This slightly lengthy title to say that I read two books dealing with the Chilean military dictatorship, and while I loved one, I didn’t like the other. I’m not entirely sure how much sense it makes to write about them together, because they’re so fundamentally different and the only thing that really connects them is the theme, and even that only if your working definition of “theme” is a wide one. I’ve decided to do it anyway, because for me the thematic connection and the timing were close enough to keep thinking back to the first book while I was reading the second one, and progressively realising how flawed the first one really was. Reading great literature is like eating great food: it puts you off the mediocre stuff. I’ve split this into two posts, but am publishing them together. The second part is here.
But what did I actually read? First, I read Roberto Ampuero’s El último tango de Salvador Allende (2012), then Arturo Fontaine’s La vida doble (2010).
Ampuero’s novel is narrated by David Kurtz, an American CIA agent who was posted to Chile during the 1970s and involved in the orchestration of the coup that toppled the Allende government and brought General Pinochet into power, thus opening the darkest chapter of recent Chilean history. Kurtz had a daughter, Victoria, who went to university while he was stationed in Santiago and apparently got herself involved precisely in those activities Kurtz was helping the military regime fight. She had a boyfriend who was active in the opposition and got involved herself. But Kurtz only learns of this many years later, when Victoria, now married to a nice American man, dies of cancer and her last wish is for her father to take her ashes to Chile and find her ex boyfriend, the love of her life. She gives him a notebook, written in Spanish, and a picture of the young man. And so, Kurtz goes to Santiago, where little by little, he starts piecing together his daughter’s past. This is more difficult than he initially expects, involves a trip to former East Germany and rubbing his own previous employer the wrong way. This strand of the narrative has all the hallmarks of a typical thriller, including dark tunnels, secretive meetings, and getting beaten up by strangers in the middle of the night.
At the same time, Kurtz reads the notebook his daughter has given him. To his surprise, he’s laid hands on a diary kept by a man named Rufino, who was an old friend of Salvador Allende’s and ends up working for him as a baker. Through the notebook, supposedly, we get an insight into Allende’s ‘inner life’ and what sort of a person he ‘really was’. Rufino loves tango and plays all sorts of pieces to Allende, who loves only the political ones, but not the ones that are about love. They even go on an escapade in the middle of the night for the President to see what is really going on in the country. Allende is presented as an intellectual and a political theorist with little idea of the reality his population is living, and a taste for exquisite clothing and food – a sort of tragic well-intentioned figure who is too far removed from reality to make is project a success.
Having read this summary, you can probably already imagine that the whole thing is rather… sappy. Of course, as his double journey of discovery – of his daughter’s past and Rufino’s diary – goes on, Kurtz changes, and he starts to see the errors of his former ways. However, this somehow just logically follows from his experience, we don’t really get to see how it happens. It just does. It’s unsatisfying and I didn’t buy it. There’s no reflection process, he goes in as one person and comes out another; along the way, stuff happens and well, there we are. Also, there’s the issue of song excerpts being placed at the beginning of each chapter, which I suppose is meant to lend even further depth to the story. In fact, it’s all so deep I could hardly handle the pretentiousness. At the same time, the main character’s transformation process is too smooth to be credible or traceable. The whole novel, elderly man has late life-changing experience and sees the error of his ways, is too archetypical. In the beginning, I actually thought that this book had the potential to be quite good, and for the first two chapters or so I was hooked. But as I progressed, all these features subconsciously started to annoy me. And yet, it wasn’t until I read La vida doble that I really understood the flaws of El último tango de Salvador Allende.
So go along to the second post…