Clandestine in Chile


Just a shallow note before we get started: isn't this NYRB cover witty? With the text box covering the man's face, because he's "clandestine"? In "Chile"? Maybe I'm easy to amuse, but it makes me smile. And now, onto the post.


In the introduction to the NYRB edition of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Clandestine in Chile, Francesco Goldman makes the claim that the book is most rewarding when read, not as the tale of adventure and political intrigue it seems at first glance, but instead as a study of the times (1985), the place (Chile), and the specific person: Miguel Littín, exiled middle-aged film-director who returns to his native country disguised as a Uruguayan businessman, to film a documentary about life under the Pinochet dictatorship. I tend to agree with Goldman's claim. As a gripping tale of resistance fighters battling a frightening adversary, and equally as an exposé of the horrible living conditions resulting from the Pinochet regime, the piece is undeniably lacking. As Goldman writes,

[Even] Littín briefly finds himself reflecting that he could easily live in this country. He and the teams of filmmakers he deploys like a spymaster throughout the country never seem to be in any real danger. There is some suspense over Littín's being unmasked, but one senses it would lead to nothing graver than his expulsion from the country; the reign of terror in this locked-up Chile seems to have subsided. There is little in this book that might disturb the tranquility of those who argue that, on balance, the coup and the Pinochet dictatorship were worth enduring because of the relative prosperity and stability, and the return to democratic rule that was its undeniable result.

Nothing, that is, unless you count Littín's subjective disagreement with such an argument, based on his memories and the stories he's heard about life in Chile since 1973. The filmmaker enters the country convinced of what he will find there, awash with nostalgia and traumatized by the time, twelve years before, when he and his wife and children were forced to flee the country under real pain of death. Almost from the opening pages, though, the Chile Littín actually discovers is a severe anticlimax. He expects to find Santiago devastated and depressing; instead, he is disappointed to find, at least on the surface, a "radiant city":

The new Pudahuel airport, however, lies on an expressway with a modern lighting system and that was a bad start for someone like me who, convinced of the evil of the dictatorship, needed to see clear evidence of its failures in the streets, in daily life, and in people's behavior, all of which could be filmed and shown to the world. But now my disquiet gave way to frank disappointment. [...]
         Contrary to what we had heard in exile, Santiago was a radiant city, its venerable monuments spendidly illuminated, its streets spotlessly clean and orderly. If anything, armed policemen were more in evidence on the streets of Paris or New York than here.

Of course, the true test of a city's quality of life is not measured by the illumination of its monuments or the cleanliness of its streets, and Clandestine in Chile does not make the argument that life in Chile under Pinochet was devoid of repression. Neither, however, does it come up with first-hand accounts that prove very condemnatory. Littín has a stable of second-hand or twelve-year-old horror stories about repressions under the regime (professors arrested in front of their children and later killed, a father setting himself on fire so that his children be released from torture), but the actual events that occur within the book prove, at the most surreal, and more often merely routine. Littín and his crew, for example, are convinced it's a trap when they are granted permission to film inside Moneda Palace (Pinochet's headquarters), and they collaborate with their undercover contacts to make sure of several contingency plans before entering, but the filming proceeds in an uneventful, non-threatening way. Similarly, reports of one of his crews getting arrested turn out to be false; ticket inspectors on the airplane turn out not to be looking for him; even the carabineros (policemen) of whom he is so obsessively paranoid in the beginning of his trip turn out much more often helpful and sincere than sinister.

