Stories from Pinochet’s Prisons

La Vida Doble

by Arturo Fontaine, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Yale University Press, 302 pp., $25.00

Ways of Going Home

by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 139 pp., $23.00
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Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
Augusto Pinochet and his wife, Lucía, being paraded around a stadium in a carriage, Talca, Chile, 1988

On September 11, 2013, Chileans commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the military coup in Chile. Memories of it helped the center-left opposition led by former president Michelle Bachelet, who returned to power in elections this past December. For young people, the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet is remembered not for its economic reforms but for its abuses of human rights. More than 2,000 political adversaries were killed, of which 1,107 simply disappeared; some 38,000 were tortured, and many more were exiled.1 Michelle Bachelet was herself tortured and exiled, and her father, an air force general who worked with the deposed president Salvador Allende, died in prison after torture.

The center-right, which is somewhat in disarray, fielded as its presidential candidate a woman, Evelyn Matthei, who is also the daughter of an air force general, but one who was a member of the ruling junta. So the election was charged with deep symbolic significance in a country that has become significantly more polarized in recent months, as a reaction to four years of center-right government.

The Pinochet period will have disturbing reverberations in Chile for a long time to come. It should, and to ensure that it does, there is now a deeply moving Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. But there is probably nowhere more appropriate to reflect on the complex moral issues posed by a repressive regime than in fiction, in which the effects of dictatorship on individual lives can be explored. Ways of Going Home, by Alejandro Zambra, and La Vida Doble, by Arturo Fontaine, both ably translated by Megan McDowell, are masterly examples of such novels.

Zambra writes in a minor key. He is interested in peripheral characters, modest people on the edge of history. Dictatorship permeates his novel, but with subtlety, because his principal characters are not directly involved in politics; they only realize gradually that people close to them are. Fontaine by contrast confronts the issues of dictatorship head on. He is a founder and life board member of the Museum of Memory, and he has long been a severe critic of the Pinochet regime’s human rights abuses although, as an independent, he is not a member of a left-wing party.

(I should say, by way of disclosure, that I know him well. I am on the board of the Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP), a think tank of which Fontaine was for thirty years the director. He kept it fiercely independent—a feat in a polarized country—and for that reason it became the most prestigious institution of its kind in Chile. Unfortunately some of the CEP’s more conservative donors seem to have become intolerant of Fontaine’s freedom of spirit, and, in what became a cause célèbre in Chile, they summarily dismissed him in May.)

La Vida Doble gives one a good idea of …

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  1. 1

    The figures were constructed over time in various documents, particularly the reports of the Comisión Nacional de Verdad y Reconciliación of 1991 (National Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, at www.ddhh.gov.cl/ddhh_rettig.html) and the Comisión Nacional sobre Prisión Política y Tortura of 2003 (National Commission of Political Imprisonment and Torture, at www.indh.cl/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Valech-1.pdf).