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Thursday, May 16th, 2013

🦋 The Art of Resurrection

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".

posted evening of May 16th, 2013: 1 response
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Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

🦋 Silver, Nitrate, Shipping

"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.

posted evening of May 29th, 2012: Respond
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Monday, May 30th, 2011

🦋 Cerro Paranal

Midway in between Taltal and Antofagasta, an array of four telescopes stands on a mountain in the Chilean desert, whirling through space under the clear skies of the Atacama. Take a look:

Full-screen display strongly recommended. (via PopSci, via Teresa's Particles at Making Light)

At Ivan Semeniuk’s Embedded Universe, you can read a couple of posts from the week he spent at the VLT observatory two years ago.

posted morning of May 30th, 2011: Respond
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Saturday, May 14th, 2011

🦋 Perfección

Últimamente publicaba Jorge López unas fotografías increíbles de su viaje a San Pedro de Atacama, y hoy me ha dejado sin hablar con los colores de su imagen de un momento perfecto:

posted morning of May 14th, 2011: Respond
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Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

🦋 Rediscovering the desert

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.

posted evening of February 9th, 2011: Respond
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Friday, January 28th, 2011

🦋 Rivera Letelier chronology

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.

posted evening of January 28th, 2011: Respond
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🦋 en la tarde calurosa y transparente

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,

posted evening of January 28th, 2011: Respond

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

🦋 La dictadura

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 salitrera Pedro 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.

posted evening of January 26th, 2011: Respond

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

🦋 La mano del desierto

(found in Dorfman's Desert Memories)

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.

posted afternoon of January 23rd, 2011: Respond

🦋 La literatura del Norte grande

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.
  • Another potential source of information is this article on El salitre en la literatura, from
  • Lessie Jo Frazier's Salt in the Sand. And Dr. Frazier's bibliography is quite huge, and could mostly be incorporated.
  • Sergio González Miranda's Ofrenda a una masacre: La emancipación pampina de 1907.
  • Wars are popular subjects for fiction and history -- I'm sure there is a good deal of reading to be done about the War of the Pacific.
  • Parra's Sermones y prédicas del Cristo de Elqui.
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.)

posted afternoon of January 23rd, 2011: 6 responses

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