Marquez vs Pinochet

by Christy Romer

As of December 2014, I’d never read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So it was with a mixture of regret and a compulsion to set right the wrongs of my literary past that I stole into my local bookshop, my heart set on retrieving either Love in the time of Cholera or One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It seemed like I wasn’t the only one. On the shelf where I should have found the two classics, all I could find were books written by Marquez that I’d never heard of. Flicking without enthusiasm through the blurbs, I picked up the only one I had any real connection to: the one with a glowing review from my favourite publication, The New Yorker — ‘Clandestine in Chile.

As a first taste of Marquez, it’s certainly an odd choice. For one, although the novel is ostensibly written by the great author, the words are someone else’s. The book tells the true story of Miguel Littin, a celebrated Chilean film director who was forced into exile with the death of Salvador Allende and the ascension of the dictator General Pinochet on September 11th, 1973. Using his connections to the Chilean resistance, Littin conceives of and executes a plan to return to the country 12 years later — disguised as a Uruguayan businessman — to produce a shocking expose-style documentary of Chilean realities. Marquez apparently spent 18 hours interviewing Littin to retrieve the necessary level of detail for the publication.

The story as a whole is objectively exciting. Littin’s disguise is frequently tested. He tells us about the extensive preparations that the crews he used went through (he actually employed three international film crews, each unaware of the presence of the others, to collect film), and relays numerous occasions in which he used secret code words and deftly hopped into taxis to avoid being caught by undercover policemen.

But it all seems a bit silly when you bear in mind two facts revealed in the introduction: no-one seems to know anything about the film Littin made, and Pinochet fell two years after publication anyway. Some of the scenes in the book are tense (such as Littin’s initial encounter with a local policeman, in which his bluster and arrogance almost end up getting him arrested for being a public nuisance), but it is all underwritten by a kind of farce. Littin notes that he and his colleagues gradually ‘felt the noose tighten’ the longer they stayed in Chile, but it is very hard for the reader — especially one such as myself, so far removed from the context in which Littin was operating — to see it as anything other than a middle class man encountering a bit of bother. Every time that the Littin (via Marquez) talked about how high the stakes were, I felt myself becoming a bit more disconnected from the apparently delusional narrator.

I accept that such an effect is mostly caused by my age. As someone born in 1992, I’m simply too removed from the events of the Chilean dictatorship to connect with them emotionally. But it doesn’t help that Marquez writes with the assumption that the reader has an intimate knowledge of the atrocities perpetuated during the period; sometimes a measure of explicitly detailed brutality is necessary to fully engage your audience.

No, what interested me most was a point made in the introduction about why Marquez decided to produce what was essentially political reporting in the wake of his success with magical realism. The story goes that Marquez, a committed Latin American socialist, publicly declared that he would not write anything whilst Pinochet was in power — a worldwide cultural embargo, if you will, targeted at Pinochet. However, 6 years into Pinochet’s reign, Marquez started working on the book that would become Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Pinochet declared this as a triumph, much to the ire of Marquez. The next thing that the magical realist produced was a tale about how a film director had dodged the Chilean autocracy and created a documentary intended to bring Pinochet down. The author never confirmed that it was an explict act of revenge to undo his ‘loss’ in beginning writing again. But that’s how it has been interpreted.

Clandestine in Chile is tiny — a mere 100 pages — so it’s not exactly a big commitment. I read it, thought about it, enjoyed it. I guess that’s about as far as my recommendation goes. Marquez’s act of resistance in embarking upon the publication is, in my eyes, of much more interest than the risks undertaken in the book.