Letter from Santiago

by Adán Griego
illustrations by Francisco Letelier


It’s been a long trip to this side of the Americas. The taxi driver gives me a “cordial bienvenida a Chile” when I tell him this is my first time in Santiago. As we make our way to the city and all I see is vast open spaces, I start wondering if the Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti was right when he talked about “el sur también existe.”

We arrive at my friends’ house at eight a.m. on a Sunday morning. I wake up him and after exchanging good mornings, I offer my apologies for waking him so early and ruining his weekend. He tells me there is a “duelo nacional” because someone whose name I don’t catch has died. Once more I offer my apologies, but I am not sure if he is referring to a relative of his, and I get the feeling I should know.

After resting for a couple of hours, we head downtown so that I can see something of the city, since my stay will be only two and a half days. “What is that hill there?,” I ask my gracious host. “You have just offended the country’s national pride,” he tells me. That hill is the “cordillera de los Andes.” I apologize once more. It’s quite sunny, but the pollution is heavy today and I am missing that majestic view of the mountains that guard the city with their snow-covered tops. I’ll have to settle for the postcards.

The national mourning is in memory of Chile’s Catholic Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez. He was the man who courageously stood up during the Pinochet years to denounce human rights violations. His body is at the cathedral and there are long lines of people who have been waiting to pay their last visit to a fallen hero. The media report that mourners have come from all parts of Chile.

We would have to wait several hours to enter the cathedral so we decide to go back home. I get the sense that I have just touched history as we make our way through the “multitudes que han venido de todas partes del pais” to see Don Raúl. I am moved to see all those people waiting on that late sunny summer morning to pay their last respects to an old friend.

My hosts have organized a dinner for me to meet several people: the editor of Chile’s premier literary journal Revista de Critica Cultural; the publisher of Editorial Cuarto Propio, the country’s most progressive publisher, an American academic; and the ever-flamboyant writer and performance artist Pedro Lemebel. They all smoke incessantly but politely ask if their smoking bothers me. At times the dinner is almost surreal. We all talk at the same time, and although I have a good ear for regional variances in Spanish, my hay fever makes it a bit hard to hear and understand what has turned out be a discussion about politics. With such company, how could it have been avoided?

In the middle of a lively debate on the country’s life after Pinochet, I ask about Chile’s book industry. Since I am a librarian, I am interested in the country’s publishing output after the dictatorship. From comments like, “a pesar de la apertura que viene con la democracia,” I sense there are still residues of censorship, implicit or explicit. Consider the case of a best-seller “Pinochet: epitafio para un tirano,” about the person who continues to capture the country’s attention after having stepped down officially from power. It has been virtually ignored by the mainstream media. (Later on I look on the Web to confirm the title of the book and I find a review in the Uruguayan literary journal Revista del Sur.) The publisher happens to be seated next to me. She says she would like to set up a Web site with a list of suggested readings, and space for readers to offer their comments. Coming from Silicon Valley, I feel I can contribute with some high-tech advice and I tell her it’s a great idea, but the conversation has shifted to politics before I can add my technology comments. Since I have already misbehaved by handing out my business card, I might as well take out my notepad and start taking notes and asking more questions.

The issue of censorship became more palpable and more official (a month after my visit) when Planeta, the Chilean subsidiary of the Spanish multinational publisher, had its copies of “El libro negro de la justicia chilena” confiscated by government authorities. The book’s review in the country’s largest daily, El Mercurio, was not only negative — the paper also felt the need to clarify that it had received the book before the official ban.

(The shadow of both censorship and Pinochet still hung in the air several months later at the 12th International Guadalajara Book Fair, which chose Chile as the featured country. The Chilean government had prepared a glossy publication to highlight the event, stressing the close ties to Mexico. In the biography of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorsky there was a simple notation, “en la decada de los 70 radicó en Mexico,” that of writer Isabel Allende added “en 1975 decidió radicarse en Venezuela.” Conspicuously absent were the words exilio, and dictadura.)

Lemebel has been smoking all throughout dinner. He is probably oblivious to the waiter staring towards him. Unabashedly “amanerado,” this enfant terrible of Chilean letters is wearing some light makeup. To be effeminate in Latin culture is to be courageous and daring. Lemebel has been both. When asked in an interview whether he liked playing with dolls as a little boy, he confessed, “No, I did not want to play with dolls, I wanted to be the doll.”

His book, “La esquina es mi corazon,” with a title reminiscent of a bolero, has already reached its second printing and is being translated into English. From across the table I ask him about the titles of some gay novels. He does not have much positive to say about the books, which have been put out by mainstream publishers. Perhaps he resents the opportunism of others who have not been “out,” and who, now that sexual dissidence has become chic, have gone mainstream.

On Monday I am driven around the city. We start at the Cerro de Santa Lucia, which on a clear day can provide a view of the city and the Andes, not today. Then we head over to the outskirts of the city where I find a peculiar similarity to any American suburb. There are plenty of McDonalds and other pieces of Americana. This is not the landscape that would inspire a Nerudian ode, much less a “canción de cuna” by Gabriela Mistral, the country’s two Nobel Laureates in literature. Yet, this hybridity is already creating a literary voice clamoring to be different. In 1996, the short story anthology “McOndo” was published, proposing a distance between the twenty- and thirty-something generation of Latin American writers from that of the magical realism of García Márquez. This transitioning literary landscape was portrayed in the cover story of El Mercurio’s literary supplement where it reviewed the anthology showing the image of a Boterian man with a guitar right next to a Gap-like character in white tennis shoes playing an electric guitar. The image carried the caption, “¿Macondo o McOndo?”

We make our way back to downtown and from one of the corners of the Palacio de la Moneda, (the Presidential Palace) I catch a glimpse of the multitude of Chileans bidding farewell to their friend Don Raúl. There is mixture of applause and a sea of white handkerchiefs waving him goodbye . This is the final walk of an ordinary Chilean who has just left Santiago’s cathedral, accompanied by the current president and his cabinet, a former president and a virtual who’s who of political and religious leaders. In one of those coincidences of life, another religious figure, the Dalai Lama, had arrived the previous night. Shortly before the funeral service, the Dalai Lama, too, paid a visit and left immediately afterwards, as if not wanting to stand between the country and its fallen hero.

I leave Santiago that evening, on my way to Buenos Aires. I arrive at the airport, a modern state-of-the-art facility that reminds me of something from a 007 movie. The luggage carrier must have been very impressed with me since he asked, almost with a given certainty, if I was going on business class. He seemed terribly disappointed when I said no.

© 2000 El Andar Magazine