Grief in the Atacama Desert

Two women search for the remains of their loved ones, killed in wake of Chile's 1973 military coup, at a site in the Atacama desert

Two women search for the remains of their loved ones, killed in wake of Chile’s 1973 military coup, at a site in the Atacama desert. Photograph by Paula Allen

A new edition of Flowers in the Desert by my friend and colleague Paula Allen is about to be released, with a foreword by Isabel Allende and an essay by this blogger on General Augusto Pinochet’s legacy in Chile. The book has already drawn the attention of Publishers Weekly, which published the following review:

“Who was it that invented that horrible euphemism ‘disappeared’?” Isabel Allende asks in the foreword to this chilling volume of photographs, interviews, and stories released for the first time outside of Chile to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup. Documentary photographer Allen’s haunting images feature the women of Calama, with shovels and bags, searching for the remains of their dead husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons—men whose bodies lay in unmarked mass graves in the desert following brutal executions. “I didn’t believe they had killed my brother because when you don’t have a body, nothing is certain,” says Vicky, one of the women interviewed and photographed. Many of the images show the women on their quest, digging for bones, but the most affecting photo is less literal: an image of women walking through a cemetery, carrying buckets and shovels. For all they’ve lost, these women prevail, and here, they tell their stories. The resulting book—with text in both Spanish and English; an afterword by Ariel Dorfman; and contributions from Patricia Verdugo, Peter Kornbluh, and Mary Helen Spooner—is a stunning record of the fallout from the Pinochet coup that effectively depicts the effects of the horrifying mass killings on the family members left behind.

And Paula Allen’s web site, where you can find more of her photographs:

This week in Chilean literature

The English translation of Isabel Allende’s Maya’s Notebook has finally been released, and here are a few reviews:

From the Huffington Post:

From Booklist:

From the Seattle Times:

Ok, that’s enough for now.  And The New Yorker has a story in its April 22 edition, “Mexican Manifesto,” by the prolific Robert Bolaño. Once again, this blogger wonders whether the Chilean writer really did die in Barcelona a decade ago and might not be in hiding and continuing to produce fiction:

From the island of Chiloé

If you’ve been waiting impatiently for Isabel Allende’s latest book, El Cuaderno de Maya, to come out in English, the release date is still months away. The web site of Harper Collins, Allende’s publisher, lists only an audio book version of Maya’s Notebook available in April of next year. Amazon tells readers to “sign up to be notified when this item becomes available.”

According to the Florida Sun-Sentinel Allende’s longtime translator has fallen ill and  she had hoped the book would come out this year. “But I have no idea. It’s a very contemporary book about a 19-year old girl. By the time it comes out it will be a historical novel. Pisses me off.”

Maya, the teenager in question, finds refuge from a life of drugs and crime on the island of Chiloé in southern Chile. My friend and colleague Lezak Shallat recently visited Chiloé and offers the following glimpses of life there:

“Matias Millacura makes ravels, the three-string Chilote violin. His instruments have travelled far and wide, as attested to a photo on the wall of his house, showing Pres. Ricardo Lagos presenting one to the mayor of Paris.”


“Ana Delia Huenuman, age 91, lives on the far side of Huillinco Lake, in Cucao, on the far side of  Chiloe island. She panned for gold, lived in the bush for several months after losing her house to the 1960 earthquake and has planted potatoes and tended sheep all her life. Today she sits by the warm stove in the house of her grandson Manuel and his lovely, hospitable family. My thanks to them for this new friendship.”

Some good news, and some not-too-bad news

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has received Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award for her “magical and spellbinding storytelling.” The 500,000 kroner ($86,000) prize is awarded each year to an author whose work shares the Danish writer’s artistic qualities. Previous winners have been Brazilian author Pablo Coelho and J.K. Rowling.

The U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism reports that last year approximately 23 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were detonated, deactivated or discovered in Chile, with most located in Santiago. “The typical modus operandi was to place IEDs composed of gunpowder inside of a fire extinguisher in front of businesses; banks were most frequently targeted. The majority of the IEDs were crudely built, characterized as “noise bombs,” were used late at night and did not appear to be designed to kill or injure people. However, they did have the potential to injure passersby in the immediate vicinity. The only casualty in 2011 occurred when one of the anarchists was severely burned and lost his hands when the device he planted detonated prematurely.”

Although some conservative Chilean politicians have accused Mapuche indigenous groups of having links to terrorism, the report merely noted that

“Chilean law enforcement agencies also confronted sporadic low-level violence throughout the year related to indigenous land disputes. The Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, a domestic group primarily operating in the Biobio and Araucana regions of Chile that seeks recovery of former indigenous lands—sometimes through violent means—claimed responsibility for several of the attacks.”

The report praised Chile’s forensic capabilities, mentioning that the Servicio Medico Legal had implemented the latest version of the Combined DNA Indexing System and that the country is “a regional leader in biometrics.”

The full report on Chile can be found here:


It sits on the top of the Chilean archipelago, that region of the country where much of the mainland seems to crumble into islands. Charles Darwin visited during the summer of 1834, and wrote about it in his diaries. Chilean novelist Isabel Allende used it as the setting for her latest book, Maya’s Notebook. Before he became president, Sebastian Piñera acquired 118,000 thousand hectares of land on the island’s south side and turned it into a nature park ( Now it seems Chiloe Island is going to have a large modern shopping mall, much to the disgust of many architects, historical preservationists and environmental groups.

The island’s unique architectural style has earned many of its buildings a UNESCO designation as World Heritage Sites. The mall is going up near the Iglesia San Francisco, one of Chiloe’s churches which UNESCO says “represents a unique example in Latin America of an outstanding form of ecclesiastical architecture” dating from the time of the Jesuit missions in the 17th and 18th centuries

Here’s the Facebook page campaigning against the mall:

And here’s an article from the Santiago Times on Chiloe’s buildings, food and folklore:

Gringa in Chile

English-speakers won’t get to read it until next year, but Isabel Allende’s latest book, El Cuaderno de Maya, or Maya’s Notebook, was launched last month in Santiago, and this blogger has a signed copy next to her computer.  Maya is a troubled American teenager who seeks refuge from crime and drugs on Chiloe, the largest island in Chile’s southern archipelago.  An excerpt:

“Chiloe has its own voice. Before I never used to take off my headphones, the music was my oxygen, but now I stay alert in order to understand the Chilotes’ convoluted Spanish. Juanito Corrales left my iPod in the same pocket of my backpack where he took it out and we have never mentioned the matter, but the week when he delayed returning it to me I noticed I didn’t miss it as much as I believed I would. Without the iPod I can hear the island’s voice: birds, wind, rain, the crackle of wood, wagon wheels and at times the remote violins of the Caleuche, the ghostly boat that navigates in the mist and is recognized by the music and bone rattle of shipwreck victims who come aboard singing and dancing.”

The author’s bilingual web site: