Novelist tells true Chilean clandestine tale

Issue 

Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
New York Review Books, 2012
116 pages, $19.95 (pb)

“The most hated man in my life,” declared the casual-dressed, bearded, non-conformist Chilean film director, Miguel Littin, was the balding, near-sighted, clean-shaven, Uruguayan business tycoon who accompanied Littin’s every step on his secret return to the Chile of military dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1985.

Littin’s true story, told to, and retold by, the Chilean novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, recounts how a false passport, voice coaching, weight loss, plucked eyebrows, new hair-do and “fake wife” transformed Littin into “what I wanted least in the world to be: a smug bourgeois”.

The purpose was to disguise his re-entry to Chile to direct an underground documentary about the dictatorship. Littin, a socialist who headed Chile's nationalised film industry before Pinochet's 1973 military coup, had only escaped execution when the coup happened through the help of a neutral military officer “who happened to be a film buff”.

Littin was one of 5000 permanently banned Chilean exiles. Twelve years after the US-orchestrated coup, which assassinated the democratically-elected socialist president Salvador Allende, Littin spent six risky weeks filming in Chile.

Protected by the Chilean underground, he narrowly survived his carelessness with passwords, his impetuousness and being tailed by undercover police.

Littin’s first impression on his return to Chile was one of “material splendour”, but the “ragged miners”, the poor of the slums, and the child beggars and unemployed peddlers in the shadows of the bright Santiago lights revealed economic squalor.

So too, the apparent civilian calm — “armed policemen were more in evidence on the streets of Paris or New York” — was deceptive. Just out of visitors’ sights were the junta’s shock squads in the subway stations, water-cannon trucks on side streets and “secret” police conspicuously present with their short-cropped hair.

This apparatus of repression, and a night curfew, kept many Chileans passive as individuals. But collective protest and armed resistance were a daily occurrence — from the general strike that preceded Littin’s arrival, to the protest hunger march he filmed.

This was seen in the poor woman who kept a photo of Allende hidden behind one of the Carmelite Virgin, to the Catholic nun who ran secret missions to and from Chile, including couriering the last reels of Littin’s film to Europe.

It was seen in the young rebels who carried out innumerable “anonymous deeds”, and even the aristocratic Chileans in regime-fooling BMWs who saved Littin from sub-machine guns at roadblocks.

Littin found a supportive writer in Marquez, the novelist who was a friend of Allende and had announced he would desist from writing as a protest against the coup until the Pinochet dictatorship had fallen.

This impractical gesture was rescinded in 1981 with Marquez’s novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which also marked a turn from the political to the personal in his writing. But, as Francisco Goldman notes in his introduction, Clandestine in Chile offered a chance for Marquez to stick one to the General.

Pinochet felt the blow, and seized and burnt 15,000 copies of the book imported into the country.

The rest of Goldman’s introduction, however, is best avoided. The professor of literature, a “post-revolutionary pessimist” embarrassed about his own radical political past of “idealism and naive revolutionary dreams”, distorts the book as an illusory attempt by two ageing socialist has-beens to recapture the “political vigour, conviction and ardour” of their immature youth.

Goldman describes it as an “absurdist” farce in which Littin and his film crews “never seem to be in any real danger” with Marquez pontificating as deluded propagandist for left-wing political “fanatics” such as Allende.

Goldman is describing a different book entirely to the actual one about the genuine spirit of opposition to capitalist tyranny displayed by the quietly heroic Littin and Marquez.