Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín

Gabriel García Márquez
Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín
New York Review of Books, 2010

The chronicle, or crónica, as it is known in Spanish, has a long and rich history in Latin America, from the conquistadores until present. National patriots like Cuban Jose Marti and Colombian Rafael Nariño, labored as much in verse and politics as they did honing their journalistic skills. Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez is no different. Although inactive since the 1990’s, Márquez prided himself on being both a famous author and a nitty-gritty journalist, a profession he even called “the world’s greatest trade.” After all, his inception into the literary world began with journalism, and since then he has remained loyal.

Clandestine in Chile, translated to English for the first time by New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics, is the product of Márquez’s most endearing journalistic effort. In an attempt to tarnish the Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet’s reputation, Márquez re-writes his friend Miguel Littín’s journey to film a documentary in Chile. Although Gabo does his best to remain true to his friend’s voice, the story narrated by Márquez is written in first person. The result is a book that miraculously makes sense outside of the Cold War context and the caudillo dictators that characterize the period in Latin America.

Chilean cineaste Miguel Littín began making films in the early 1960’s. Chacal de Nahueltoro, based on a series of bloody murders amongst rural poor, is one of the most famous South American films of the latter half of the 20th century. His cinema vérité approach to politics quickly made him a star of Chile’s rising left, so much that Salvador Allende named him the director of the national cinema, Chile Films after he was president in 1971. After Pinochet’s coup in 1973, Littín was forced into exile, unable to return to Chile until he decided to make a film there 10 years later.

Accompanied by French, Dutch, and Italian cinematographers, Littín sent his crews to different regions throughout Chile, so as not to raise suspicion amongst Pinochet’s security forces. Independently, each group was to capture life under the dictator as it truly was, not as it was purported to be by the state-controlled media. However, to enter the country Littín must disguise himself as a Uruguayan businessman, accompanied by a female friend who will play his wife. After a shave and some practice, Littín, despite being nervous, manages to fool even his own mother, who he cannot help but visit after passing through her neighborhood in Santiago one day after a shoot.

Littín actually told Márquez that his trip “may not have been the most heroic action of my life, but it is the most worthwhile,” which begs the question, what could he have done that is more heroic, if not daring? Are we to believe that his films are even more daring? If so, Clandestine in Chile is just the “making of” documentary, or even as an extended feature article, that reads—thanks to Márquez´s narrative flair—like a political thriller.

As Littín sweats in front of yet another overly curious carabinero, so do we. When he accidentally slips out of his accent upon meeting Chilean customs officials, we begin to wonder if Littín will be able to complete his film. But there are other blunders, like when Littín is questioned by a barber about his eyebrows being plucked to which he nervously replies that he’s a homosexual—an unspeakable topic at the time. The tensest point in the book, however, is when Littin begins to suspect that his identity has been uncovered. The reader knows that if caught, an unimaginably excruciating death awaits him.

Some readers may question Márquez’s objectivity in this work of non-fiction. Littín shows undying support for the late socialist president Salvador Allende. According to his account, Allende responds to street graffiti that reads “this is a shitty government, but it’s my government” by shaking the culprit’s hand. Likewise, Pinochet plays the despised dictator backed by incompetent and clueless police.

Yet Clandestine in Chile, a bit shy of agit-prop, contains fantastic moments of what Bertolt Brecht might have called “alienation.” For example, when Littín visits Neruda’s Casa cum tourist attraction on the Isla Negra, he notes that home has grown decrepit. The Colombian author can’t resist adding—with a touch of triumphalist irony—that the Communist poet had not completely been forgotten: ¨One scrap of poetry remained: since the last earthquake tremors continued to be felt at La Isla Negra every ten or fifteen minutes of the day as well as at night.” In a chapter titled, “Those Who Stayed Are Also Exiles” he describes the Chileans as out of touch with their own past, struggling to piece together the truth, in the misinformation of Pinochet. We’re also reminded that the most repressed figures of the left continued to be revered, despite Pinochet’s best efforts to forget them.

This translation is a welcome addition to Gabriel García Márquez’s other book-length chronicle, News of a Kidnapping. Still, Márquez has written enough quality journalism to warrant an anthology in English (e.q., a survey of mysteries that surround the Nobel Prize published two years before he won it).

Two decades later, Clandestine in Chile can still move, question, and provoke. While historical arguments as to the merits of presidents Salvador Allende and Augosto Pinochet go on, the pain and zeal that once accompanied those names has been forgotten by most. As novelist Francisco Goldman says, in his aptly thorough forward, these are new times of cynicism on both ends of the political spectrum. It’s almost hard to believe Littín—whose last film Dawson La isla 10 was submitted for an Oscar in 2010—really risked his life in political protest. Maybe as Littín asserts, it was not “heroic,” but letting his friend Gabriel García Márquez narrate his tale—as though it were he who had dared to see Pinochet’s country for himself—certainly was.

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