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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 why these donors might finally have wanted to be rid of Fontaine for being altogether too independent and too doggedly determined to unravel unpleasant truths. It is a harrowing examination of political violence during the Pinochet period. It goes into the lives of the far-left militants, and into the murky world of the secret services, the notorious DINA and CNI, or “Central” as the novel calls them, that sought to destroy such militants with torture and murder.2 But it is much more than a novel of denunciation. It is a complex, open-minded investigation into the mentality of those involved on both sides. In particular, it goes deeply into the labyrinthine dynamics of torture, as seen by a female terrorist who is tortured, changes sides, and becomes a torturer herself.

This heroine, or antiheroine, is called Irene, or Lorena. Upper-middle-class and educated by nuns, to whom she is meekly obedient, Lorena is a passive girl—“soft clay,” as she describes herself. And despite her devotion to the Virgin Mary, she waits, as she grows up, “for the man to arrive who would be able to give me shape…. I wanted my Pygmalion to appear.”

Lorena, whose early malleability is a clue to her future mutations, has a succession of Pygmalion figures. First Rodrigo, who gets her pregnant, only to leave her. Then Rafa, a fellow student who introduces her to left-wing politics. Under his influence she pulls down the posters of Mick Jagger and Led Zeppelin in her bedroom and replaces them with images of Karl Marx and Che Guevara. She joins a clandestine, far-left, militant group called Red Ax, in which she is introduced to the Marxist canon. Her life, she reflects, has become “a script in the Great Theater of the World, a work in which I, as a character, was looking for my authors among the bearded saints looking back at us from the book covers.” She becomes involved with a Red Ax leader called the Spartan—“without him, you can’t understand what we were”—and with Canelo, with whom she makes love, sticking “to him and his fight like ivy to the wall.”

Lorena takes part in dangerous Red Ax missions, and in one of them, a raid on an exchange office in Santiago, she gets arrested. In the dungeons of Central, she is subjected to brutal torture, but she refuses to confess and is released. She goes back to her previous life—looking after her daughter Anita and teaching French. But then she is arrested again, and subjected to more torture. This time they know about Anita’s existence, and the prospect of her child being hurt breaks her, and she agrees to become a double agent.

She starts participating herself in the torture at Central as an interrogator. Questioning her blindfolded former comrades in a mock Cuban accent, she gets to be known as La Cubanita. She acquires two new Pygmalions, a senior officer called Flaco Artaza and, later, Macha, a ruthless killer of insurgents.

From Fontaine’s statements we gather that Lorena is actually a composite of some real women whom he interviewed, and who like her were tortured by the Chilean secret services and ended up working for them.3 But she is also very much his creation. Fontaine has conceived her as a clever student of French culture, and that allows him to have her articulately reexamine her experiences. She does so in a five-hour interview she gives “the novelist” while dying of cancer in Stockholm, the city that gave its name to the syndrome she suffered from when, with sometimes indecent eagerness, she collaborated with her former tormentors.

Lorena describes this collaboration blow by blow. She is chosen to work with Gato, the torturer who broke her, and helps him break her former comrades. They subject them to the glissement process, as she calls it, that carries each victim to total surrender. After that a “powerful and mysterious bond…forms with the interrogator,” she explains. She also recalls how Gato and others rationalize their brutal actions. He claims that the bourgeois prosperity flourishing under Pinochet couldn’t exist without him:

Do you think…that the owners of the planes and ships and banks and copper mines and the pasta and ice cream factories know that someone like me exists? Do you think they know that their power would all go to shit without us, the ones down here in this damp, dark dungeon, like sewer rats?

In a morally confused world, Lorena observes that Macha, a ruthless killer, adores his young son Cristobal, and is meek every time he has to confront his former wife. Flaco Artaza, with whom she has a love affair, is kind and generous to her, and anxious that she think him a good man. He has tried to persuade the director, he tells her, that they are being too brutal, and that in doing so, they are provoking unnecessary opposition from people who might otherwise support the regime.

But why in fact do good fathers and meek husbands and generous lovers undertake such cruel torture? Here Lorena sees the torturer as someone who becomes isolated from any sort of moral standard while granted absolute impunity for what he does, no matter how vile. In the glib manner of a French student of the Sixties, she speculates about two opposing views of what happens when social conventions have no effect. One is that you recover the innocence of the noble savage. The other—the relevant one in this case—is that you revert to a state of primal savagery. Because there are no limits, she tells the “novelist,” an inner monster springs to life, one we all potentially harbor. Once there is no possibility of punishment, “the monster we carry within us, the beast that grows fat on human flesh, is unleashed within the good father or the daughter of a good family.”

Lorena recounts how her life became more and more complicated, as did her analysis of it. Flaco Artaza, having seduced her, starts to take her to a sleazy sex club outside Santiago. The setting is one of kitsch plushness. Mock Louis XV furniture. Pounding music. Cocaine. Lorena writes that she is “excited by the imminence of a dangerous threshold. I’m excited by a magnetic force pulling me in an unknown direction.” There is group sex, including a lesbian orgy. “The omnivorous beast that we usually suppress…was captivated and threw itself headlong into the frenzy.” The novel seems for a while to be suggesting an outrageous parallel between the removal of limits for torturers and the removal of limits in sex.

One night Lorena finds Gato in the SM corner of the club. He is bound to a cross, and they are whipping him. “We are taught to be ashamed of our instincts. Our hypocritical education…,” she tells the novelist. She reflects on the “tyrannical pleasure in the degradation of oneself,” and “in the underworld of that dark, bewitched house, I lived it frenetically…a cruel and delicious unleashing…a sudden fusion with the savage animal that inhabits us and that we deny ourselves.” She echoes the claims of Gato and Macha, who have told her that what they do as torturers is separate from what they are. She argues that

a person is not a “lesbian” or “fag” or “sadist” or “straight” or “masochist” or “loyal” or “deceitful” or “hero” or “villain.” We must break through language in order to touch life. A person simply does certain things. We never step into the same river twice.

Lorena’s quotations from Artaud and Heraclitus, put in italics by the “novelist” who writes them down, are part of her special pleading in Stockholm, part of her attempt to mitigate her guilt, trying to imply that torture involves an unleashing of the monster we all have within us, comparable to a night of excess sex and drugs. Still she makes the obvious distinction between Gato’s SM activities and the cruelty of the torture he administers:

The inversion was a cruel game, but it was consensual. Completely different from the unilateral horror, from the power imposed by one body on another.
  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). 

  2. 2

    The Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional ( DINA ) was officially created in 1973 and disbanded in 1977. It was replaced in 1977 by the Central Nacional de Informaciones ( CNI ), disbanded in February 1990, just seventeen days before the inauguration of democratically elected President Patricio Aylwin. 

  3. 3

    Two of them wrote books: Luz Arce, El infierno (Santiago: Planeta, 1993), and Marcia Alejandra Merino Vega, Mi verdad (Santiago: ATGSA, 1993). 

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