Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a short non-fiction account of film director Miguel Littín’s experiences of returning to Chile in disguise, twelve years after exile, to make a documentary about life under Pinochet. There’s a short foreword by Marquez about writing it, but for the most part it’s in the first person point-of-view told from Littín’s perspective, based off of a series of long interviews between the two men. I think this is one of those books where expectations going in are key to whether or not you will enjoy it. This has a lot of critical reviews on Goodreads, which can be broadly divided into two camps: a) I don’t recognise Marquez’s voice here at all, and b) this isn’t really an exposé of life in Chile under Pinochet. Now, I have yet to read anything else by Marquez, so I don’t know what I’m missing in terms of his voice, and I wasn’t expecting it to be a detailed account of Chilean lives under Pinochet. That’s what the film – which I haven’t seen – was intended to be; the book is simply a report about Littín’s experiences of making it.
What I was expecting was what I got: Littín’s experiences of going undercover in the country that he loves but has been exiled from for over a decade, his impressions on returning, and his attempts to remain unnoticed. Many of the things that have changed are just the natural shift in language and culture over twelve years, and nothing to do with the form of government, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting – when he gets off the train in one of the cities he visits, for instance, he tries to find a barber that will give him a shave; but he struggles for a long time until he realises that the preferred verb for to shave has changed. In the end he comes across an barber’s run by an elderly man who is delighted to hear the old term again and doesn’t think anything of it. That sense of dislocation in a place he used to know very well is done well, with great economy of storytelling.
In order to return to Chile with some degree of safety, Littín had to change his appearance and accent completely. He lost a great deal of weight, altered the way he dressed, had the shape of his eyebrows altered, was clean-shaven at all times, and many other changes that I have forgotten. While in Chile, he posed as a wealthy Uraguyan businessman, and much of the tension of the short book comes from moments when he fears he may be caught and exposed. He repeatedly either forgets or ignores the rules put in place for his safety – which I found rather stressful to read about, since the safety of three film crews depends on him doing what he’s told. At the same time, if I were exiled from England’s green and pleasant land for twelve years and came back in disguise as a thin German journalist, would I be able to resist revisiting all my favourite places? I’m not sure I would. Since the reader knows from the off that he survived to tell the tale to Marquez, it’s a testament to the power of the storytelling that those scenes are still tense.
Also, for all this isn’t directly about the consequences of the Pinochet dictatorship, it’s still clearly a critique: there are many small details (and sometimes not so small) that indicate this throughout the novel. Littín comments that Chileans used to gesture a great deal as they spoke, and those in exile still do, but those who have lived in Chile all that time have stopped moving their hands. This seems rather chilling to me. One of the things Littín has to be constantly mindful of when in public is not to gesture, for to do so is to draw attention to himself. There are curfews, references to resistance figures being murdered, and police everywhere. Littín has rose-tinted glasses about Allende’s government, having been a political activist at that time, and I’m sure that the crushing poverty he sees in Chile was also present in areas during Allende’s time in power – but he’s not trying to present objective political analysis. He’s just talking about his own experiences of coming back home after twelve years away.
Overall, this is a fascinating book – a quick read and a good introduction to Chile, about which I know very little. Don’t go into this expected either a detailed political and military history of the Pinochet dictatorship, or magical realist fiction in the voice of Gabriel Garcia Marquez – but if hearing about one man going back to his own country in disguise after over a decade away sounds interesting to you, then I recommend it. It’s technically the first book I read this year – I started it a few days before New Year’s Eve and finished at about twenty minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day, since the fireworks had kept me awake – and I’m glad. If the old adage about what you do at midnight on New Year’s Eve determining what you do for the rest of the year were to prove true for me this year, I’ve set myself up for a year of great books!
This sounds fascinating. I love Marquez’ fiction but I’ve also read a couple of non-fiction by him that were really good. His voice is very different between the two though. I know very little about Chile – did you feel like you needed to have some background info before beginning?
I didn’t feel like I needed background info before reading (all I really knew beforehand was that the Pinochet dictatorship had overthrown a democratically elected government), but I did pause a couple of times to look things up. I think it’s pretty accessible with almost no background knowledge.
Well, it’s certainly in the lead for Cover of the Year so far! I thought maybe you’d found it so dull you’d scribbled on it, so it was a bit of a relief to discover it’s actually like that! Sounds fascinating. I’ll bear it in mind when thinking about travelling virtually to S America!
Yes, this was an impulse buy in a charity shop and I only picked it up because of the cover! When I was writing the post, I googled it and saw that NYRB Classics have reissued it with a much more sensible cover, but I actually think this suits the book better – because it’s about something that is a simultaneously ridiculous and dangerous endeavour, and I feel like the cover captures that.
I haven’t read any Marquez yet, but I do love magical realism, so what is keeping me from moving forward? Perhaps you would like to read another novel with Biscuit and me? Love in the Time of Cholera, something like that?
Yes, that sounds fun! I would like to try some of Marquez’s fiction, especially after reading this. I will admit that magical realism is not normally my thing, but very good writers often convince me otherwise, and Marquez is meant to be one of the best!
Absolutely. I’ll look at my calendar and see what we can schedule. It might be a few weeks out, but I’m hoping that works with your new semester.