The Truth of Chile

One of the most unfortunate aspects of American book publishing is the extremely limited scope it provides for works translated from foreign languages. We speak here not just of Chinese, Arabic, or Afrikaans, but of a tongue far closer to us in every sense--Spanish. Although it is the second most widely spoken Western language after our own, one that generates a vast and sophisticated literary output, American book buyers and reviewers are afforded only a very limited sample. The reason for this is simple: Most editors at American publishing houses cannot read Spanish (or, for that matter, probably any other foreign language). They make their decisions on what books to order in translation based wholly on recommendations from outside readers who are native speakers, normally expatriate academics in the foreign-language departments of American universities. In most cases these professors are left of center politically (not infrequently, very far left of center). The result is that a curtain of informal censorship combined with an old-boy/old-girl network--presumably rationalized by the publishers as strictly commercial considerations--deprives us of some of the most interesting novels being published south of the border.

A case in point is the work of Roberto Ampuero, one of Chile's most original and interesting novelists. He is best known to readers in his own country as the creator of Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban-Chilean detective whose office is a shabby warren of small rooms in the old quarter of the romantic port town of Valparaíso. Together with his Japanese-Chilean assistant, Suzuki, and his lady friend Margarita (who runs a domestic-service agency), Brulé takes on cases--particularly murders with a political twist--that the local police have either ignored or dismissed as unworthy of further investigation. Margarita is particularly well placed to help Brulé, because in Chile servants are often matchless sources of information, not just about their employers but about their employers' friends and associates.

In Latin America as in many other parts of the world, fiction is often the most accurate source of contemporary history. In Ampuero's detective novels--six of them so far, all of which take place in post-Pinochet Chile--the author peels back, layer by layer, the ambiguous moral legacy bequeathed by his country's recent past. The government of Marxist president Salvador Allende (1970–73) dreamed of transforming one of Latin America's oldest democracies into something like East Germany or the Soviet Union. After three turbulent years it was ousted by a military government (1973–88) that aspired to create a Chilean version of Franco's Spain. Fortunately both efforts came to naught, but the country's almost unimaginably peaceful political transition has exacted its own form of amnesia; many inconvenient memories have been unceremoniously swept under the rug. In Ampuero's novels Chileans get their country's unwritten history, the non-official story, so to speak. He points out, in his first book, Who Killed Cristián Kustermann?, that some longstanding political scores are also being settled privately--in this particular case, between elements of the violent Left that have never made their peace with the country's return to "bourgeois" democracy.

In Latin America as in many other parts of the world, fiction is often the most accurate source of contemporary history.

Though Brulé's investigations often take the reader into the sinister districts of Valparaíso or Chile's nearby capital, Santiago, his work takes him mainly abroad--to Germany, Sweden, Cuba, Kenya, Mexico, Miami, Chicago, and Washington, places where Ampuero himself has lived or traveled. Chileans are a people hungry for contact with the outside world--their country is an isolated tranche of land separated from Argentina by the high Andes and from Peru and Bolivia by the Atacama desert. To the west there lies the limitless Pacific Ocean. Not surprisingly, then, Ampuero's familiarity with places normally beyond the reach of his readers accounts for much of his popularity. For foreigners who have lived in Chile (the present writer included) they provide a new and different way of viewing the world.

Because they are entertaining as well as politically provocative, the Brulé cycle of detective novels--Who Killed Cristián Kustermann?, Boleros in Havana, The German from Atacama, Trip to the Blue Deep, Nighthawks, and The Neruda Case (published this year in Chile and Spain)--have made Ampuero his country's second most widely read novelist after Isabel Allende. Together his books have sold more than 220,000 copies in a country of 16 million (in the U.S., the equivalent would be more than 3 million). They have also found readers in many other languages--not just Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish, but French, German, Greek, Serbian and Croatian, and even Mandarin. (I am preparing an English translation.) Moreover, another 200,000 copies may have been sold in pirated editions, in all probability produced clandestinely by old apparatchiks of the Chilean Communist party. As in the case of Portugal, Greece, and, until fairly recently, Italy, in Chile the Communists--having lost out in the struggle for political power after the end of a right-wing dictatorship--have regrouped to occupy a disproportionate role in the cultural realm. They exert a strong influence on official culture and control almost all the literary prizes. They also do what they can through their international connections to advance "their" novelists and poets. (One such--a party functionary of no known literary merit--was thrust forward at the Havana Book Fair during the recent state visit of Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.) Pirated editions of Ampuero's books are produced, most likely on presses acquired by the Communists through financial compensation for properties seized during the Pinochet years.

This illicit traffic would appear to be inspired not only by commercial considerations, however. There are scores to be settled. The Chilean party has this writer in its sights.

At the time of the coup that deposed Allende in 1973, Ampuero, then 20 years of age, was a Communist student leader at the University of Chile. After some months in hiding from the police and the military, he was spirited out of the country to the German Democratic Republic. The choice of destination was logical, not only because of the intense relationship between the Chilean Communists and their "fraternal party" in East Berlin, but because Ampuero was already fluent in the language, having graduated from the German School of his native Valparaíso.

