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 doubts 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.





Some odds and ends

James McTurk has become the first Canadian convicted of sex crimes against children in Cuba (see earlier post TheToronto Star reports that “Despite two previous convictions for child pornography — in 1995 and 1998 — and being placed on the sex offender’s registry, McTurk was free to travel. The court was told that he made 31 trips to the island, between 2009 and his arrest in July 2012.” The article includes a photograph of McTurk, 78, wearing a tartan beret and holding a picture of Che Guevara.

The Associated Press reports on the disturbing consequences to Cuba of rising sea levels, with scientists predicting that 122 towns and cities would either be serious damaged or else destroyed altogether. “In recent months, inspectors and demolition crews have begun fanning out across the island with plans to raze thousands of houses, restaurants, hotels and improvised docks in a race to restore much of the coast to something approaching its natural state.”

Foreign Affairs has a piece on the Matte family, a veritable Chilean dynasty whose family business, CMPC is the fourth largest cellulose provider in the world and whose high-achieving members can be found in think tanks, universities and the Chilean media.

And the New York Review of Books blog has a poem by Roberto Bolaño, from a complete collection of the late Chilean writer’s poetry, The Unknown University, to be published by New Directions next month:



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:

And still more on Roberto Bolaño

Francisco Goldman discusses the late Chilean author’s work and reads the short story “Clara” in a podcast on the New Yorker magazine’s book blog:

And the online literary magazine The Millions has a thoughtful essay on Bolaño’s Woes of the True Policeman, the latest of his works to be released posthumously:

Woes of the dead novelist

woes of the true policeman

It’s the second book by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño to be published this year, and rarely has a dead author been so prolific. An essay in the New Republic’s online literary review, The Book reviews Woes of the True Policeman, noting that in structure and style the novel resembles Bolaño’s 2666, a bestseller released four years ago.  But Bolaño left specific instructions for 2666 to be published, which he did not do for this novel and reviewer Sam Carter described Woes as “a rough sketch of ideas that were fully realized in 2666.”

The essay also asks if there aren’t hidden costs in a publisher catering to the Bolaño cult, releasing his unpublished writing as finished books instead of scholarly collections of papers. “The continued publication and popular packaging of his incomplete work may actually be diluting his reputation as a writer of varied talents and fearless ambition,” Carter writes.

And there may be more Bolaño books in the pipeline.  A Lumpen Novella, written a year before his death in 2003, has yet to be translated and there is a manuscript entitled Diorama that has not been published in Spanish or translated into English..

Bolaño unbound

Is Roberto Bolaño, Chile’s acclaimed novelist, really dead?  The online literary magazine The Millions has an essay on the writer which makes you wonder. Bolaño is said to have passed away in 2003, and since then the New Yorker has published nine of his short stories and his English language publisher, New Directions, has published fifteen volumes of his fiction, essays and poetry.  His literary executors keep unearthing more of his work, with The Secret of Evil, a collection of stories-which-read-like-essays and essays-which-read-like-fiction, appearing earlier this year.

In the prologue Bolaño’s executor writes that there are “multiple indications that Bolaño was working on this file in the months immediately preceding his death.” There have also been multiple accounts of the cause of the writer’s death: liver failure, heroin use and the stress of finishing his 900-page novel, 2666.  But his widow (or estranged wife) told the New York Times that he had never used heroin while several other friends and acquaintances interviewed in the same article said Bolaño had not been in Chile during the 1973 military coup, which would make his account of being arrested, narrowly avoiding torture and escaping thanks to two guards who just happened to be friends from high school an elaborate fiction.

Which should take nothing from the enjoyment of his work and the hallucinatory world beckoning the reader.  Here’s a passage from The Secret of Evil:

They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it. The table is a table that is large enough to seat the above-mentioned individuals and it’s in a café. Or appears to be. Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.


Nocturno de Chile

Los Archivos del Cardenal, or The Cardinal's Archives, airs Thursday and Sunday evenings on Chile's state television channel

The guests ring the doorbell of a house in the affluent Lo Curro neighbourhood in eastern Santiago and an aspiring Chilean writer shows them into a living room where several guests are already seated.  Drinks are served; the work of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is discussed. The writer’s husband, a taciturn American, appears in the kitchen and glares at a guest who tries to open a door leading from the kitchen. Behind the door is a homemade lab where poisons and drugs are produced for the Pinochet regime’s secret police.

“Experimentos Bacteriologicos” is the seventh episode of Los Archivos del Cardenal , a gripping television series that presents fictionalized accounts of some of the cases documented by the Catholic Church’s human rights department, the Vicariate of Solidarity. The series began broadcasting last month and drew some initial grumblings from conservatives—which only seemed to boost its already high ratings. The show’s writer, Josefina Fernandez, happens to be the daughter of one of the Vicariate’s lawyers and is a fan of the U.S. series Law and Order. There is, quite obviously,  an enormous stockpile of chilling real life events for the show’s scripts.

This most recent episode is based in part on the activities of Mariana Callejas and Michael Townley, a Chilean-American couple who worked for the regime’s secret police agency, the DINA. Callejas often held literary gatherings at their home, sometimes hosting her guests overnight during the curfew while the DINA used the premises not only as a makeshift lab but also to hold and interrogate political detainees.  The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano also included this material in his novel By Night in Chile, calling Callejas  “Maria Canales” and Townley “Jimmy Thompson”:

“As a general rule, prisoners were not killed in Jimmy’s house. It was meant to be just for interrogation, although there was the occasional death. It was also revealed that Jimmy had travelled to Washington and killed one of Allende’s ex-ministers and a North American woman who happened to get in the way. And that he had organized the assassinations of exiled Chileans in Argentina, and even in Europe, that civilized continent, to which Jimmy paid a brief visit with the diffidence of those born in the New World. All this came out. Maria had known about it for a long time, of course. But she wanted to be a writer, and writers require the physical proximity of other writers.”

One of the prisoners brought to the Townley-Callejas home was a Spanish diplomat, Carmelo Soria, who worked at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America in Santiago. Soria had used his diplomatic status to help Chileans fleeing political persecution find refuge in various embassies around the capital, actions which drew the attention of the DINA.  His body was later discovered in a car sunk in a canal.

And what became of this odd couple?  Townley was later extradited to the United States, where he entered the federal Witness Protection Program in exchange for testifying in the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington. Callejas remained in Chile, and in 1989 I managed to interview her at her Lo Curro house, which has since been torn down, while researching my first book.

“If there are any doubts 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.” She showed me passages from a short story she had written in English, about a butterfly and an emperor and said she was trying to write in mostly in English.  She later wrote a memoir, Siembra Vientos (now out of print but used copies are still being sold on Amazon).

There is more background in Spanish on this and other cases presented in Los Archivos del Cardenal at