Wolf House

Casa del lobo

It’s the title of a new film inspired by Colonia Dignidad, the horrific German colony in southern Chile used by the Pinochet dictatorship’s secret police. La Casa Lobo, or Wolf House, is the work of two young Chilean producers, Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña, and recently won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

And it’s animated, a form not usually associated with horror, but the filmmakers used an intriguing approach: if the sinister leader of the cult were a Latin American Walt Disney, what kind film would he make? In an interview with El Mostrador, León noted that reports of abuses at Colonia Dignidad had been filtering out since the 1960s, but nothing was done about it. It is important to discuss this subject, and to find new forms and perspectives to deal with our national traumas, he said.

Here’s a link to the official trailer

20 years ago today, in London…

extradite pinochet

Protesters in London after Pinochet was placed under house arrest.

It was a trip he had been looking forward to, surgery and shopping in London. Britain, he told the journalist Jon Lee Anderson, was his favorite country.  He had just retired as Chile’s army commander, a post he kept after being forced to turn the presidency over to an elected civilian eight years earlier. He and his retinue visited Fortnum and Mason, had a drink with Margaret Thatcher before checking into a private clinic for hernia surgery.

And then he was arrested, held for 15 months while his lawyers and British authorities haggled over a Spanish judge’s extradition request. His supporters argued he was too frail and sickly to stand trial. But when his plane touched down in Santiago General Augusto Pinochet stood up from his wheelchair and walked briskly to his well-wishers, making little use of the cane he was carrying.

Pinochet survived another six years, eluding prosecution for human rights abuses, arms trafficking and corruption, hiding behind vague claims of illness and memory loss.  But his legacy still lives on in some sectors of Chilean society. Earlier this month a ceremony honoring one of his dictatorship’s most egregious human rights abusers,, Miguel Krassnoff, was held at the Chilean army academy, the Escuela Militar. Two army officials behind the tribute were demoted, but not fired.

Chile, 30 Years Later

It is the 30th anniversary of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet’s one-man presidential plebiscite, in which Chileans were asked to cast yes or no ballots to determine whether his regime should be extended for another eight years.  He lost, but remained army commander for another decade and then–in accordance with the provisions of his own constitution–became a lifetime member of the Chilean Senate.

His senatorial career, of course, was interrupted by his arrest in London in 1998 and after a prolonged legal battle returned to Chile to find that a man he had once imprisoned was about to become president.

This week a performer whose satirical song, “El Vals del No,” set to the tune of the Blue Danube Waltz, sang it at the Chilean Congress. Here is a link to the video; the woman in the striped jacket is late Salvador Allende’s daughter Isabel, now a member of the Chilean Senate.

Unequal lives in Chile (and elsewhere)

This is depressing news.  According to a report https://www.oecd.org/chile/social-mobililty-2018-CHL-EN.pdf released earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it could take six generations for Chilean children born in the lowest income group to reach the mean income, compared with an average of five generations in OECD countries.

My friend and colleague Odette Magnet has this opinion piece on the subject in the digital newspaper El Mostrador: https://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/opinion/2018/06/23/el-ascenso-social-de-los-pobres-la-fantasia-de-las-palabras/

Two anthologies

 

This blogger recently attended book launches in London for two new collections of Latin American writing. The region’s literature is even less well-known in the UK than in the United States, so the publication of these anthologies in English is most welcome.

The first is Bogota 39: New Voices from Latin America containing 39 stories by writers from fifteen different Latin American countries.  The writers are more than a generation or two removed from Latin America’s literary boom in the latter half of the 20th century, when authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa brought the region to the attention of English-speaking readers.  The introductory essay mentions a kind of literary rebellion in the 1990s heralded by a group of Mexican writers who announced themselves as the “Crack” generation.

“Just because we’re Latin American, they said, doesn’t mean we have to write about levitating priests and blood that travels with a mind of its own.  What if we’re interested in Adolph Eichmann, or chess, or Nazi mathematicians?  Can’t we help ourselves to those subjects?”

Some of the stories in Bogota 39 have elements of magical realism but others have characters who might be from anywhere in the world. The narrator in one of the stories, Chilean writer Juan Pablo Roncone’s “Children,” is in the habit of attending meetings about things in which he has no particular interest, such as workshops and support groups, just wanting to be near other people.  “I’d got the idea from a North American film where a guy visits groups of cancer patients. Desolate people, but when he’s around them the guy feels good, liberated,” he writes.  His sister mentions a film in which a teenager and an elderly woman go to the funerals of people they don’t know, “but I never did that, out of respect for the relatives.”

The second anthology is Violeta Walks on Foriegn Lands, a bilingual collection of short stories and essays about Chilean musician, artist, poet and songwriter Violeta Parra. To mark the centenary of her birth last year, Victorina Press held a short story competition in which the entries had to make some reference to Violeta Parra’s life and work. The three winning stories and six special mentions are included in the book, along with commentaries.

Violeta Walks on Foreign Lands

In Mabel Encinas-Sanchez’s “September,” a woman buried under rubble during an earthquake tries to keep her sanity by humming Violeta Parra songs to herself and making up her own lyrics to the tunes. Sebastian Eterovic’s “In Search of Their Memory” tells of four young men who gather to celebrate the memory of a teacher they admired.  The absent teacher might be poet Nicanor Parra, Violeta’s brother, but before his identity can be revealed, the friends are confronted in the street by an eccentric 55-year old woman who rants to them about injustice and hands each of them a flower from a supermarket bag. Could it be Violeta Parra herself?

When Kurt Met Jose

vonnegutDonoso hand resting

“Maybe I will come to Chile, but not before I learn Spanish. There is a Chile, Indiana, incidentally, not far from my birthplace. The locals pronounce it Shy-lie, and have no idea why some people smile at that.”

