Confronting the Pandemic in a Time of Revolt: Voices From Chile

Confronting the Pandemic in a Time of Revolt: Voices From Chile

Confronting the Pandemic in a Time of Revolt: Voices From Chile

Surviving the coronavirus will be meaningless if Chileans do not simultaneously address the underlying causes of injustice and inequality.


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It is oddly appropriate and perhaps ironic that Chile happens to be preparing to celebrate—in the midst of a pandemic that is drastically questioning all previous paradigms of behavior and human relationships—the centenary of the death of Alberto Blest Gana (1830–1920), the country’s preeminent novelist of “manners” (costumbres) of the 19th century, who understood his moralizing work as part of a “high mission” that “brings civilization to the least educated classes of society,” excoriates “vices,” and teaches the public “healthy, wholesome lessons.” It is even more paradoxical that exactly a hundred years after Blest Gana breathed his last, the founding myths of nationhood he helped to imagine and define have been shattered by a heroic social movement led by young people brought up on the works of this very author.

Like those youngsters in the streets, I first read Blest Gana’s most famous and popular novel, Martín Rivas, in my Chilean high school, though that was back in the late 1950s. I confess that I immediately felt wary of the eponymous protagonist, who, coming from an impoverished provincial middle-class family, triumphs against all odds and manages to marry the haughty, albeit sparkling and sensitive, daughter of his aristocratic patron in Santiago. I found Martín too noble, too industrious and earnest, too tediously innocent, preferring his romantic friend, Rafael San Luis, rebellious and slightly satanic. I resented the fact that San Luis, because he breaks the rules of conformist existence and sexual monogamy, is condemned to die by the narrator (who at least bestowed upon him a gallant departure, combating a reactionary government), whereas the overly virtuous and mildly liberal Martín, after much intrigue and many misunderstandings, is rewarded with the girl and her family fortune.

Partly my disquiet came from the circumstance that I was reading Balzac and Stendhal at the time and thirsted for a Rastignac or a Julien Sorel to burst open the corset of social hierarchies. I also would have wanted the melodramatic and often prosaic Blest Gana to delve into some of the psychological complexity probed by the French and English novelists of those years, the way, for instance, that Balzac himself and Dickens laid bare the corrosive influence of money on their characters.

But my distrust of the ascendancy of Martín ran deeper than a literary aversion. Already, at the age of 16, I was committed to critiquing the very society that Blest Gana’s exemplary character personified. I saw the future of Chile (and humanity) not in the falsely meritocratic model presented by men like Martín, but forged by the struggle of millions of dispossessed people for a more just world, workers who, unsurprisingly, never make an appearance in the novel that celebrates the triumph of Martín and his incorporation into the dominant bourgeoise of his era.

My dream for Chile would prevail during the three years (1970–73) of the presidency of Salvador Allende, a socialist whose peaceful revolution ended in a bloody coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. His dictatorship imposed the neoliberal model imported from the Chicago school of economics in thrall to Milton Friedman’s ideas, a model of development and extreme privatization and exploitation that has ruled Chilean society (and much of the world) ever since, remaining prevalent even after democracy was restored to the country 30 years ago.

It is against that model that the Chilean people have rebelled since last October, demanding a new constitution and a system that works for the many and not for the privileged few at the top. (Chile is one of the most unequal nations in the world, with an appalling gap between the super-rich and the rest of the population) And though the unexpected eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that the plebiscite that was supposed to lead to that new constitution (the first one to be forged by the people themselves, in the year when Chile celebrates the 210th anniversary of its independence) has been put on hold until late October, that same plague has confirmed to the people how the abysmal structural unfairness of the current social and economic system punishes the poor and helps the prosperous to thrive—a revelation about power that, one would hope, might also be central to the discussion regarding what the United States should learn from this crisis about its own national failings.

Though the considerate, upright, and austere 19th century Martín Rivas, if he were to resurrect today, would probably deplore the greed and excesses of the cutthroat and all-too-real “Chicago boys” (among other things, Martín’s progressive ideas and actions got him into trouble with the conservative authorities of his day, who are satirized in the novel), one can safely declare, nevertheless, that the current Chilean revolt is born out of a widespread rejection of the free-market, laissez-faire worldview that Blest Gana’s hero represents. The youth of Chile had been promised that if they behaved like goody-goody Martín Rivas, benefits of all sorts would rain upon them. Instead, they live in a land where their education is discriminatory and underfunded; their families have dreadful health care; their parents are deeply in debt, earning Third World salaries to pay for goods with First World prices; and their grandparents have been immiserated by pension plans privatized by the dictatorship and devoted to taking advantage of pensioners rather than providing them with a comfortable old age. All the more reason to be enraged by the corruption and ostentatious luxury flaunted by the ruling elite.

As I recently returned to Blest Gana’s novel during a prolonged visit to Chile, it did not seem farfetched to interpret the uprising of Chile’s youth—sustained by their elders in overwhelming numbers—as a rebellion against the paternalistic ideal of success through competition and individual accomplishment, embodied by Martín Rivas, that activists read at school and that has been at the heart of how the ruling class wanted the people to dream of themselves during most of the republic’s existence.

Of course, this view of Chilean identity—what my compatriots were supposed to collectively and personally aspire to—did not go uncontested in the country’s society, nor in its literature. Besides the endless struggles for social justice by workers, miners, peasants, and intellectuals that would culminate in Allende’s victory, the major novelists, poets, and playwrights in the hundred years since Blest Gana’s death have channeled their creative energy into imagining an opposite, contrasting version of what Chile was and should be, vibrantly expressed in linguistic exploits that assail the prevailing certainties of sanctimonious and sanctioned history. The poetry of Neruda, both in his epic and surrealistic phases, and the mystical and covertly lesbian explorations of Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s two Nobel Prize winners, are merely the most prominent of these endeavors. To these we can add an array of social-realist fiction devoted to the working class (Volodia Teitelboim, Francisco Coloane, Nicomedes Guzmán); the erotic narrative longings of María Luisa Bombal and Pía Barros; the acerbic verses of Nicanor Parra’s “Anti-Poems” and José Donoso’s phantasmagoric dissection of a decadent aristocracy; the freewheeling spirit expressed in the stories of Antonio Skármeta and Alejandro Zambra; the probing of marginal lives in novels by Manuel Rojas and Diamela Eltit; Raúl Zurita’s hallucinatory love poems to a scarred and buried landscape of love and the glorious danger zones of the past conjured up by Tomás Harris in his Cipango; and the incisive plays of Jorge Díaz, Isidora Aguirre, and Egon Wolf. These and so many additional literary incursions exposed a submerged country that did not believe that the road to liberation depended on imitating the conventional Martín Rivas archetype or the sort of unadventurous language in which his triumphant ascent and consolidation was transmitted.

But of all these authors, the one who best exemplifies a fierce and unbending rejection of Blest Gana’s vision of what Chile should be is Carlos Droguett (1912–1996), who may not have been read by those who have flooded the streets for the past five months clamoring for justice, but who could be considered their secret godfather, a writer who predicted the rage of today’s most militant protesters and their embrace of resistance, often violent, as a way of purging a corrupt and conformist social order.

Consistently and consciously outside the mainstream, the vitriolic and anti-establishment Droguett only received high-status recognition in 1970, exactly 50 years after Blest Gana’s death and the year of Allende’s victory, when he was awarded the National Prize for Literature. His most notorious novel continues to be Eloy (1960), a visceral, sympathetic, and tender stream-of-consciousness recreation of the last hours of a real-life bandit and murderer being hunted by the police, reflecting a fascination with the criminal and marginal sectors of society that Droguett never abandoned (he even has a novel in which Christ resurrects as a serial killer). More relevant, however, for fathoming today’s revolt is another work, Patas de Perro (1965), which I consider his masterpiece (none of his work, alas, has been translated into English).

In that novel, the protagonist, Bobi, is born with the legs of a dog (that is, with patas de perro), and this radical symbolic and physical difference brings with it abuse, discrimination, persecution by every institution in the land (church, government, armed forces, politicians, entrepreneurs, educational system, the very ones being questioned by today’s activists). Refusing to submit to society’s way of dealing with him (he won’t join a circus, will not put himself on display, will not market his divergence from the norm, will escape from an insane asylum where his murder is being planned), Bobi represents everything that official Chile has suppressed. His very existence epitomizes the spirit of defiance of those neglected by the powerful, ready to be martyred if need be. Droguett suggests that Bobi is alone now, but that a day will come when his example will be prophetic, when many others fight for the right to be different and rebellious.

