Rethinking Pablo Neruda

Neruda

One of my most treasured books, at least until recently, has been Neruda: Retratar la ausencia, a beautiful collection of black and white photographs of the poet’s home in the coastal town of Isla Negra, by Luis Poirot and published by the Neruda Foundation. The book, signed by dear friends, was presented to me at a small going away party in 1989, when I moved from Chile after nearly a decade of living and working in Santiago.

I also have a very old paperback copy of his memoir, Confieso que he vivido.  And it contains a disturbing passage from the poet’s time in Ceylon in the late 1920s, about a young Tamil woman whose job it was to empty human waste receptacles at his residence.  He seems oblivious to the fact that she wants nothing to do with him—avoiding eye contact, ignoring “gifts” of fruit and silk he places in her path and not responding when he calls out to her.  He can’t take a hint and decides that she is a “shy jungle animal.”  He grabs her wrist and “leads” her to his bed:

“It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open, all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me.”

Neruda’s memoir, with its confession of rape, was published in Spanish in 1974 and in English three years later, but it seems that only recently any attention has been paid to this passage and other unpleasant incidents in the Nobel laureate’s life. In 2015 Dutch writer Hagar Peeters published a novel, Malva, about Neruda’s only daughter, born with hydrocephaly whom he abandoned along with her mother in Nazi-occupied Europe. Here’s a review of the English version, released a year ago: https://www.publicbooks.org/nerudas-ghosts/

There had been a proposal to rename Santiago’s airport after Neruda, and the cultural committee of Chile’s Chamber of Deputies voted for the change. But a growing chorus of outrage from human rights activists might put a stop to this. One parliamentarian and member of Chile’s Humanist Party, Pamela Jiles, wrote that it was bad for the country’s image to pay homage to “an abuser of women, who abandoned his sick child and confessed to rape.” Here’s a good summary in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/23/chile-neruda-airport-rename-outrage-admitted-rape-memoirs

Meanwhile, the Neruda Foundation (https://fundacionneruda.org/), which manages the poet’s legacy, has remained stonily silent. But perhaps the Foundation could raise some money and make a donation to a group helping survivors of sexual violence in Sri Lanka.

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.

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.

Fake news from Chile

On July 24, 1975 Chile’s afternoon tabloid La Segunda published a front page story headlined “Exterminated like mice.”  The article described a shootout between rival factions of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left and other Chilean leftist groups who had fled to Argentina after the 1973 military coup in which dozens of people were killed.

exterminaron como ratones

La Segunda is part of the El Mercurio newspaper chain, whose publisher, Augustin Edwards, died at his estate south of Santiago this week. The supposed shootout never took place and the newspaper report was part of an elaborate disinformation campaign by the Pinochet regime’s security agency, the DINA, aimed at discrediting victims of forced disappearances and their families.  The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation later described the report as “the high point of manipulating disinformation.”  And Edwards’ newspapers were often willing participants in these operations. 

According to the Commission, the DINA published two lists totalling 119 Chileans who had disappeared after their arrest via two obscure publications, the Argentine magazine Lea and the Brazilian newspaper Novo O Dia.  

“Subsequent investigation revealed that Lea was the first issue of a magazine that did not legally exist and provided no names of anyone involved in it and that Novo O Dia was published irregularly in the city of Curitiba, Brazil. Further investigation into the source of the single issue of Lea led to a print shop linked to ultraright groups in the Argentinean government at that time. It also became clear that such unusual publications were used because despite considerable efforts the more serious media refused to publish the news.”

But Edwards’ El Mercurio newspaper chain was quick to pick up and republish this disinformation, with sensational headlines and additional material of questionable origin about Chilean subversives operating in other countries. The result, the Commission report noted, was “confusion within public opinion, and humiliation and isolation for the relatives of victim and those circles involved in defending human rights.”  And throughout the Pinochet dictatorship’s 17 years in power, Edwards’ newspapers routinely helped cover up human rights abuses, maligning the victims and casting doubt on the credibility of witnesses to such crimes.

The Chilean Journalists Association finally expelled Edwards two years ago. And last year his name appeared in the Panama Papers  as one of the clients served by the Panama City law firm Mossack, which had helped wealthy individuals from around  the world establish offshore  bank accounts.

The literary assassin

Mariana Callejas, former secret police agent and one of the more notorious figures from the Pinochet dictatorship, died in a care home this week.

I interviewed her in Santiago in 1989.  She was astonishingly frank, but then she was used to talking about her past, having given extended statements to FBI officials investigating the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C.  Her husband, Michael Townley, an American working for the regime’s Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), had placed the bomb which killed Letelier and his co-worker Ronni Moffitt.

“If there are any doubt about what really went on under the regime, well, I had it straight from the horse’s mouth,” she told me. “These army people, the captains, the majors, when they talked about assassinations it was as if they were talking about the last movie they saw.”

The interview took place at her home in Lo Curro, an affluent municipality in eastern Santiago.  She brought out some short fiction to show me, saying she was writing more in English than in Spanish these days. I quickly read through one of the pieces, about an emperor and a butterfly and have to admit, she had writing talent. In the mid-seventies she hosted all-night literary gatherings (a curfew was in effect), even as their basement was being used as a holding pen and torture site for political prisoners. The late Roberto Bolaño wrote a fictionalized account of these dark events in his novella By Night in Chile; Callejas was called “Maria Canales.”  She published a collection of stories, La Larga Noche, which contained descriptions of torture and bomb making.  Another story was awarded a prize sponsored by a Chilean literary magazine, causing an understandable outcry; the magazine explained that the entries were submitted under pseudonyms and that the author’s identity was not known until after the winning story was announced.

