Posted by: koolwine | May 29, 2010

Chile: The House of the Spirits

Country: Chile

Local Name: Chile

Chile has been shaken by three of the world’s top ten earthquakes (by magnitude), including the #1 spot – a 9.5 magnitude on May 22, 1960; a 9.0 on August 13, 1868; and most recently, an 8.8 on February 27, 2010.

Title: The House of the Spirits

Author: Isabel Allende (Chilean); translated by Magda Bogin

Allende’s father’s cousin was Salvador Allende, who was elected the first Marxist president of Chile in 1970.  On September 11, 1970 a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government; Allende was found dead later that day.  Although official reports claimed that Allende committed suicide, many  suspect he was assassinated.

Published: 1982  Pages: 368

Acclaim: Chile’s Best Novel of the Year (1982); International bestseller

Time Period: roughly 1910-1975

Summary: Traces three generations of del Valle women: the supernaturally gifted Clara; Blanca, who loves her father’s worst enemy; and Alba, drawn into the revolution (and into danger) by her Marxist boyfriend.  Their stories, and also that of  Clara’s long-lived husband, Esteban Trueba, are woven into the politics of their unnamed South American homeland (suspected to be the author’s native Chile).

My opinion: What starts off as an quirky melodrama (magical realism, forbidden love, bitter enemies) shape-shifts into a hardcore political tragedy.  That the novel’s coup and its aftermath are likely based on Chile’s usurpation by General Augusto Pinochet makes Allende’s story that much more poignant.

Thanks to TomT for recommending this book!

In my book (or, how Chile has influenced me and maybe you, too)

Chile ≠ chili
When I was a kid, I associated Chile with eating a big messy bowl of my mother’s chili (homonyms, you know).  However, chili originated in Texas and has nothing whatsoever to do with the South American country.

Stinging melody
It wasn’t until I listened to the song “They Dance Alone” from Sting’s 1987 album …Nothing Like the Sun that I thought about Chileans and what might be happening in that narrow strip of a country.  I heard the name Augusto Pinochet for the first time.

Here’s what Sting had to say about the song’s politically charged lyrics:

“Thousands of people have “disappeared” in Chile, victims of murder squads, security forces, the police, the army. … The “Cueca” is a traditional Chilean courting dance. The “Cueca Solo” or the dance alone is performed publicly by the wives, daughters and mothers of the “disappeared”. Often, they dance with photographs of their loved ones pinned to their clothes. It is a symbolic gesture of protest and grief in a country where democracy doesn’t need to be ‘defended’ so much as exercised”

“Only a few drops”
In an interview with Time Magazine correspondent Charles Eisendrath shortly after the coup, General Augusto Pinochet was quoted as saying:

“Democracy carries within its breast the seed of its own destruction. There is a saying that ‘democracy has to be bathed occasionally in blood so that it can continue to be democracy.’ Fortunately this is not our case. There have been only a few drops.”

Pinochet named himself president less than a year later and remained so until 1990. During his dictatorship, at least 3,197 people were killed or “disappeared”, 29,000 people were tortured, and one hundred thousand went into exile, including Isabel Allende (she fled to Venezuela).

Pinochet’s poor health excused him from standing trial for any of his alleged crimes, which included: genocide, terrorism, kidnapping and execution of political prisoners, tax fraud and falsifying documents.  Pinochet died of illness in 2006.

Towers of pain(e)

Thanks to reading way too many copies of National Geographic and National Geographic Adventure (which folded in December, bah!), I know that Chile is home to some of the most photographed mountain peaks on earth – Torres del Paine.

Despite frequent winds of over 100 miles per hour, the mountains are a climbing mecca.  Says Craig Peer on summitpost.com: “I personally witnessed the wind pick up a 75 pound haul bag and toss it several feet, along with all three of us being knocked off our feet on the glacier. The most fun is to lean into a 50 m.p.h. wind with a 70 lb. pack on your back, knowing if the wind stopped you’d be flat on your face!”

Fantasy Islands
I’ve always like survival stories, and Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe was the first I ever read (in a kid-friendly, abridged form).  Defoe loosely based his protagonist on the sailor Alexander Selkirk, who had been marooned on Chile’s Juan Fernandez Island for four years and four months.   In 1966, the Chilean government renamed the island Robinson Crusoe Island to reflect its literary fame.

I’ve been wishing to visit the island known for its huge disembodied stone heads (moai) for years , and all along I had no idea that Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was a territory of Chile – it was in fact annexed by the Chileans in 1888. Easter Island lies 2,180 miles west of mainland Chile and is one of the world’s most remote populated islands.
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