As I reread Patas de Perro during my recent stay in Chile, I was acutely aware that not far from where I serenely sat with the novel, thousands of inadvertent emulators of Bobi were rising up and demanding recognition, that their countercultural voices be appreciated and their strangeness and desires be given legitimacy and respect. Like them, Droguett is furious and expresses that fury in a primeval, feverish flow of words and metaphors, eerily anticipating the wrath that has, as of late, been consuming a country whose elites have been blind for far too long to the needs and anguish of the greater part of the population.

With Droguett’s ranting, lyrical, blood-filled indictment of Chilean society, we have traveled as far as it seems possible from the mundane, traditional realism of Blest Gana. Could this confrontation between these two acute opposites of Chile’s halved identity bring to light anything about the crisis gripping this country at the end of the world, perhaps showing us ways in which a solution to its conflicts might be hammered out? Or am I engaging in an intellectually fanciful exercise by trying to examine present society’s dilemmas through the prism of past literature, when so many other efforts and responsibilities await us? Indeed, do any of these fictional imaginings from decades ago speak to us, when the most immediate and harshly real tasks facing Chile—and humanity—are confronting the threats to our common survival in these times of pestilence?

I wager that there is something to be learned from the contrast between the extremes of Martín Rivas and Bobi, between Blest Gana’s vision and Droguett’s. For the immediate political trials facing Chile, it seems clear that without the explosive energy of the remote, unacknowledged disciples of the boy with the legs of a dog and his radical interrogation of established reality and societal norms, there is no likelihood of significant change. But that leaderless and anarchic insurrection against all forms of authority does not provide a blueprint for how, in concrete political terms, such real change might be implemented. For that to happen, Chile will need a meeting of sorts, a search for some kind of common ground. The followers of decent, honorable, hard-working, liberal Martín Rivas (and there are many of them, both in the middle class and among the disadvantaged, who continue to desperately crave, and believe in, upward social mobility) must be part of any long-lasting response to the challenges posed by the protests. The best among the elite that have ruled Chile are aware that the country cannot endure as a unified entity unless they reach some basic consensus with the multiple, passionate, contemporary avatars of Bobi and envision with them a strategy that maps out a future where the discordant parties disputing power can coexist, however uneasily, in the same land.

Until recently, I was uncertain if, given the chasm separating these contrary social actors and their antagonistic agendas, such an agreement could be worked out. The pandemic that now assails Chile, as it has the entire planet, has led me to believe that some sort of social pact, some semblance of an understanding, may not only be urgently necessary but practical and viable. A catastrophe of such epic dimensions will require both the dynamism and solidarity shown by the youth in the streets and the steadiness and efficiency of people in power who would probably define themselves as the distant descendants of Martín Rivas. If they do indeed embody the worthiest principles and experience of that character—his constancy, his loyalty, his reliability—they can prove it by using this moment of crisis as a way to learn about the enormous submerged nation they have ignored. They can do what Martín never did: recognize the permanent, defiant existence of that other Chile, the one Allende once represented and gave a voice to, his vision of a society founded on the principle that the needs of the many are more important than the profits of the few.

For that to happen, enough Chileans of all classes would have to realize that merely to survive the havoc of the virus will be meaningless in the long term if the underlying causes of prevailing injustice and inequality, revealed ever more starkly by the current calamities, are not simultaneously addressed. The question then becomes whether Chile’s citizenry, as they pull together to defeat this plague, can also block the authoritarian predisposition of those in charge to use the threat of this dreadful disease as an excuse to put off much-needed reforms and endlessly defer the democratic and participatory discussion of a new constitution that would represent the great majority of the people. Will that great majority, even in the throes of a pandemic, find ways of keeping up the pressure for a better world while compromising enough, showing enough Rivas-like self-control, to insure that Chile heals itself in multiple ways and becomes a country where those who feel radically alienated from the system are offered a place at the table, perhaps even near the head of the table?

It would certainly be wondrous if the crisis, both political and medical, ended up creating the conditions for a marriage between Martín Rivas, with his moderate bourgeois dreams, and Bobi, with his implacable dog legs, an experiment worth looking forward to, a new form of dreaming our identity, in both literature and reality—and not only in Chile, but beyond its faraway frontiers.

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