–from a letter by Kurt Vonnegut to Jose Donoso dated May 26, 1973

They met at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1965 and began a friendship that would span decades. Jose Donoso was one of Chile’s best-known writers, part of Latin America’s late 20th century literary boom, and his novel, Coronation, had been published in English and received the William Faulkner Foundation Prize. All but one of Vonnegut’s books were now out of print and he was struggling to support his family while working on what he called “the Dresden novel” about his experiences as a prisoner of war during the Allied bombing of the German city in 1945. While Vonnegut agonized over the future Slaughterhouse Five manuscript, Donoso was trying to write the novel considered to be his masterpiece, The Obscene Bird of Night. The two writers shared an appreciation for the absurd, and social satire was a common element in their work.  Their wives, Jane and Maria Pilar, became close friends, and decades later Maria Pilar would be at Jane’s bedside when she passed away.

Suzanne McConnell, who studied under both writers, recalled a party at the Vonneguts’ home, which happened to be next  door to where she lived. Vonnegut was dancing with Maria Pilar and seemed enthralled by her graceful moves. Vonnegut was casual and down-to-earth in his demeanor, while Donoso was much more formal and serious.

This blogger once met Jose Donoso at a reception held at the British Embassy in Santiago. I told him how much I had enjoyed his work, Sueños de mala muerte, (which translates roughly as “miserable dreams”) a play about the frustrated lives of residents in a Santiago boarding house.  He thanked me in unaccented American English and I asked him about something I had read in one of Kurt Vonnegut’s essays:  when the two of them were at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and met Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren blurted out, “I think it would be nice to come from a country so long and narrow.”  Donoso smiled at me and nodded, but would not divulge anything else about his fellow writers.

A collection of letters from Vonnegut to his Chilean friend archived at the Princeton University library reveals a deep and supportive literary friendship.  In a letter dated October 22, 1967, Vonnegut writes from Helsinki, a stop on a multi-city tour of Europe he undertook as research for Slaughterhouse-Five.  He is accompanied by an army buddy who had been with Vonnegut in Dresden, but the trip had not gone very well and the two had been been “royally hosed by a communist travel agency.”  The travel agency had sold them train tickets and hotel accommodation for a six-day trip from Berlin to Warsaw to Leningrad, but when the two men attempted to board a train, the travel vouchers proved to be worthless.

We tried to get our money back, and they laughed and told us to take a flying f— at the moon,” Vonnegut wrote. “Which we more or less did.” He and his army buddy then took flights to Hamburg and then to Helsinki, a possible entry point for Russia.

“English doesn’t work here.  Neither does French or German,” he wrote to Donoso. but Vonnegut’s  travel frustrations were not weighing on his mind as much as the fact that Donoso had written to say he was giving up trying to finish The Obscene Bird of Night, the novel he had been struggling with for ten years.

“I find this intolerable and absurd: Donoso should not abandon Donoso. Why despise yourself ten years ago?  I am certain that man was a charming writer, too, as much entitled to a hearing as you are.

I will ask a crude question: Do you need an ending?  If so, let’s make one up, immediately as a crass favour to the man you used to be.   Let us be his literary executors. Has he said enough in the thousand pages (great God!) to permit us to end in the middle of a sentence? You simply must have an outsider read what you have done.” Donoso must have taken his friend’s words to heart, for the novel was finally published in 1970, the year after Slaughterhouse-Five, bringing both authors critical acclaim. An English translation of The Obscene Bird of Night was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1973, and included in literary critic Harold Bloom’s The Western Cannon, a survey of major works of literature.

The book’s title comes from  Henry James, who wrote in a letter:  “The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.”  The novel is the hallucinatory tale of a man born with deformities, the last surviving member of an old Chilean aristocratic family, who is housed with others like him.  The text draws upon folk traditions from Chiloe Island, off the southern coast of Chile. The New York Times described it as a “monstrous, miraculous novel.”

Another letter in the Princeton archive was written a few weeks after Chile’s brutal 1973 military coup.  Vonnegut said he thought “how much the death of democracy must have hurt you and Maria Pilar.  You must have lost friends.”  His son-in-law, journalist Geraldo Rivera, had just come back from Santiago with smuggled films.

“There were bodies to be seen, shot during curfew, apparently, and left lying where they fell when the sun came up. Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, he interviewed several university students, who told him that the overthrow was a very good thing.  They could scarcely say anything else. I guess. And Geraldo himself, a fierce democrat and closet Marxist, has concluded that the elected government was out of control, was a disaster in its own right. I am persuaded that it is now impossible to govern well almost anywhere, and that national tragedies come and go of their own will, like thunderstorms. This makes endurance the most useful human skill.”

 Vonnegut’s divorce from his wife may have complicated their relationship, but the friendship endured.  Donoso and Maria Pilar attended Jane Vonnegut’s funeral in 1987 and in a subsequent letter Vonnegut mentioned the good conversations he had had with both of them during this visit. “At least we did not waste time talking about lightweight things.”

Donoso died in Santiago in 1997  and Vonnegut a decade later. Sadly, Vonnegut never managed to get to Chile.

 

Ugh

It is probably not surprising that the Pinochet dictatorship has its admirers among U.S. hate groups, but a photograph of one particular man in Charlottesville exceeds all levels of ugliness.  His black t shirt promotes “Pinochet’s helicopter tours” and shows a body falling from a helicopter.  It is a reference to the way the regime disposed of some of its victims, and for more background, check out this PBS documentary on a brave Chilean judge’s investigation into these killings: The Judge and the General. 

Journalist Uki Goñi published the photograph on his Twitter account, and noted that the t shirts are sold on…Amazon.