It’s been a full year since the world watched the rescue of 33 men at the San Jose mine, and to mark the occasion here’s a look at the work of a Chilean writer who chronicled the dismal conditions in his country’s mines.
Baldomero Lillo was born in 1867 in the coal-mining town of Lota, a region which was—and still is—one of Chile’s poorest. He never completed high school but read extensively (Dostoyevsky was a favorite), spent his teenage years working as a store clerk, met many of the mineworkers and heard their accounts of life underground. Lillo moved to Santiago in 1898 and got a job at the University of Chile’s printing office. His first short story collection, Sub Terra, was published in 1907 and Chilean president Sebastian Pinera recalls reading the book as a schoolboy. One of the best-known stories, Gate No. 12, is a Dickensian horror tale about a father with the symptoms of lung disease who brings his eight-year old son to work in the mine. An excerpt:
With one sweeping glance, the foreman’s penetrating eyes took in the weak little body of the boy. His delicate limbs and the childish innocence of the dark face with its wide-open shining eyes, like those of a frightened little animal, made an unfavorable impression on the foreman. Although hardened by the daily contemplation of so much misery, he felt a twang o pity at the sight of that little fellow, yanked from his childish games and condemned, like so many others, to languish miserably in the damp galleries, next to the ventilation doors. The hard lines of his face softened and with assumed severity he addressed the old man who, concerned over the foreman’s scrutiny of his son, stared anxiously awaiting a reply.
“Heavens, man, this child is still too weak to work. Is he your son?”
“He’s so young. You should have pity on him and rather than bury him in here, you should be sending him to school for a while.”
“But sir,” stammered the shaky, supplicating voice of the miner, “there are six of us at home and only one working. Pablo is eight already and should earn the bread he eats. As a miner’s son he’ll have to follow in the footsteps of his elders whose only school was the mine.”
A sudden fit of coughing drowned out his trembling voice, but his moist eyes implored with such insistence that the foreman, won over by that silent appeal, raised a whistle to his lips. Its piercing sound echoed down the deserted passageway. Hurried steps were heard and a dark silhouette appeared in the doorway.
“Juan,” exclaimed the little man, pointing to the miner’s son, “take this boy to Gate No.12. He will replace Jose, the hauler’s son, who was run over yesterday.”
Lillo wrote a total of 45 short stories before dying of tuberculosis in 1923. Sadly, little of his work is available in English. In 1959 UNESCO published a translation of Sub Terra, entitled The Devil’s Pit and Other Stories, but the book has been out of print for some time and I found only one copy for sale online. Gate No. 12 was included in a collection of Latin American fiction edited by Seymour Menton, The Spanish American Short Story: A Critical Anthology, published by the University of California Press in 1980. That book is also out of print, but can be read on Google: http://books.google.com/books?id=ApC9epzJXgMC&pg=PA106&dq=”baldomero+lillo”&hl=en&ei=BGe8TIGcEsP48AaWypDWDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CDsQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q