While living in Leipzig, Ampuero met and fell in love with a beautiful young Cuban woman whose father held a key post in the Castro regime. The two were eventually married in Havana, where Ampuero settled into life as a student of literature at the University. For four years he lived with his in-laws in a mansion in one of the "frozen zones" of Havana--that is to say, in one of the elite residential districts restricted to the Cuban nomenklatura. When his marriage broke up, he was forced to move out and live like an ordinary Cuban. The experience was a revelation to him --as if he had moved to another country. For three years he survived by doing translation work or teaching German to Cuban workers conscripted for work in East Germany. It was extraordinarily difficult for Chileans who had taken refuge in Cuba to leave the island--as it is for Cubans themselves--but Ampuero finally managed, thanks to connections with the Chilean Social Democrat Left, to find his way back to East Germany. After slightly more than two years there he crossed over the Berlin Wall to the West, where he remained for twelve years as a journalist. It was in West Germany that he met his present wife, who was serving as Guatemalan ambassador to Bonn.

All of the events just related--up to the moment of his crossing to the West--form the basis of a remarkable autobiographical novel, Our Olive Green Years, published in both Chile and Spain in 1999, and last year in an Italian translation. This book is a classic of political disenchantment, comparable in some ways to Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, with the important difference that the story stretches out over a long period of time and takes place in three countries. It begins with an uninspiring picture of "Democratic" Germany--the beau ideal of the Chilean Left--before flashing back to the horrific events following the Pinochet coup in Chile, and then moves forward to a detailed description of life in Castro's Cuba (the dictator even makes a cameo appearance--just as he did in real life at Ampuero's in-laws'). Even more interesting is the description of the politics of the Chilean exile community in Cuba, dominated by power-hungry pseudo-revolutionary bureaucrats. Above all, he captures the deep hunger of ordinary Cubans for an existence that does not continually call for conflict and sacrifice. As he puts it in one of the unforgettable passages of the book:

During December nights . . . the sky became cloudy and the atmosphere thicker, making it possible to pick up U.S. [television] transmissions. . . . Thousands of people in the neighborhood were glued to their sets until morning for the sheer pleasure of watching blurred, soundless images of a world as close as it was unattainable . . . a world which, between endless lines and periodic fog on the screen, offered in apparently limitless supply of oversized hamburgers with Coca-Cola, shoes, pants, and skirts of the latest fashion, amusement parks, automobiles with shiny chrome bumpers, apartments with air conditioning on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. . . . Finally, morning came, and the American ghosts on the screen were chased away by the first transmissions of Cuban television, with a brisk wake-up call from the revolutionary version of the news. [My translation.]

Appearing as it did at a time when Chile was still in recovery from the Allende experience--and coming from a writer who himself was a former member of the Communist party--Our Olive Green Years had an enormous impact on the Chilean Left and the country's intellectual community. It has sold at least 45,000 copies (probably an equal number in pirated editions) and provoked an enormous debate on the meaning of "actually existing socialism" in a country where distant Marxist models had possessed an unwholesome, but long-lasting, appeal. Although prohibited in Cuba, it has circulated clandestinely on the island and someday will represent to readers there something like what The Gulag Archipelago represented to Russians. Roosfilms is making plans to film it, probably in Cartagena, Colombia, where the backgrounds can be made to resemble Havana.

Today, Ampuero and his wife Ana Lucrecia and their two children live in Iowa City, Iowa, where he teaches Spanish and creative writing at the University of Iowa. In addition to his work as a novelist, he has become a major public intellectual in Chile. His commentaries appear every other Sunday in that country's major daily, La Tercera. Something of a moderate Social Democrat, he has been repeatedly offered the opportunity to figure on a list of candidates for the Chilean congress but chosen to remain in the United States.

In no way has this distance isolated him from events in his home country, to which he often returns. A few weeks ago he caused a sensation by publishing an open letter to President Bachelet on the occasion of her visit to Cuba. This was one of a series of pilgrimages that democratically elected Latin American leaders somewhat inexplicably feel obliged to make to the island during the 50th anniversary year of the Castro revolution. Madame Bachelet thought to make the trip somewhat shamefacedly--during the month when most of Chile's elite and political class were on holiday. Unfortunately for her, the event did not go unnoticed, particularly thanks to Ampuero's article.

He was particularly incensed by her decision to open the Havana Book Fair. This, Ampuero wrote, in a country "where censorship is the order of the day, and hundreds of intellectuals--Vargas Llosa or Semprún, Zoé Valdés or Daína Chaviano, Arenas or Cabrera Infante, Padilla or Paquito D'Rivera, among others--are proscribed." He reminded President Bachelet of her own political past as a prisoner of dictatorship, and asked her: "If for Chileans, seventeen years without freedom was far too long, why are fifty years for Cubans not yet sufficient?" "Some facts are undeniable," he concluded, "After a half century of totalitarianism in Cuba, brutal repression against all opposition, a controlled press, political prisoners, 8,000 political executions (that have been documented thus far), massive exile, a country in ruins . . . Let no one say later, ‘Oh, if only we had known!'"

Could there be a connection between this disposition to call things by their proper names, and the fact that Anglophone readers have not yet been given the opportunity to enjoy the adventures of Cayetano Brulé? One hopes not. But knowing what one knows about the New York publishing world, one can never be sure.

Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar emeritus at AEI.

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