Littin was arrested during the Allende coup, as were many creative people during the coup. Littin found himself under arrest, facing the possibility of execution. In fact, whilst he was being held against his will his wife was told that he was already dead. Like many stories of escape during this period of time in Chile, Littin's escape was gaol was all done to luck - one of the arresting army officers holding him was a fan of his movies and gave him a chance to escape. He managed to escape the country, but was exiled by Pinochet forever. Littin was then forced, like many of his countrymen, to watch the damage being done to his country from afar.
In 1985, Littin re-entered the country disguised as a Uruguayan businessman with the secret purpose of filming a documentary about the reality of daily life under the Pinochet dictatorship and to show the world the atrocities that were committed during this military dictatorship.
I had two motivations for reading this book.
The first was personal; my family in law are from Chile. Fortunately my parents in law left the country before the coup, but they had family that suffered significantly at the hands of Pinochet.
The second was literary; I am a very big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I greatly admire his fiction, and was very keen to read his non-fiction.
Marquez writes this book in the first person perspective, that of Littin. In order to write from Littin's perspective Marques spent over 18 hours with him, discussing Littin's experiences and feelings during this difficult and dangerous period of his life. In the introduction Marques says this about his decision to write the book from Littin's perspective:
"I preferred to keep Littin's story in the first person, to preserve its personal - and sometimes confidential - tone, without any dramatic additions and historical pretentiousness on my part. The manner of the final text is, of course, my own, since a writers voice is not interchangeable...Notwithstanding I have tried to keep the Chilean idioms of the original and, in all cases, to respect the narrator's way of thinking, which does not always coincide with mine".I felt like this decision to write from Littin's perspective was successful. It was fascinating reading about Littin's 'adventure' from his point of view. Marquez's style in this book is very different to that of his fiction which is only to be expected given the difference in genre.
Littin returned to a very different country to the one that he left, and it was a little bit sad to see how he felt about the changes that had taken place since he was exiled. It was also very tense watching him attempted to remain anonymous and unemotional as he directed his documentary from afar. He was even anonymous to the film crews to protect himself and those that were assisting him to remain anonymous in the country and to meet those in the underground movement that acted against Pinochet's military dictatorship. His time in the country came under threat when he was nearly discovered and had to escape the country again.
What I want to do now is to share some quotes from the book with you, that reflect how the Pinochet dictatorship effected various aspects of the Chilean way of life. I know that some of them can be a little long, but I feel like I have learnt a lot about this book and I want to really share some of the things that Littin risked his life (and others) to share with the world.
What happened to the individuals during the military dictatorship? Here is an example of what happened to the individuals that broke the law - torture and the affect on the family
This is a true anecdote about the experience of individuals under Pinochet's regime. He tells the story behind a cross and bunch of flowers on a cathedral in what is known now as Plaza Sebastian Acevedo:
"Sebastian Acevedo, a coal miner, had set himself on fire on that spot two years before, after fruitless efforts to find somebody to intercede for him at the National Centre for Information to stop the torture of his twenty-two-year-old son and twenty-year-old daughter who had been arrested for illegal possession of arms. Sebastian Acevedo did not plead, but he gave warning. The archbishop was away on trip, so he spoke to officers of the archbishopric, to reporters of the leading newspapers... to anyone who would listen, even to government officials, saying the same thing to everyone: 'If you don't do something to stop the torture of my children, I will soak myself with gasoline and set myself on fire in the atrium of the cathedral'. Some did not believe him. Others did not know what to do. Sebastian Avecado stood in the atrium on the appointed day, emptied a pail full of gasoline over his body, and warned the crowd gathered in the street that if anyone crossed the yellow line he would immediately set himself on fire. A carabinero, in an effort to stop the immolation, stepped over the line, and Sebastian Acevado became a human bonfire."
Chilean culture was destroyed
Littin also shares an anecdote about the cultural damage that Pinochet inflicted upon his country. It revolves around famous poet Pablo Neruda and what happened to his possessions during Pinochet's dictatorship:
"His principle residence was his house on Calle Marques de la Plata in Santiago, where he died a few days after the coup, of chronic leukemia exacerbated by grief. This house was sacked by soldiers who threw his books onto a bonfire in the garden".The economy was destroyed
Littin describes the false sense of economic growth that Pinochet created and that ultimately landed the country in more debt and economic struggles that it was before his coup:
"Not only was Chile a modest country until the end of Allende's regime but even its conservative bourgeoisie considered austerity a national virtue. To give an immediate and impressive appearance of prosperity, the military junta de-nationalised everything that Allende had nationalised... The result was an explosion of flashy luxury goods and decorative public works... Within a five year period more goods were imported than in the previous two hundred years, using dollar credits guaranteed by the National Bank with money obtained from the denationalisations. The United States, in complicity with international credit agencies, did the rest. But when the time came to pay up, the illusion fell away; the economic fantasies of six years vanished in one. Chile's external indebtedness increased to $23 billion, almost six times the debt of the Allende administration... The economic miracle made a few of the rich much richer and the rest of Chilean society much poorer."
And what was the dictatorship like at the time Littin returned to his country? How did they treat the concerns of their own citizens?
Littin explains why he was late for a meeting during the making of his documentary:
"I arrived late,having been held up by a political demonstration. A new group for nonviolent resistance had formed on the heel of Sebastian Acevado's self-immolation in Concepcion. The police attacked the group with water canons while more than two hundred of them, soaked to the skin, stood impassively against a wall, singing hymns of love."This book frocussed equally on the personal challenges that Littin faced making his documentary in the country he had been exiled from, as well providing excellent social commentary on this dictatorship that I suspect a lot of people don't know a lot about.
It took such a lot of strength and courage for Littin to do what he did, and I can't admire Littin enough for being willing to put himself at risk to bring the truth about such a dictatorship to the rest of the world.
The content of this book and the talent of Marquez are two wonderful reasons why you should read this book.
What kind of read is this?
It is a small book, so it is quick to read. It is a good blend of the political and the personal, with a dose of great story and skilled writing.
Do I recommend this book?
Absolutely. I think I learnt a lot from this book and I like the think that other people would as well.
Do I recommend that you buy this book?
No. This is one that you could get from the library and not be disappointed.
What do you think? Do you know much about the Pinochet dictatorship and does learning more about it appeal to you? I would also love to know what people's opinion is of Marquez's decision to write the book from Littin's perspective, even though he acknowledges that the voice is more his own than Littin's.