READIN started out as a place for me
to keep track of what I am reading, and to learn (slowly, slowly)
how to design a web site.
There has been some mission drift
here and there, but in general that's still what it is. Some of
the main things I write about here are
listening to (and playing) music, and
watching the movies. Also I write about the
work I do with my hands and with my head; and of course about bringing up Sylvia.
The site is a bit of a work in progress. New features will come on-line now and then; and you will occasionally get error messages in place of the blog, for the forseeable future. Cut me some slack, I'm just doing it for fun! And if you see an error message you think I should know about, please drop me a line. READIN source code is PHP and CSS, and available on request, in case you want to see how it works.
Hernán Rivera Letelier grew up in the mining towns of Humberstone and Algorta, in Chile's Norte Grande, at the tail end of the nitrate-mining era: a major stage in Chile's history and in the history of the industrialized world. He tells Ariel Dorfman (as related in Dorfman's Desert Memories, 2004) that his earliest memories are of "eavesdropping on [the] adult conversations" of the miners who ate their meals in the Letelier home; his mother padded the family budget by selling home-cooked meals to the bachelor miners. The stories he was listening to were of the last remnants of the nitrate industry, already moribund by the time of his childhood; he listened well, and has built a successful career as one of Chile's most popular novelists (although mostly overlooked, until recently, outside of Chile) telling the stories of the pampa salitrera, the mining camps built in the Atacama desert at the end of the 19th Century by British and German firms and operated until the middle of the 20th Century, and of the people who lived and worked there.
Rivera Letelier's 13 novels to date span the length of the nitrate-mining era and the breadth of the Atacama desert -- from the 1907 massacre of striking workers retold and reconstructed in Our Lady of the Dark Flowers (2002), to the 1942 mining camp strike in Providencia in the (surreal) Art of Resurrection (2010), to the later dusty remnants of Coya Sur in The Fantasist (2006), on the verge of becoming a ghost town -- somewhat reminiscent in all of Faulkner's treatment of Mississippi. (or John Ford's, of the Old West?) The Art of Resurrection won the prestigious Premio Alfaguara and has happily brought his work some well-deserved recognition. It is the story of a week in the life of Domingo Zárate Vega ("better known to all as the Christ of Elqui," sort of a Chilean Rasputin who wandered the country in the mid-20th Century preaching his gospel) -- in which he searches for, finds, and loses his own Magdalene.
My translation of a portion of Chapter 4 of the book will be up soon at The Unmuzzled Ox, under the title "Christ in the Desert".
"Very well," had said the considerable personage to whom Charles Gould on his way out through San Francisco had lucidly exposed his point of view. "Let us suppose that the mining affairs of Sulaco are taken in hand. There would be in it: first, the house of Holroyd, which is all right; then, Mr. Charles Gould, a citizen of Costaguana, who is also all right; and, lastly, the Government of the Republic. So far this resembles the first start of the Atacama nitrate fields, where there was a financing house, a gentleman of the name of Edwards, and -- a Government; or rather, two Governments -- two South American Governments. And you know what came of it. War came of it; devastating and prolonged war came of it, Mr. Gould."
Somehow I had gotten in mind from The Secret History of Costaguana, that Nostromo held specific allegoric reference to the building of the Panama Canal. That does not seem to be quite right... Certainly the story of the Canal is a relevant line of thought for approaching this book; and the Atacama, too -- nitrate was of huge importance when Conrad was writing this.
I am inhabited by voices. Everybody I have talked to has a different version, an echo of the rumors that flowed over the years, each new story leading to yet another search...
Desert Memories is very much a memoir -- it is a book of Ariel Dorfman's memories and of his search for Chile's national memory. He is traveling through the Norte Grande looking for -- broadly -- a reconnection with Chile's history, with three catastrophic epochs of Chile's history: the subjugation of the indigenous population, the subjection and abuse of the migrants from north and south who worked the nitrate fields, and the years of Pinochet's dictatorship, years that he and his wife spent in exile; more specifically he is seeking to reconnect with his memories of his college friend Freddy Taberna, who served in Allende's government as an economic minister and was executed by Pinochet's army in the concentration camp in Pisagua -- whom Dorfman idolizes and whom the reader will come to idolize as well. His wife, Angélica Malinarich, is seeking memories of her own; she is trying to unearth some of the history of her father's side of the family, which traces its roots to Iquique and the nitrate industry. All of these quests tie together and interconnect -- learning the history of the nitrate fields entails learning about the indigenous inhabitants of the desert who were dispossessed, and learning about the concentration camps that were built on the sites of vacant salitreras during Pinochet's reign; looking for the traces of Taberna's boyhood in Iquique brings us into contact with the same people who can provide information about the Malinarich family. Looking at the site of Taberna's execution and at the mass grave uncovered in Pisagua which did not, ultimately, contain Taberna's body -- it has never been found -- brings us hard up against a flood of Dorfman's memories.