Indeed, on the few occasions when Littín does seem in real trouble, he has invariably brought the problem on himself, through his almost comical compulsion to test the boundaries of his own cover. And in fact, this ties in nicely with the quality that, ironically, I found to be Clandestine in Chile's saving grace: Littín's irresponsible and (there is no other word for it) dickish behavior is so odd, and the rest of his character so contradictory, that the reader can easily remain engaged throughout the book's 116 pages solely in trying to figure him out. What to make, for example, of his decision to seek out and provoke two carabineros working on his film site during one of the first shoots in Santiago, therefore making it more likely that they would examine the very false documents about which he was endlessly anxious? How to react to his claim that he "accidentally" ended up out after curfew with a crew member in the neighborhood of his childhood home and "unknowingly" directed the car to his mother's house, thereby enabling himself to visit his mother and uncle despite previous strict warnings not to go near them for fear of blowing his cover? There is the odd compulsion he feels to carry a huge number of packs of Gitanes cigarettes into the country, and his paranoid inability to get rid of any of the used-up packets. One of his most asinine moments comes shortly after his entrance into Chile, when he is beset by a sudden wave of nostalgia and jumps out of the taxi—ignoring the imminent curfew, abandoning his ostensible wife and generally calling both their cover into question; when she gets angry at him upon his return and then the female head of the Italian film crew requires him to go through all their pre-arranged passwords rather than just letting him in because she recognizes his voice, he seems to think her thoroughness threatens his manhood:

         But with the same rigorousness she was to display every moment of the days to follow, she would not open the door until the password game was complete.
         "Goddammit! I muttered to myself, thinking not just of Elena but of Ely [his real wife] too. "They're all alike." And I continued to reply to the interrogation in the manner I most detest in life, that of the housebroken husband.

Bizarre, right? I mean, if you didn't think so many passwords were necessary, why agree to them in the first place? It reflects very little on gender roles that one partner in a collaboration would expect to go through the full password exchange as rehearsed, rather than abandoning the plan just because the other person says "Stop screwing around and let me in." Throughout the book, Littín displays this odd mix of petrification at relatively innocuous setbacks, and a cavalier dismissal of the safeguards his collaborators think necessary.

Not that Littín is entirely unsympathetic; there were many scenes when I found him to be quite likeable. But this behavioral discrepancy reinforces the impression that Littín himself is unsure how seriously he takes his political work in Chile—it often seems that, although genuinely critical of the Pinochet regime, his true motivation stems more from a desire to explore his personal nostalgia than to criticize his political opponents from the inside. Paragraphs about the film's political raison d'être sometimes collapse at key points to give way to sentences like "I had lost the image of my country in a fog of nostalgia" and "now, for the first time, I had to question whether this harvesting of my nostalgia was worth the trouble." It is characteristic of the Littín character as crafted by García Márquez, that he would refer to a political exposé as a harvesting of nostalgia.

And indeed, the authorship of the book—Littín as filtered, or crafted, by García Márquez—is one of the most interesting things about it. After Littín's real-life trip to Chile, he was interviewed by García Márquez about his experiences; García Márquez then whittled the long interview down to a novella-length piece of reportage, claiming to use only Littín's own words. To me this brings up quite interesting questions about what it means to "author" a work, since what García Márquez did would more often be referred to as "editing." At the same time, sampling, cutting, and rearranging preexisting interview footage into a cohesive narrative is an approach to nonfiction that mirrors some of the cut-and-paste methods of the Beat poets—a cool application that would certainly not have occurred to me.

All in all, a curiosity, and one that I found compelling albeit for different reasons than I originally assumed.


Clandestine in Chile was the December pick for the Wolves reading group. Join us at the end of January for a discussion of Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers.


  • First, belated Happy New Year, Emily! I agree with you that García Márquez's authorship/editing of Clandestine in Chile is one of its more interesting technical aspects. Where does Littín end and García Márquez begin? I disagree with you a little--and maybe Goldman a lot, although I haven't read his essay yet--about Littín's failure to adequately expose the horrors of the Pinochet regime: the father who set himself on fire to protest his children's torture, for example, happened only two years before Littín's visit. In any event, since I feel like I've been arguing with Goldman by proxy enough lately, I should mention that he has a nonfiction book called The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? that, despite its unfortunate title, is an outstanding account of state terror in Guatemala. His book and Clandestine in Chile are totally different, but I think they're complementary in providing a close-up of some unsavory US allies of the last 30 years.

    • Yes, I think it's interesting how different the reactions have been throughout the group re: García Márquez's success or failure at summoning real horror/tension around the political reality in the country. I guess for me, Littín just seemed like such a personally quirky (and possibly un-trustworthy narrator) that I couldn't help wondering how much of his fear/paranoia to take seriously, especially when he himself seemed to be sabotaging his own efforts at times. Still, an interesting read. And thanks for your rec of the Goldman book; I should read more about the history of Latin America in the 20th century as I remember so little from my high school history classes. Hall of shame!

