D.A.N. Jones

  • Death in Chile: A Memoir and a Journey by Tony Gould
    Picador, 277 pp, £15.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 330 32271 0
  • Some write to the future by Ariel Dorfman, translated by George Shivers and Ariel Dorfman
    Duke, 271 pp, £10.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 8223 1269 7

For the British, South America is perhaps the darkest of the continents: only rarely and faintly has it entered our history, provoked our armies, disturbed our empire and commonwealth. ‘Ford Cortina,’ said the late Poet Laureate, rather sniffily: ‘it sounds like a South American.’ We can’t easily imagine what it’s like to be one: their fiction is obscured by the charms of Magical Realism. Their political spasms trouble us less than those of Europe or Africa, Bosnia or Somalia. We might meet them in our student days. I remember a Chilean who rebuffed the college manciple: ‘Are you asking me or are you telling me – peasant?’ Similarly, Tony Gould met a Chilean caballero, when they were Cambridge undergraduates, some thirty years ago. He was called Cristian Huneeus, a young man of landed family, a gentlemanly left-winger and already a published novelist. In those days, British readers were not so interested in South American fiction as they have since become, and few indeed were those who took an interest in South American politics – apart perhaps from worrying about the imperious interventions of North Americans, so eager to counter the threat of Communism in their hemisphere.

Huneeus stimulated an interest in such matters which persisted in Gould until the Chilean’s premature death in the Eighties. Gould then travelled to Chile, hoping to discover what sort of life his friend had lived there. It must be admitted that the life and death of Huneeus do not seem very dramatic, not remarkable at all. The title is bound to remind us of Claud Cockburn’s famously boring headline: ‘Small earthquake in Chile – not many killed.’

Gould’s story begins with the undergraduate years. ‘Mostly we talked about books,’ he reports, ‘which in Cambridge at that time meant F.R. Leavis, D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad, whom we both admired.’ Huneeus was much impressed by Nostromo, Conrad’s disheartening novel about political excitement and hopelessness in South America. ‘Good God,’ Huneeus exclaimed. ‘I mean, the man hardly touched land there and yet he has written the Latin American novel.’ How could Conrad, he wondered, ‘have understood so clearly the turbulence of South American politics’? Gould immediately adds a seeming non-sequitur: ‘Not all South American states were dictatorships, of course, and despite his Marxist leanings Cristian was proud of his country’s democratic tradition and told me that Chile was known as “the England of South America”.’

Gould helped Huneeus translate one of his stories. It was about a gentlemanly young left-winger in Chile, attempting egalitarian improvements on his father’s estate – which result in intensified class-hatred, murder and deep disillusionment. The man fails, perhaps, because he is, says Gould, ‘a privileged being, like his creator’, a man who ‘can indulge in radical fantasies without being called to account’. He is also ‘a divided being: his instinctive loyalties are at odds with his perception of the world about him.’ ‘Was Cristian testing the strength of his own Marxism? And if so, did he find it wanting?’ After reading this pessimistic story, Gould continues, ‘it would be difficult, even without benefit of hindsight, to see Chile as “the England of South America”. ’

The hindsight recommended would be derived from Chile’s subsequent political history. Towards the end of Gould’s Cambridge period, in 1964, Eduardo Frei won the Presidential election for the Christian Democrats in Chile: this decent, respectable election was too boring for Huneeus, who had supported the left-wing Salvador Allende. Huneeus wrote to Gould: ‘Our candidate lost, as you may have learnt in one of your few moments of un-provincialness. Bad anti-climax it was. Everyone expecting the bloody country to occupy the news for ages as the one, first, eccentric, out-of-the-way little place that votes in a Marxist government – and we turn up an undistinguished form of lawful socialism.’

This complaint over Frei’s victory may be contrasted with John Gunther’s enthusiasm in his reliable Inside Latin America (1967). ‘Chile came close to voting itself Communist in 1964 ... But Frei, who calls himself a Christian humanist, averted this by winning the Presidency against a Marxist candidate after a vigorously contested free election.’ President Frei was ‘a man far superior to the ordinary, just as Chile is superior. We have come a long way now from the brutal provincialities of Argentina, the romantic extravagances of Brazil.’ Gunther’s fellow North Americans needed to be assured that ‘reform by the moderate left is the best means of forestalling extremist revolution.’ In happy Chile, Gunther went on, ‘the electorate is educated and responsible. The Army plays no role in political life.’

The reliable Gunther spoke too soon. Six years later, Salvador Allende won the Presidential election: his government, supposedly Marxist and extremist, lasted only until 1973, just three years, for the Army had decided to ‘play a role in political life’, under General Pinochet. There was a military coup and it was the extremely right-wing Pinochet regime that proceeded ‘to occupy the news for ages’, achieving world-wide notoriety through reports of unjust arrests, imprisonments, tortures and assassinations, eventually becoming noxious even to the United States Government – believed by many to have favoured, or sponsored, his coup. Pinochet retained power for 17 years, relinquishing his dictatorship in 1990.

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