Superhistory

Patrick Parrinder

  • Curfew by Jose Donoso, translated by Alfred MacAdam
    Picador, 310 pp, £13.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 330 31157 3
  • War Fever by J.G. Ballard
    Collins, 176 pp, £12.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 00 223770 9
  • Great Climate by Michael Wilding
    Faber, 147 pp, £12.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 571 14428 4
  • Honour Thy Father by Lesley Glaister
    Secker, 182 pp, £13.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 436 19998 X

All novels are historical novels, as my late teacher, Graham Hough, used to say; but some are more historical than others. Novelists can improve on history, and if they are Science Fiction writers they can anticipate it. History can be invented, but most novelists only do so within strict limits. According to Hough, they would tend to invent a Prime Minister but not a major political party, a provincial town but not a capital city. A writer like Joyce can put together an immensely painstaking reconstruction of the past without linking it in any way to a historical narrative, while other novelists treat strictly contemporary events as history-in-the-making, much as journalists do. Rather like Joyce in Ulysses, Jose Donoso in Curfew tracks his protagonist’s adventures during a 24-hour period in the life of a modern city, but there the resemblances stop.

Recognised as the leading Chilean novelist, Donoso seems to have drawn heavily on his own experience of returning from political exile in the writing of Curfew. The novel describes events in Santiago in 1985, the year in which it was composed (it was first published in Spanish in 1986). Mañungo Vera, a famous revolutionary singer, has been absent from Chile for 13 years, having left the country in 1972 to appear at a peace concert in San Francisco with Joan Baez. Mañungo must be seen as a more fortunate version of Victor Jara, the singer murdered in the aftermath of the military coup which overthrew the Allende regime. Donoso’s protagonist is a former teenage idol who has given up his repertoire of guerrilla and protest songs, and has lost his youthful certainties. He has settled in Paris, he has a wife and a son, and his politics have gone soft.

Mañungo’s return to Santiago coincides with the death and funeral of Matilde Neruda, widow of the great poet who was Chile’s only other modern cultural superstar. For an outsider it is impossible to say how far Curfew’s vivid portrayal of Pablo Neruda’s surviving friends and the members of his entourage constitutes a roman à clef. Many of Donoso’s characters expect to draw either personal gain or political advantage as a result of their association with the dead poet. Don Celedonio and the poetess Fausta dream of setting up a Neruda Foundation to serve as a beacon for subsequent generations, while the various political factions are more concerned with orchestrating the massive funeral procession, which may or may not help to undermine the military dictatorship. Most of these characters have a strong sense of the potential historical significance of their actions, but Donoso gently deflates their pretensions. Whatever their real-life originals, most of these squabbling, down-at-heel literati would be comfortably at home in the pages of Olivia Manning.

To the extent that it offers a kind of instant history, Curfew must already be a period piece. The nightly curfew, with its silence broken by the wailing of sirens and the droning of police helicopters, was lifted before the end of the Pinochet years. Donoso’s tense and intricate plot turns on routine incidents of torture and police brutality which one must hope are now a thing of the past. If Chile is indeed entering a new period of stable democracy, Donoso’s registration of the cowed and vengeful atmosphere of Santiago in the mid-Eighties may itself become a historical resource, once individual memories have faded.

Vengeance is represented here by Judit Torre, a mysterious beauty known as the ‘Chilean Virginia Woolf’, who is the leader of a group of female terrorists bent on killing a member of the security police. Mañungo falls under Judit’s spell and finds himself, within hours of his return, joining the scavengers and thugs lurking in the streets of a wealthy residential district of the city after midnight, at the risk of being shot on sight if he is spotted by the police. Judit, who has been tipped off to watch out for a blue Mercedes, decides that Mañungo will make a useful decoy. The Mercedes turns out to contain a pleasure-seeking couple of off-duty officers, one of whom may have sexually humiliated Judit and tortured her fellow detainees several years before. Mañungo is recognised, and is invited indoors for a drink in exchange for a private command performance; and Judit, still unsure that she has correctly identified her victim, tremblingly reaches for her gun.

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