For this book really plays out in Dorfman's mind. The desert, the salitreras, the towns and cities serve primarily as a backdrop for Dorfman's quests and meditations on his nation's troubled history. The bleakness of the physical landscapes he is describing is often masked by the eloquence of his descriptions, of his memories of the dead and his attribution of such memories to the landscapes. And somehow (paradoxically among all this bleakness and death) this gives the book a subtly optimistic tone. A key factor in the couple's journey of discovery is that the dictadura has ended -- they can reconstruct Freddy's life, can speak of Freddy and of the many other Allendistas tortured and dead and disappeared because Pinochet is no longer in power, they are no longer in exile. The couple's love for each other, too, plays a major role in the story of their travels, as does the depth of friendship between them and the other people we meet as they make their way north. The landscapes Dorfman describes, the historical abuses he documents, are all part of the history of this country that he loves and is reclaiming after the years of repression and exile.
I am working on understanding the trajectory Hernán Rivera Letelier followed from being unknown to being, as Dorfman says, "one of the very few writers in Chile who can make a living writing books." His first novel was wildly successful, La reina Isabel cantaba rancheras, and made of him an overnight literary sensation. That was in 1996, only 8 years before Dorfman is talking with him, but you get a very firm sense of Rivera Letelier as an established literary presence. A lot can happen in eight years -- he has by this time published several novels.
Time for a story. In the fifth chapter of Desert Memories, Dorfman takes a detour from his tour of northern Chile, to relate a yarn; and he does so in a very clever way. Rivera Letelier is talking to him about the town of Pampa Unión -- this is remembered from a frame in which Dorfman is standing in the ruins of Pampa Unión on the following day, after he has left Antofagasta -- last night Rivera Letelier was telling him a story about this town of bordellos, this town which features in his novels Fatamorgana and The Art of Resurrection. The year is 1929 and the president of Chile, General Carlos Ibáñez de Campo, will be passing through the Pampa Unión station, where his train will stop for water.
The band of musicians is ready, they've been practicing for weeks. The children are waiting to sing. The train is coming, the train can be seen chugging on the horizon. And people begin to cheer and they are hushed by one of the organizers. Things have to look orderly and nice. They want to use the occasion to ask the president if he could bestow upon this town some sort of legal status, recognize them as a municipality, put them on the map.
Accept them into the fold of the great Chilean family.
"And the locomotive," Hernán had said, taking his time, savoring our interest, "pulls into the station at exactly 3:08 in the hot, transparent afternoon."
And here Rivera Letelier's wife interrupts the story (and Dorfman's retelling of the story) to tell them supper is served, and Dorfman interrupts himself to talk about the meal -- so the meal serves as a frame internal to the story we have been hearing retold. From the mention of Mari he moves further back to talk about Hernán meeting Mari in the restaurant her mother ran out of her kitchen (and here we get an elaboration on the bit that Laura Cardona referred to in her review of The Art of Resurrection), and about his working in Pedro de Valdivia and listening to the stories of the viejos -- although "miners tend to die young," the men who have been working with explosives in the fields of caliche for years are called "old men" because they look old. And much, much more about his childhood and his path to becoming one of the most successful authors in Chile...
And after all this, Dorfman brings us back to last night in Antofagasta, after they have eaten supper, and he is asking his friend,
"At Pampa Unión. When the train with the president pulled in? We're going to pass through there tomorrow, you know."
"Oh, yes. At exactly 3:08 in the afternoon the train pulls in. Everybody waits and waits, the Boy Scouts from the nearby towns, the Red Cross, the fire brigade, from every little hamlet, the basketball team, the soccer team. And the man who was going to make the speech clears his throat and gets ready to hand the president their petition to make them into a real and recognized locality and they keep on waiting while the locomotive is serviced. And then..."
