Friday, December 31, 2010

"A Long Donkey's Tail for Pinochet"

Here were the keys to my past. Nearby had been the old television station and the audiovisual department where I had begun my film career, and the drama school to which I had come from my hometown at the age of seventeen to take the entrance exam that decided my life's work. And it was here too that the Popular Unity demonstrations for Salvador Allende had been held in 1970 and where I had lived my difficult, critical years. I passed the movie theater where I saw the masterpieces for the first time. . . I forgot my clandestine situation and returned for a moment to being myself.

Miguel Littín, born in Chile to a Palestinian father and Greek mother, was a famed filmmaker appointed in 1970 by President Salavdor Allende as the head of Chile Films, "through (and against) which Chilean filmmakers sought to implement their theories of 'popular culture/popular power' by developing new production and distribution methods." Three years later, General Augusto Pinochet's military coup overthrew Allende's Popular Unity government and transformed Chile from a progressive democracy into a dictatorship. Littín escaped mass execution only through the serendipitous whim of a film-loving sergeant.

Twelve years later, Littín's name remained on a list of five thousand exiles absolutely forbidden to return to their homeland. He had settled with his family in Spain when he casually mentioned a dream of his to slip back into Chile and film a documentary about the underground resistance movement. More fundamentally, Littín longed to see his country again. It seemed no more than conversational brainstorming around the dinner table with friends until Italian director Luciano Balducci pulled him aside and told him that the "man you need," a high-ranking member of the Chilean opposition, was "waiting in Paris." After several months of adapting to his new identity as a bland, bourgeoisie Uruguayan businessman - a transformation that included weight loss, accent coaches, psychologists, and living for a time with his "wife" - Littín finally set off for Chile in May 1985 with three independent international film crews, each unaware of the existence of the other two.

"Early in 1986 in Madrid, when Miguel Littín told me what he had done and how he had done it, I realized that behind his film there was another film that would probably never be made," says Gabriel García Márquez in his introduction to Clandestine in Chile, the result of some eighteen hours of "interrogation" that "encompassed the full human adventure in all its professional and political implications, which I have condensed into ten chapters." Although the text itself is ultimately García Márquez's, he sought to preserve Littín's voice by utilizing the first person, employing Chilean idioms, and respecting Littín's opinions and thought processes even when they differed from his own. La adventura de Miguel Littín, clandestino en Chile was translated from Spanish by Asa Zatz.

Some of the historical and political background will already be familiar to anyone who has read the novels of Isabel Allende (herself a Chilean exile), such as The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, and the Eva Luna books. To begin with, there is the immense popular appeal of Isabel's uncle Salvador that unnerved the old aristocratic order and inspired their support of Pinochet's junta (portrayed by Isabel as Esteban Trueba's greatest and most tragic error), as well as the literary cult surrounding the late Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda ("The Poet" in The House of Spirits), a Marxist who saw his hopes crushed on his deathbed in 1973. And it is hard not to hear Irene Beltran's lament for her lost country in Littín's many moments of nostalgia.

It is Littín's memories of old Chile that give Clandestine in Chile an oddly dreamlike feel, accentuated by its short length of only 116 pages. What is familiar is often friendly, especially when associated with one's happy childhood. But the juxtaposition of nostalgia against the threatening and unaccustomed aspects of a dictatorship, particularly the megalomaniacal attempts to alter the past (for example, removing the chronologically-ordered busts of presidents from the Palace Moneda to avoid having to include Allende), recalls Louis Breton's definition of Surrealism as two distinct realities welded together to form an uncanny union. Furthermore, Littín is literally, at the moment, not himself, having returned to his homeland after a period of years under a new identity that includes a new past in a foreign country. To complete the facade he has had to memorize the Montevideo buslines and have at hand several anecdotes about his classmates at High School No. 11, "two blocks from a well-known drugstore and one block from a recently opened supermarket." It is doubtful that Littín has ever actually been to Uruguay.

Chile now has its own masks as well: Santiago is a clean, orderly, ultra-modern capital designed to distract foreigners from the worsening conditions of the poor and the general discontent with the harsh government. At curfew everything shuts down and the silence of the big city is unnatural. Fear is always present: of the carabineros in streets, of the police checkpoints, and most of all, of being found out and the prospect of sharing the fate of Isabel's fictional Alba Satigny. Miguel Littín's response is to border on recklessness. He forgets his Uruguayan accent, uses old Chilean words, doesn't think before acting, loses some of his disguise, and refuses to leave even as the police close in.