I asked her how she came to work for the DINA.  She said the regime knew of her and Townley’s “resistance work” against the ill-fated socialist government of Salvador Allende, when far-right groups set off bombs and engaged in other sabotage.  She claimed to have been concerned when Townley told her of the plan to murder Letelier, and that the DINA chief had promised him a commission in the Chilean army after completing this deadly mission.

But Callejas was not exactly a cowed wife.  A Chilean court later found her guilty of involvement in another car bomb assassination: former army commander General Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia, in Buenos Aires in 1974. She was given a 20-year prison sentence in 2008 but Chile’s Supreme Court later reduced this to five years under house arrest.

Last year Callejas and 14 other DINA agents were indicted in the 1976 murder of a Spanish diplomat, Carlos Soria; Chile’s Supreme Court ruled that the victim had been kidnapped and brought to the Townley-Callejas home in Lo Curro where he was interrogated and killed during torture and that the perpetrators sought to cover up their crime by staging an automobile accident.  But Callejas, now in a care home, was suffering from dementia and was not formally charged.

 

 

 

 

A story about Victor Jara, Chilean folk songs and….Condoleezza Rice

victor-jara

He was Chile’s Bob Dylan, the folk singer whose music provided the soundtrack to the Sixties and early Seventies, and whose brutal killing after the 1973 military coup has made him a legend. In her memoir of their life together, Joan Jara describes how she went to the Santiago morgue and walked past a long line of bodies on the floor  and found her husband’s body with “his chest riddled with holes and a gaping wound in his abdomen. His hands seemed to be hanging from his arms at a strange angle, as though his wrists were broken.” But more than four decades after his death, his accused killer has gone on trial in Orlando, Florida.

That’s right. Retired Chilean army officer Pedro Pablo Barrientos moved to the United States in 1989, a year before the military dictatorship grudgingly handed over the government to an elected civilian president. The Los Angeles Times reports that Barrientos, who was indicted in Chile along with eight other former officials, is facing civil accusations brought by Jara’s family that he is the gunman who killed the singer. (For the record, Jara was not held in the National Stadium but in the smaller Estadio Chile).

Now Jara’s family has forced Barrientos into a U.S. federal courtroom, where he will face civil accusations that he was the gunman who killed the singer.

And here’s an account by my friend and colleague Lezak Shallat on singing one of Victor Jara’s songs in Santiago decades after his death:

“During the presidency of Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), I sang in a choir (Bellas Artes) that was regularly invited to entertain visiting dignitaries at state dinners in La Moneda, Chile’s Presidential Palace. (After it was restored from having been bombed to bits in 1973, that is.) We sang for Brazil’s President Lula, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the presidents of Algeria, China and for all 30+ presidents of the Americas (everyone but Bush and Castro, including two from Costa Rica, outgoing and incoming. I have a great story about that event, but that would be a digression).

Anyways… one day we were called to sing at La Moneda for an event that we were not given the details of, just that we should show up and enter through the underground parking lot and install ourselves in the room next to the bank-vault-converted-into-a wine-cellar as we always did.

Since the wait between call and concert was always long, I happened to grab a newspaper on my way there. We changed into our concert clothes and were given our music to look over. We were going to be singing our standard two songs by folklorist Violeta Parra, in this case “Que he sacado con quererte”  and “Casamiento de negros.” This last song talks about a wedding where everyone and everything is black and then the black bride dies and even the wake is black.)

Nothing unusual there, so I opened my newspaper to wile away the time and saw a headline about a fancy state dinner in honor of a slew of visiting African heads of state, with special guest Condoleezza Rice (US Secretary of State under George W. Bush). Hmmm, I thought… that must be the event we are singing for, said I to myself. And maybe a song about the wedding and death of little black people isn’t really an appropriate choice of music…

So I took my concern to our choir director, Vicho, who looked at me like I was crazy and told me that I was being too, too gringa and how could I still be so gringa after all those years in Chile, where everyone loved and understood Violeta Parra and how could Chileans be viewed as racist if there weren’t even any blacks in Chile…

OK, OK, it’s your decision, I told him, but think about it. You might not agree with me, but somebody who understands something about protocol might.

About 20 minutes later, I noticed that Vicho had left the room and was returning with a new set of scores. “We’re not singing Casamiento de negros, We’re singing this…” and he passes out “Te Recuerdo Amanda.” This is, of course, the song that Victor Jara is most famous for. No explanation for the change, just a slight nod to me.

Finally we are summoned to sing, between the main course and dessert, as is usually the case. The dinner is taking place in the Patio de los Naranjos, a big indoor patio, with the guests seated in dozens of round tables and President Lagos and wife seated with the Chilean Foreign Minister (I think it was Ignacio Walker) and Condoleezza Rica at a long table at the front.

The choir lines up behind the Presidential table. There isn’t much space so we are literally inches behind the honored guests. I am right behind Condoleezza Rice. In fact, I am so close to her that I can see the backs of her clip-on earrings and I could have touched the back of her head by stretching out my hand.

And we start to sing…. “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”

At this point, Foreign Minister Walker, who is sitting next to Rice, leans over and starts to whisper in her ear. She nods to show she is taking in this information until Walker suddenly places one hand flat on the table and makes a gruesome chopping gesture with the other… like he is cutting off his own hand at the wrist. Rice pulls back in surprise and horror and says, softly, “oh no!”

I could tell that, as we are singing, Walker is explaining to Rice just who Victor Jara is and silently demonstrating to her what happened to him while he was in military custody, before he was killed. his hands were broken.

And we kept on singing. Except for me…. I was biting my tongue to keep from bursting out in laughter and tears.”