Andy Beckett

  • Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir by Marc Cooper
    Verso, 143 pp, £15.00, December 2000, ISBN 1 85984 785 4

The first time I went to Chile, while General Pinochet was still under arrest in Britain, it seemed wise while I was in Santiago to read books about him discreetly. Early on the hot, clear summer mornings, I would cross the screeching road outside my hotel, pass through an elaborate wrought-iron gate, and walk up Cerro Santa Lucia, a steep wooded hill in the centre of the capital. At every entrance to the park there was a desk and attendant where pedestrians were required to sign a visitors’ book, in the thorough manner of Chilean officialdom, democratic and otherwise. I would feel a faint prickle of anxiety about providing my full name and country of origin while a casually-dressed man on a worn chair paid the columns of signatures varying degrees of attention. But then I would be in, with my zipped-tight rucksack of anti-Pinochet polemics: the trees would close over the ascending path, the path would split into a maze of loops and shady dead-ends, and ornamental terraces and battlements would open out in all directions, populated only by gardeners.

They were usually too busy to stare. The absent ex-dictator would have approved, I used to think, of their uniforms and sweaty diligence, flicking the smallest accumulations of dust from under the hot benches, with palm fronds instead of brooms. All the same, I took precautions. I sat on the remotest terrace. I dressed tourist. I kept a guidebook open at all times, with whatever I was really reading concealed inside. And, feeling rather foolish, I looked up frequently from the pages, as if one of the General’s once-feared helicopters would at any moment come throbbing out of the Santiago smog, which blurred the great grey grid of the capital below from its western shanty towns to the Andes.

Instead, the hill filled up with modern Santiago. There were backpackers taking photographs of each other, and stiff Chilean businessmen taking lunchtime strolls. There were middle-aged men in muted English tweeds, and younger ones in American campus clothes. There were kissing couples much too young to remember the 1973 coup, or what followed, or President Salvador Allende’s ‘Chilean road to socialism’ before all that, which Pinochet so bloodily blocked and reversed. There were almost certainly people up here in the sunshine, above the city’s honking traffic jams, who had supported the General, or were among the third or so of the country that still did so; but it was hard to tell. It felt like being in Geneva, everything tidied and settled. I would begin to let my bookcovers show. Until the day’s first pair of mounted policemen came trotting round the battlements.

For visitors of a certain cast of mind at least, it is not really possible to forget 1973 and all that when you go to Santiago. The coup in particular is still there in the city centre streets next to Cerro Santa Lucia, in the straight dark boulevards down which the tanks came, in the heavy stone government buildings the snipers occupied, in the sunstruck squares where civilians ran for cover, in the shrapnel holes, not quite smoothed away, on the thick columns of the Presidential palace where Allende was surrounded, bombed by tiny-looking jets flashing overhead and brought out dead. All these events except the very last have been on worldwide television many times – and since Pinochet’s British arrest in October 1998 and subsequent troubles, all over again – in juddering, iconic black and white. The political experiences of Chile in the 1970s have long acquired symbolic weight abroad (at home they remain understandably more concrete) according to ideological taste, either as the obliteration of a brave left-wing experiment by right-wing conspirators, or as the necessary purging of Soviet toxins from the body of a strategically important state. People said similar things about the Spanish Civil War. Santiago even looks a bit like Madrid.

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