"And then...?" Angélica asked.
"And then at 3:14 in the afternoon, the train pulls out of the station."
"He did not even poke his head out the window...."
"As if they did not exist," I had said to him last night, I say to myself again as I contemplate the desolation in which the whorehouses of Pampa Unión now lie, that whole town built for no other purpose than for men to make love in the desert. "As if those people never existed."
My mind is still resonating with Hernán's answer.
"Except for me," Hernán had said to us last night, whispers to Pampa Unión today. "I'm here to tell their story."
The fourth chapter of Desert Memories, "Nomads of Nitrate," offers an interesting juxtaposition, on the third and fourth days of Ariel and Angélica's journey north. May 15th, 2002 finds Dorfman in Antofagasta, meeting with a group of pampinos who were evicted six years earlier from the salitreraPedro de Valdivia upon its condemnation. (Also present is Hernán Rivera Letelier, whom I'm glad to see -- one of my principal goals in reading this book is to find out more about Rivera Letelier.) The previous day he had visited María Elena, the last working salitrera in Chile, and dined with Eduardo Arce, the camp's manager for Soquimich S.A.
Despite the hospitable welcome... I was not entirely at ease. ...I feel uncomfortable whenever I meet members of Chile's business class, all too aware of their complicity with Pinochet's dictatorship, which in the case of Soquimich was particularly egregious, as our dictator's then son-in-law, Julio Ponce, had been one of those who acquired these salitreras from the state when they were privatized in the early 1980's in what observers consider dubious circumstances. And Eduardo Arce hints, at some point between the abalone and the sea bass -- or was it just before we were served the meringue dessert? -- when I inquire about his family, that his father had been traumatized by the experience of losing his hacienda in the South during the agrarian land reform program of President Eduardo Frei Montalva in the late sixties -- a process carried out by some of my best friends. But this is also Chile -- a country where people, at least of the elite, sit in close proximity to their former enemies and smile and chat about vintage wines and make believe the past does not really exist, that Arce is not a supporter of Pinochet and that I have not come to the North to search for the disappeared body of Freddy Taberna, not mention that Arce would lunch tomorrow at this table at the same time that I would be seated at a table in Antofagasta with the pampinos who were evicted from their homes because of decisions taken in this very room where we were having our midday meal.
Up ahead, to one side of the route, is a gigantic granite hand thrusting up from a slight mound in the desert. Yes, I did say a granite hand and I did say gigantic -- towering twenty or thirty meters high -- a smoth rock statue, this Mano, erected here in 1992 by the Chilean sculptor Mario Irrarrázaval as a way of commemorating the presence of humans on this land, both the Europeans who had arrived in 1492 and those who had made the journey so many millenia before Columbus.
Our answer to the desert, that hand.
For more, see Karl Fabricius' writeup of the Hand of the Desert at Environmental Graffiti, with photography from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr.
So right now I'm reading Ariel Dorfman's Desert Memories -- a fantastic book, one I recommend highly though I have yet to write anything about it -- it is making me think I should start keeping a bibliography of books dealing with northern Chile. This book will serve as the jumping-off point I think, for one thing because this bibliography would be directed towards an English reading audience and the book is written in English (and Dorfman seems like a marvelously interesting figure, certainly worth seeking out the rest of his work); all of Rivera Letelier's work will be on the list with big stars next to it indicating it ought to be published in translation; what else?
I expect The Motorcycle Diaries includes a lot of time riding through the Atacama and probably belongs on the list.
Juan Ignacio Molina's Geographical, Natural and Civil History of Chili should be present as background information.
Andrés Sabella Gálvez's Norte grande.
The work of José Joaquín Vallejo Boscoski (Jotabeche) appears to be seminal to the literature of salitreras.
Escritores desde el límite describes itself as a blog dedicated to the literature and history of northern Chile; I have not looked at it any further yet.
What else? If you've done any reading about the north of Chile, fiction or history ot otherwise, please post in comments. Movies too! (imdb gives me an Argentine film from 1959 called Salitre and a Portuguese short from 2005 of the same title, and a brand-new Mexican documentary called El salitre, esbozo de una historia en fuga. And Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia de la luz looks well worth watching.)