Pinochet looms large in debut novel
BECAUSE it’s ironically true that for North Americans, South America — its culture and politics, its history and geography — remains more foreign to us than Europe or Asia, any contemporary fiction set on our neighbouring continent arrives like a welcome stranger, bearing news that seems at once eerily proximate and strangely distant. In part, that’s why so much Latin American fiction, from Isabel Allende to Gabriel García Márquez, reads to us as fantastical and fabular. This is the case with Avi Silberstein’s first novel, set in his native Chile during the notorious Pinochet years. Silberstein’s admirable ambition is to depict the climate of a culture under dictatorship, and to reveal the widespread effects of repression and the usually subtle threat (but sometimes sudden and overt reality) of arrest and torture, disappearance and death.
Silberstein’s plot is deceptively simple, originating quietly, almost comically, in a little casting agency in Santiago that helps its clients by staging contrived “manipulations.” Javier, the owner and protagonist (and the novel’s narrator), stages little melodramas that help men and women fulfil their small personal ambitions. Such is the case in the novel’s opening chapters, wherein Javier contrives a scene in which a young woman is able to meet, as if by mere chance, a man she finds irresistibly attractive. But from these droll beginnings, the novel’s larger aims quickly develop. Javier, a loner, begins a promising relationship with Elena, who has recently separated from her husband and whose young son has been spirited away to an allegedly idyllic colony outside Santiago. When Elena tells Javier that she longs for the return of her son, the wider plot at the centre of the novel opens out. The “colony” is in fact modelled closely on the real Colonia Dignidad, established by the historical figure Paul Schaeffer, a German pseudo-evangelist with a shady background who landed in Santiago in 1961 and established Colonia Dignidad as a utopian experiment. In reality, Schaeffer used the colony to abet Pinochet’s regime; investigators later discovered opposition figures were spirited to the colony, tortured there, and executed.
Silberstein recreates in detail the daily life of the colony as well as the figure of the charismatic and tyrannical Schaeffer, down to his glass eye, his pedophilia and his spellbinding oratory. Now the small-scale “manipulations” of Javier’s Santiago agency are twice juxtaposed. The first juxtaposition is against the much larger-scale deceptions of Schaeffer’s false utopia, with its oppressive regime — the colonists live regimented and brutalized lives under his and his guards’ watchful gaze. The second juxtaposition, meanwhile, is the careful manipulation Javier devises to rescue Claudio, Elena’s son, from the colony. It becomes apparent that Javier’s skills as an actor and director, a “manipulator,” can be read as individual psychological adaptations to the more widespread and pervasive conditions of life in contemporary Chile under the dictatorship — just as Schaeffer’s false utopia masks his and Pinochet’s more sinister political purposes. Nothing is what it seems. It’s therefore only fitting that when Javier orchestrates his and Claudio’s escape back to Santiago through the contrivance of a play staged to glorify Schaeffer’s “heroic” autobiography, he arrives triumphantly at Elena’s apartment only to discover that her husband has returned during Javier’s absence in the colony. Silberstein’s skill in weaving together Javier’s small-scale manipulations with larger national deceptions is beguiling and engaging. The full and careful depiction of Schaeffer and his colony begins to seem a carefully polished mirror reflecting the larger culture’s self-deceptions under Pinochet. The cumulative result of this carefully crafted fiction might well be to invite its North American readers to reflect more closely on our nearby neighbours. Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is provost and vice-president, academic and international at the University of Winnipeg.