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.
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,
October: Tobias Wolff, Old School
November: Ričardas Gavelis, Vilnius Poker