  • You've definitely hit upon one of the main things that I enjoyed about the book - Littin himself. What an odd man! I also think you're right about him being caught between his political and personal reasons for being in Chile. I think the disguise and precautions and all the fuss messed with his head and made it even harder for him to keep the personal stuff in check.

    Having read very little Garcia Marquez it was difficult for me to hear his voice in this book. I simply heard Littin.

    • You make a good point about the pressure and uncommon circumstances Littín was in, and how that probably messed with his head. Perhaps I've been a little hard on him considering all that. Still, I can hardly wish him any less odd, as his quirks were a highlight of this little book for me! :-)

  • Disclaimer #1: I haven't read the book.
    Disclaimer #2: I'm a little obsessed with radio-craft right now.

    The bit about authorship was compelling to me, too. The form it makes me think of right away is recorded interview.

    On a program like Fresh Air, where I would think of Terry Gross as the author, she does, proportionately, very little of the talking, and there is very little added to the interviews in post production, mostly bits taken away (editing=authorship?). However, as I understand it, she isn't the person primarily responsible for the editing. Even so, what she contributes to an interview is unique and essential.

    Then on a program like This American Life, emotional coloring is added by way of music, timing adjustments, etc., and something between frame and interpretation is added by way of the story-reporter's commentary; but, even then, most of the words are often the interviewee's.

    To me, the This American Life model adds yet another layer of authorship-removal/ambiguity, since, although many (most?) stories are not presented by him, and I've heard him speak directly to the fact that the sensibility of the show is that of his co-producers, as much as it's his, Ira Glass is still though of as the "author" of — if not synonymous with — the show.

    Neither of these examples represents a claim of authorship based purely on editing, but they seemed to have some bearing on the subject... I guess sometimes a certain degree of authorship is conveyed just by the act of deciding which story to tell, and in what context, no?

    • Aw, nice to have a comment from you here! Yes, re: a collaborative project like a film or a radio show, I think we're used to thinking of a certain individual as the "auteur" even if it's really a team effort - I like your points about how sometimes the individuals we identify with those projects aren't even the ones with the greatest responsibility for the end effect a film/radio show has (like how Terry Gross & Ira Glass don't do the editing - Jessica Hopper probably has the most control over how people feel about the stories on TAL, now that I think about it, considering how strongly music tends to cue emotional reactions). With books I think we're accustomed to thinking of them as more of a one-person effort, and it's interesting to see projects like Clandestine in Chile that call that into question.

  • Ugh, the part about the "housebroken husband" irritated me too. But Littín does acknowledge that he was unfair to his "wife" (I forgot her name - it began with an E?), which sort of redeemed him. As for his reckless behavior elsewhere, I've read that people with serious chronic diseases such as diabetes will sometimes go off their meds or stop following their health routine for various reasons - i.e. they get fed up, adopt a fatalistic attitude, or just quit caring. I wonder if the same psychology was at work here.

    • Yeah, he copped to being a pain to Elena, but only just. I don't know; it redeemed him a bit, but not totally in my opinion. Still, you and Sarah make good points about the psychological difficulties that were probably lurking behind his seemingly self-destructive or just zany behavior.

  • This sounds quite interesting for a lot of reasons, but I think that when I get around to reading more Garcia Marquez, I'll probably pick up something else. It doesn't seem like the best one to turn to if I haven't ready many of his books. But the questions of authorship do sound intriguing.

    • Based on having read a small sampling of his fiction, I don't think this is a representative example of García Márquez's work at all...more of a semi-political oddity. Still, as you say, it raises some interesting questions!

  • hmm I'm very intrigued as I had never heard of this before.

    I do have to say, though, the guy's face being covered up is now bothering me. I hadn't noticed before you pointed it out.

    • Ha, I love the covered-up face! This is super-short and definitely worth a gander - and given Richard and EL Fay's reactions, there's the possibility you would find it even more affecting/interesting than I did. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography