Pinochet looms large in de­but novel

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Neil Bes­ner

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.

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