not much concerned with Pinochet’s penal atrocities. Although Gould, as an editor, had been ‘instrumental in publishing, in New Society’, articles about Pinochet’s savagery by Ariel Dorfman – ‘an exile who seems to have cornered the market in Chilean comment in American and British newspapers’ – the editor now regrets that he had not ‘taken into account’ the fact that Dorfman’s was ‘the point of view of an unreconstructed allendista.’ This sounds as if Gould is finding fault with Dorfman, but we might be uncertain whether the old supporters of the elected President Allende really need or deserve to be ‘reconstructed’.
This Chilean writer, Ariel Dorfman, is the author of several admired works, including the novel, Widows, and the play, Death and the Maiden. Among the seven essays in literary criticism he has now published in Some write to the future, the longest is about the writings of those Chileans who suffered in Pinochet’s prisons and concentration camps during the first nine years of the long dictatorship. (This essay was written in 1982.) Many such books were published in Europe and the Americas, and Dorfman takes six examples: he calls them ‘testimonial literature’ and his essay is entitled ‘Political Code and Literary Code: The Testimonial Genre in Chile Today’. He argues that Pinochet’s regime (and others like it) needed to make the people aware of the cruelties in operation, while ‘officially’ denying each atrocity, every ‘documented case with damaged teeth and genitals and ribs’: the cruelties were presented as ‘benevolently and paternally innocent’ deterrents designed to save the children from the seductions of international Communism. The six victims who describe their sufferings in these testimonies do not enjoy their writing: their function, says Dorfman, is ‘to accuse, to record and to inspire’. He finds the books of these amateurish, often heroic writers unsatisfactory, on ‘literary’ grounds: there is a naivety in their work that conceals the truth. He examines the flaws quite rigorously, but with some unease, ‘because I have not personally gone through the experience of prison or torture myself and I feel a certain shame in criticising those who survived, fighting faithfully for my right to my country.’ Also, their faults remind him of his own.
Then he devotes a longer space to a book he thoroughly admires, ‘the testimony of an artist’ – Tejas Verdes: Diary of a Concentration Camp by Herman Valdes. This professional writer, it seems, was not at all heroic. He was not politically militant, not subversive: his arrest was quite unreasonable. Under torture he confessed to crimes he had not committed, betrayed innocent friends, did anything his jailers wanted. Valdes’s eloquent testimony seems to Dorfman much more than ‘an account of the excesses of an underdeveloped tyranny: it represents a more basic, utter marginalisation of many of the human beings who today live and survive on this planet.’
It seems obvious that Dorfman is more than a political spokesman, ‘an unreconstructed allendista’: he keeps under firm control that ‘political indignation and self-righteousness of the extreme left’ which Gould finds so repulsive. His other essays concern better-known novelists. They are all stern, high-principled studies, concerned to present the nations of Latin America as one dark continent. We might think of Borges as a rather playful old boy, engagingly mysterious, a cosmopolitan as closely attuned to European cities like London and Paris as he is to his native Argentina. Dorfman responds: ‘Borges’s Latin Americanism would seem to me to be undeniable. But his desire to turn his back on that reality is equally undeniable.’ This judgment is expanded in a scholarly footnote. He records that Borges writes ‘of the infinite, of China, of Chesterton, and of eternity’, that he sets his characters in archaic costumes within ‘Muslim, English, Chinese or Persian locales’: but he asserts that all his characters are Latin Americans – like the characters of Asturias, Carpentier and Garcia Marquez, searching ‘through violence for the sign of their own essence or of the order of the universe’. Latin American writers, he suggests, are different from Europeans, separated from the literary tradition which Borges claims to inherit. They do not reject or intellectualise violence: they live it. ‘Violence as companion to imagination. Aggression as a gnoseological act.’ This incantatory essay is entitled ‘Borges and American Violence’. Without disputing Dorfman’s arguments, one might produce a similar essay, called ‘G.K. Chesterton and British Violence’, as a sort of parody.
The three writers mentioned above, Asturias, Carpentier and Garcia Marquez, each receive an interpretative essay here. The first of these (like the Borges essay) was written in the Sixties, before the Pinochet era. Dorfman is concerned with the Guatemalan’s rather unpopular novel, Men of Maize. The book was published in 1949, long before Asturias won the Nobel Prize, and Dorfman thinks it could fairly be said to ‘inaugurate the extraordinary renaissance of the contemporary Latin American novel’. Men of Maize, Dorfman reports in one of his long footnotes, has often been scorned as a shapeless thing, with its hints of political protest mingled with legends of witch-doctors and ‘folkloric elements’; other critics have applied the tiresome label, Magical Realism. The young Dorfman (he was 25 when he wrote it) strives to interpret the plot, incident by incident, with a sort of metaphysical (rather than political) passion.
To represent Alejo Carpentier – a Cuban and, I believe, a fidelista – he chooses Reasons of State. This is a novel about a South American dictator, deposed and seeking social acceptance in the Paris of the Twenties. Why is it that the dictator keeps making acquaintance with characters and incidents from Proust’s novel, A la recherche? Because, says Dorfman gleefully, the dictator is thus rendered conspicuously absent from Proust’s novel: he is too insignificant to make his mark within the European culture to which he aspires, too barbarous to be accepted by the snobs he reveres. ‘What a sweet vengeance,’ says Dorfman gloatingly. The fictional dictator is representative of the superior classes of Latin America, clinging to Europe, to distance themselves from the lively masses, the common herd.
When he turns to Marquez and especially One Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorfman is evidently attempting to offer some intimations of hope: this essay is called ‘Someone writes to the future’, echoing the title of the whole book. He has a faith in ‘those excluded millions’ who persist in ‘keeping their version alive’, countering the history and news offered by educated, worldly people who think themselves superior and modern. The fiction of Marquez is rich in ghosts and prophetic dreams, which do not seem nonsensical to the people of Macondo – who are more perplexed and amazed by modern, mechanical improvements. ‘Things are marvellous in Macondo,’ says Dorfman, ‘because the villagers are simultaneously living the instantaneous retelling of those events, their conversion into legends – that which will be ledgered, read, registered.’ And then: ‘The presence of the marvellous is not an artificial addition or injection into reality – which is why I object so much to the term magical realism.’
He writes of the family in One Hundred Years of Solitude, about their ‘refusal to see everyday reality – in order to forge the epic adventure of a destiny apart’. Then, in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Marquez is ‘acting as a channel for the oral tradition that is the foundation of that world, presenting without any gnawing doubts the version of people who have re-elaborated their experience, who assume themselves to be the final authority, believing that history and legend are one, and that memory and fact are inseparable.’ However, these common people, members of the ‘excluded millions’, are quite unable, or unwilling, to prevent an unjustifiable assassination, an act of traditional revenge, based on mistaken information. Dorfman urges that this chronicle of a death ‘foretold’ should not be taken to encourage a pessimistic fatalism: the word translated as ‘foretold’ is annunciada – so perhaps the English version could be A murder has been announced. The book is ‘a political parable that hints at the ways in which the cyclical wheels of copulation and violence that have determined Latin American history up to now can, in fact, be escaped’. In the dark continent, the sombre Dorfman does try to offer an optimism of the will, as well as a pessimism of the intellect.