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Two Books about Chile (2) – Arturo Fontaine: La vida doble (2010)

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This is part two of my thoughts on two novels I read almost successively and that deal with a similar theme. One was brilliant, the other one… not so much. Part one, on the not-so-brilliant El último tango de Salvador Allende is here. I then went on to read La vida doble. This novel was amazing, and it will definitely make my list of favourite reads in 2013, if not even top it.

La vida doble is the story of Irene, or Lorena (we never learn her real name). She starts out as a member of Hacha roja, a militant opposition group in Chile during the dictatorship. She’s devoted, takes part in missions, and almost – almost sends her little daughter Anita off to be educated in Cuba, so Anita is protected and the government can’t use threats against the little girl to blackmail her mother. But she can’t bring herself to do it. La vida doble begins with her narrating how she was tortured after she was arrested during a mission gone wrong. This narration plunges you right into the cruel reality of the military dictatorship’s prisons, the absolute humiliation, the descent from human being to object. There are no cheesy adornments, no song texts like in El último tango de Salvador Allende, there’s no filter, just absolute cruelty, and a highly conflicted main character.

Irene/Lorena is set free, and then she’s arrested again, and this time they get to her and manage to turn her into a collaborator of the regime. Her comrades at Hacha roja have started mistrusting her after the first arrest, they cut her out of missions, and she hasn’t sent her daughter to Cuba, so her torturers can easily use threats against Anita to break her mother. And so she becomes part of the machinery as “Cubanita” (she puts on a Cuban accent when she’s interrogating blindfolded suspects so they don’t recognise her). She starts hunting down her former comrades, gets involved more and more with her former torturers, including sexually, degrading herself even further. All of it culminates in a mission to capture the head of Hacha roja. And yet, all of it is told from the perspective of Irene/Lorena as she is interviewed by a writer in Stockholm, where she now lives in palliative care, lonely, bitter, and full of guilt. Something has happened that forced her to flee Chile still during the dictatorship.

So what makes La vida doble brilliant, and how did this contribute to making me realise what bothered me about El último tango de Salvador Allende? The most striking thing about La vida doble is its rawness, the complete exposure of the main character. There is no distance between Irene/Lorena and the reader, whereas in El último tango de Salvador Allende you never really get close to the main character, and therefore you don’t really understand his transformation. As I already said, it just kind of happens. In La vida doble, the main character’s turn from regime fighter to collaborator, to me, seemed completely traceable; even if you don’t approve (how can you?), the reader understands: it’s her way of dealing with the mistrust from her former comrades, of protecting the daughter she loves, and her drug-fuelled sexual encounters with her torturers – she even falls in love with one of them – seemed to be a way of denigrating and punishing herself for all of it. She seems to have lost all self-respect and dignity. Later, she pushes everyone away, even Roberto, the loving, tolerant, and incredibly patient Brazilian partner she meets in Stockholm as she tries to build up a new life there. The narrative, in its rawness, is so powerful it overwhelmed me on more than one occasion, while Kurtz’s transformation and Allende’s fate as portrayed in El último tango de Salvador Allende just left me cold. “Meh” describes it perfectly. La vida doble doesn’t try to be deep. It shines and touches the reader by virtue of its brilliant writing and its rawness rather than the overly obvious use of literary devices and song texts.

La vida doble is a book I will be recommending to everyone. El último tango de Salvador Allende is too wannabe deep and tacky. A friend of mine recently wrote about the feeling of a book not being good enough to enjoy it but not bad enough to put it down. I got that with El último tango de Salvador Allende while I was reading it. As I delved into the brilliance of La vida doble and inevitably started comparing the two, I became increasingly annoyed with myself for having wasted precious reading time on El último tango.

Have you ever experienced the feeling that reading an excellent book after a less-than-excellent one made you appreciate the flaws of the latter even more? Which books were they? Pray tell!

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

2 thoughts on “Two Books about Chile (2) – Arturo Fontaine: La vida doble (2010)

  1. I wasn’t familiar with Fontaine, but the topic and the “rawness” of the writing that you describe make this sound like a winner for me. I appreciated you juxtaposing this review against the El ultimo tango de Salvador Allende book, by the way, since they do seem similar in a kind of surface way in terms of content. ¡Saludos!

    • This is definitely a winner, at least it worked for me! It comes highly recommended as well, I think I first came across it in Jorge Volpi’s “El insomnio de Bolívar” if I remember correctly. As for my putting it up against “El último tango de Salvador Allende”, that was mostly coincidence because I just happened to read them in short succession without even planning it (hooray for serendipity! 😉 ).

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