But he did escape, just in time. The 105,000 feet of film shot by the three crews became the documentary Acta General de Chile, winner of several international awards that intensified global pressure on the Pinochet regime. Miguel Littín has since returned to Chile, where Augusto Pinochet died in 2006 at age 91 without ever having been convicted of single crime. Littín's most recent films have focused on the Palestinian diaspora. But the events recounted by Gabriel García Márquez in Clandestine in Chile may well have been his greatest and most dangerous adventure.

Gabriel García Márquez's Clandestine in Chile was The Wolves' reading selection for the month of December. Please feel free to join us for 2011! You can find the new book list here.

Past selections:

March: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana
April: Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual
May: Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
June: Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak
July: Kenzaburo Ōe, A Personal Matter Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!
August: William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
September: Tomás Eloy Martínez, Santa Evita
October: Tobias Wolff, Old School
November: Ričardas Gavelis, Vilnius Poker


Frances said...

Very thoughtful and well-written post. Glad that this worked for you, and glad to have you among the Wolves now officially.

As you know from stopping by my post, this book did not work for me on the same level it did for you. Felt that filmmaker and author both had personal agendas here that dramatized the material in a manner not necessarily in keeping with the reality of the timing. The constant repetition of the word "clandestine" even began to annoy me as if a reminder was needed of possible danger.

Richard said...

Happy New Year, E.L. Fay, and I second Frances' welcome to you as a full-fledged member of the Wolves in 2011! Frances' point about the repetion of the word "clandestine," while well-taken esp. given the less favorable reaction she had to the work than you and I, may stem more from a translation issue than an inherent defect: clandestino in Spanish does mean "clandestine" in English as we all understand it, but it also means "undercover" which might make it seem a less self-serving, more neutral term. (Not sure if that difference would matter to Frances, but I hope she weighs in!) Anyway, enjoyed your post and your focus on the psychology of returning to a country that is no longer your own and am no wondering whether you think I'd like an Isabel Allende novel or not. I have the feeling I'd hate her stuff, but is there one you'd recommend? Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out The House of the Spirits connection. I might appreciate the book more for that when I finally get to it.. Happy new year, EL!

Rise said...

Your opening quote brought to me an additional motivation of Littín for his clandestine/undercover/underground(?) project - that of paying homage to the country where he honed his craft. He was sort of paying back his country for making a filmmaker out of him.

E. L. Fay said...

Frances: Thanks. I honestly didn't notice an overuse of the word "clandestine." The only agenda I really noticed was that both Littín and García Márquez hated Pinochet's regime and wanted to expose it, which is pretty much how everyone felt. I thought it was a neat little book.

Richard: Very interesting! Certainly raises a lot of questions regarding translation. And as to what Allende book I can recommend. . . I have the feeling you'd dislike her too but my favorites are the two Eva Luna books and Of Love and Shadows. House of the Spirits was the debut novel that made her famous but it's also full of Latin American stereotypes (as I mentioned awhile back in my post on The Savage Detectives): i.e. magic realism, dictators, haciendas and padrones. I would also avoid the Daughter of Fortune books - they were on Oprah's Book Club!

Claire: Do tell Richard if you like it or not!

Rise: Good point. He was definitely driven by nostalgia and homesickness, so there was real love for Chile driving the whole project.

Emily said...

Wow, EL Fay, what a great post! I half-wish the book had worked for me in the same way it seems to have done for you and Richard, although I did find things to enjoy in it (I read it as more a semi-comical character study of Littín than as a seriously tense story of undercover intrigue). That said, I'm wondering if the more serious aspects of the work achieve more resonance for those who already have some background in the events of 1973 and the subsequent Pinochet regime - you and Richard seem to be quite affected by it whereas Frances and I are simply bemused.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I do think that having the better idea of the bigger picture, as you and Richard did, changes how this book impacts the reader. Even without a clear idea of the big picture though I found moments in the book chilling - the way all evidence of Allende had been erased, the heavy silence that Littin heard...but I wasn't always sure how much Littin was projecting his personal view of things into the scenes. I was both bemused and affected by the book. I definitely found it interesting.

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: The ending of The House of the Spirits, when Alba is tortured by Pinochet's secret police, is pretty brutal. And it's been awhile since I read Of Love and Shadows but it's about two people, living in a country clearly based on Chile, who discover a mass grave of political prisoners, bring a storm of international criticism upon their government, and end up having to flee into exile. I would say, yes, having read Isabel Allende definitely influenced the way I read this particular book. But I do like your interpretation of it as a semi-comical character study! As I mentioned on your blog, though, I do wonder if a lot of his recklessness came from a sort of fatalism.

Sarah: Even without going into detail about Pinochet's crimes (which Isabel Allende already did for me), I totally agree that this book still had some chilling moments. The silence also stuck out to me, as did all those attempts to effectively erase Salvador Allende, as though Pinochet was actually magalomaniacal enough to think he could actually alter the past!

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