Monday, January 31, 2011

*Clandestine in Chile, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

NYRB Classics, 2010
originally published 1986, Henry Holt
translated by Asa Zatz

In 1973, Salvador Allende's government collapsed under the weight of a military coup orchestrated by the U.S. and Augusto Pinochet came to power.  Immediately on the heels of this coup, any dissidence (or perceived dissidence) was violently repressed, leaving thousands of people dead, imprisoned or just gone without a trace, and the repression went on over the period of Pinochet's reign.  Thousands more went into exile to escape this regime and some were forbidden to recross the Chilean borders.  In 1985, one of these exiles, film director Miguel Littín, then living in Spain, decided to return to Chile secretly to make a documentary about life under the military dictatorship. The plan was actually hatched earlier, when he failed to find his name on any of the lists of exiles allowed to return published by the Chilean government . He did however, find it on a list of 5,000 people not allowed to come back.   He notes

I had lost the image of my country in a fog of nostalgia. The Chile I remembered no longer existed, and for a filmmaker there could be no surer way of rediscovering a lost country than by going back to it and filming it from the inside.

 Leaving his wife (who had also fled from Chile) and children, and with the help of members of the Chilean resistance, Littín carefully organized several film crews to shoot in different areas, and also set up a conduit for getting the ultimately more than 100,000 feet of film out of the country. Clandestine in Chile is Littín's story about his experiences and what he encountered while he was there.  Author Gabriel García Márquez (himself a friend of Allende) interviewed Littín about his experiences, and according to Francisco Goldman, who wrote the introduction to this work, "whittled down six hundred pages of transcript into this hundred-page book." Littín procured false papers, divested himself of  his facial hair and lost weight (in case people remembered him) and with help from an activist who posed as his wife, entered Chile in the guise of a businessman from Uruguay. His total time in the country was about six weeks, during which time he and his three separately-assigned film crews (assisted by Chilean crews who also belonged to the Popular Front): the Italian crew would be ostensbly filming of a documentary on Chile's Italian immigrants, with the Italian architect of the Moneda Palace as one of their subjects; the French group would be doing an ecological film; and finally, the third crew with Dutch credentials would be studying recent earthquakes.  None of the crews knew about any of the others (offering a sort of "hush-hush" aspect to this book), and they would actually be focusing on the Chilean people who continued to live under Pinochet's dictatorship and how well or not the country had fared in the 12 years since the takeover.  Littín and various members of his crews and activist friends had a few hair-raising experiences that read here and there like a spy novel (strange phone calls in the middle of the night, being followed, moving from hotel to hotel, post-curfew escapes etc.,), and Marquez does a wonderful job putting down as much as he can in a true-life reportage that resulted in this book.

Clandestine in Chile is very well written and absorbs the reader at the start.  As noted, there are a few semi heart-stopping moments, but some of Littin's experiences are also poignant; for example, when he "accidentally" finds himself at the home of his mother.

Littin's observations in 1985 offer a brief glimpse into how the old regime had not been forgotten in Chile some 12 years later, and how the people both underground and publicly were doing what they could to fight back, even in small measures.  Frankly, I was a bit moved at how difficult (and quite frankly even strange) the whole process must have been for Littin, and how very odd he must have felt to be back in his native country to which he (as of 1985) could never return. My only criticism of the book is that parts of it seemed to have taken on a bit of literary license and were a bit fluffy, especially during some of the conversations in which Littin was involved. Yet on the whole, the 1973 coup, and the ensuing regime of Pinochet and his repression of dissenters are all topics of great personal interest, and the book offers another part of the human story for those who are also interested in this topic.  I'd also love to see the resulting documentary, but as of yet have had no luck in even locating a copy.  Highly recommended.


  1. I am so excited to find someone else who has read this book. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writing, and my family in law are from Chile. My partnérs uncle was part of the guerilla movement against Pinochet and suffered horribly at the hands of the dictatorship.

    I really enjoyed reading this book, which came as a surprise to me becuase non-fiction isn't noranlly my thing. But Littin's story was an amazing one and I was in awe at the bravery and courage he displayed putting himself (and his family unfortunately) in such danger in order to bring to the truth to the rest of the world. I would love to find a copy of this doco somewhere too but haven't been able to. If you have any luck let me know :-)

    Here is my review

  2. I have been meaning to get to this book for some time. I'm glad you reviewed it, Nancy!

  3. Thanks, Becky! It is truly an amazing book. Littin's journey was so surreal in places and I could only imagine what the author didn't take from the transcripts of the original interviews.

    Col: oh, definitely...well worth the time.


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