Pinochet and Me
Reviewed by Nathan Keene
Friday, February 16 2001, 1:00 PM
Surely few tasks are harder than the one Marc Cooper undertakes in his "anti-memoir", Pinochet and Me: to commemorate a tragedy that never had a chance to be forgotten because it was never acknowledged by those who suffered it. If anyone is qualified to write a memoir of Chile's tragedy it is Cooper, who, as Salvador Allende's personal translator experienced the final days of Latin America's first democratically-elected socialist government and its brutal overthrow by CIA-backed national security forces under General Augusto Pinochet. Throughout his account, Cooper works a tension that is always interesting, between the public history of mass movements, revolutions and coups d'etats and the private history of individuals caught within their vortices.
Unfortunately, Cooper's experiment suffers to some degree from the attempt to weld together two bodies of writing that probably were never meant to be joined. He himself points out in his introduction that the first part of the book was produced from notes and journals kept amid the upheavals of the Allende administration, while the latter parts were written much later, after he had fled the country and had continued to develop as a writer in other circumstances. The resulting narrative begins as the harrowing account of a fully-immersed participant and concludes as the political travelogue -- albeit a piercing one -- of a visitor from abroad. Between the viewpoint of someone deeply traumatized by the events in which he has a very personal stake and that of someone revisiting a place he once knew, some connecting link is missing in this book, almost as if it had been suppressed or excised. Cooper's claim that the unevenness of tone is intentional does little to smooth it.
None of this is to say that Pinochet and Me doesn't make for worthwhile reading. Cooper's account of the revolutionary excitement that swept Chile during the Allende years conveys strongly what a heady time it must have been. Likewise, his memories of Pinochet's rape of the country in 1973 is as terrifying as it is heartbreaking. If, as he points out in introducing the book, it is true that there have been more thorough accounts from the historical record, it is firsthand accounts like his that give a visceral vitality to such recitations of the facts. Even the relatively detached second half of the book achieves a poignancy usually unassociated travel writing. Written as travelogue reports on Cooper's visits back to the country during the '80s and '90s,the latter chapters detail lives and scenes under the heel of Pinochet's free-market fascism, with contextualizing data about its attendant economic and social nightmares. They elegantly portray the regime's apparatus of state terror wed to an equally obscene and degrading economy of plunder and exploitation, its legacy of profound cynicism, superficiality and denial, and recent signs that the long-overdue collapse of the deposed, aging Pinochet's mystique could mark a tentative restoral of the political vibrancy that once set the country apart.
In producing his "anti-memoir" Cooper has really produced a hybrid piece of writing that doesn't quite work either as memoir or as history, yet has compelling elements of both. Perhaps a clue to why this is so lies in the final chapter, where he talks about his recent visit to Santiago's infamous Villa Grimaldi, once the regime's foremost torture compound, now, in ruins, a monument commemorating victims of its atrocities. Finding a wall engraved with an alphabetical list of their names, Cooper reports "I am tempted to scan the rest of the list for familiar names of long-lost friends and colleagues, but I decide to let that thought go."
Perhaps like the Chileans he documents whose present lives must be insulated from the agonies of their past for the sake of survival and sanity, Cooper finds it difficult to allow contact between memory and observation, between private experience and public reality. Pinochet and Me is easy to read as much as its author's attempt to confront his own suppressed horror as his attempt to bring Chileans face to face with theirs.
Pinochet and Me is available from Verso