The past has a way of haunting us. We think we have moved on, but events from long ago keep echoing in our consciousness. Isn’t that what William Faulkner so eloquently showed us?
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup in Chile, and because I spent so much time researching the events of that fateful year for my novel, I keep observing significant dates.
Forty years ago on March 4, general elections, which the conservatives hoped would reverse the course of the country’s move toward Marxism, re-energized Salvador Allende’s agenda even though the economy was in a shambles. On June 29th, it will be forty years since the Tancazo, the failed putsch that signaled what was to come, with far greater violence, on September 11, 1973.
The past refuses to die, and even the dead are not exempt. Last year, after disinterring the remains of Salvador Allende, the Chilean court officially put to rest the rumor that he was murdered. Forensic analysis proved once and for all that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot while resisting the attack on the presidential palace led by his own generals. The junta claimed all along it was a suicide. Even if it was, does that fact wash the hands of the men who stormed the palace?
And now they have disinterred the body of Pablo Neruda, the poet and Communist Party senator who nearly won the nomination of the Popular Unity coalition instead of Salvador Allende. The scientists hope to dispel similar claims that the junta had him murdered with a lethal injection while he lay in the hospital receiving treatment for cancer.
I suspect these tests will come to naught. And then perhaps Chileans will be able to bury these rumors from their disturbing past once and for all, and the dead may rest in peace again, even if the past refuses to.
In closing, a fragment from “The Disinterred” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Donald D. Walsh (Residence on Earth, New Directions Publishing, 1972):
When the earth full of wet eyelids becomes ashes and harsh sifted air, and the dry farms and the waters, the wells, the metals, at last give forth their worn-out dead, I want an ear, an eye, a heart wounded and tumbling, the hollow of a dagger sunk some time ago in a body some time ago exterminated and alone, I want some hands, a science of fingernails, a mouth of fright and poppies dying, I want to see rise from the useless dust a raucous tree of shaken veins, I want from the bitterest earth, among brimstone and turquoise and red waves and whirlwinds of silent coal, I want to see a flesh waken its bones howling flames, and a special smell run in search of something, and a sight blinded by the earth run after two dark eyes, and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster, rabid, boundless, rise toward the thunder, and a pure touch, lost among salts come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.
The coup in Chile, 40 years on
A dozen years ago, after 9/11, W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939” circulated widely on the Internet. The poem, which described the “neutral air” of New York as war broke out in Europe, seemed to capture the uneasy sentiments of many Americans as they struggled to comprehend the evil done in 2001:
September 11 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup that toppled Chile’s democratically elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende. Auden’s poem rings with irony regarding that tragic event as well:
But who were the perpetrators of evil in 1973? Certainly General Pinochet and his cronies. But what about the American government under the leadership of Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger? What about the American public who remained silent as if in its own “euphoric dream”?
A friend once asked me what lessons I learned from researching Under a False Flag, my novel about American complicity in the Chilean coup. Although I am leery of historical “lessons,” I came up with four:
Of course, proponents of realpolitik might argue that America’s clandestine intervention saved Chile from a bloody civil war with many more deaths than the 3,000-plus who “disappeared” during Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship. Or they might point to Cuba and argue that Chile would have gone the same way—becoming a nation stymied by economic embargo, languishing in poverty, and lacking basic freedoms.
As I wrote Under a False Flag the philosopher Richard Rorty’s extraordinary book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity weighed on my mind. Rorty defines a “liberal ironist” as one who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do” and who hopes, while recognizing the contingency of such hope, that “suffering will be diminished, that humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.”
For the liberal ironist, Rorty says, the question “Is it right to deliver n innocents over to be tortured to save the lives of m X n other innocents?” is as hopeless and unanswerable as the question “Why not be cruel?”
At first I questioned that statement, but now I accept it. Entirely. No human being can rationalize the murder of 3,000 other human beings (or even one) for the sake of some other number. Not Pinochet, not the CIA, not the jihadists of 9/11. That may sound hopelessly idealistic but, as Auden says,
Filed under Commentary, Quotes
Tagged as 9/11, Augusto Pinochet, Chile, Cold War, Poetry, Richard Rorty, Salvador Allende, WH Auden