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.