Reports from Latin America
By Rodge Glass.
One: A Ghost Giving a Speech
In the first week of September I travelled for three days westwards across Argentina, the bus weaving through the mighty Andes and into Chile, just as the nation was gearing up for the 40th Anniversary of the military coup which turned it inside out on the 11th of September 1973. This US-backed takeover resulted in the suicide of Salvador Allende, the socialist President, and signalled the brutal, dramatic start to the regime of General Augusto Pinochet, who would rule until 1990. My Gabriela Moya is the daughter of a Chilean exile who, like Roberto Bolaño, left Chile in the wake of the coup, after serving a few days in prison and then making a fortunate escape. This all happened at a time when dissidents were being rounded up, many of them tortured and killed, thousands in the Estadio Nacional, the football stadium in Santiago.
Two: A Human Being Made Out of a Statue
I didn’t yet know too much about Neruda’s life, but there was something suspiciously lightweight about it, there were obvious gaps in the story which surely anyone paying attention would notice. I thought of the pictures I’d seen of Robert Burns on the side of Coke bottles during the 2009 ‘Year of Homecoming’ in Scotland. The similar images of Hans Christian Anderson I’d seen in Denmark in 2006. I thought about how ripe writers are for being appropriated once they are safely dead.
Three: Borders of the Land & Mind
Where did this novel-in-progress all start? Well, I’ve been attempting to start it, in various forms, for years, but a news piece in The Herald newspaper back in June this year triggered the real beginning to the process. This piece reported on a small community of Chileans who escaped the Pinochet regime in 1973, settling in Scotland on their arrival. Until 2012 I had lived in Glasgow for 15 years, it had been my education, and I wanted to write about it, but from a distance. Here was an opportunity.
Four: Memory Games With Bolaño, or, Of What Is Lost
I can’t tell you exactly, I can’t quote from the books of course, but what seems to unite Bolaño’s works is that all the characters are uncertain. For example, in The Skating Rink, no one can understand or explain their own behaviour, no matter how bizarre it becomes. In Bolaño’s early novella Monsieur Pain, the protagonist is not sure whether he is being followed and no longer knows who to trust – also, the crime at the centre of the story goes unsolved, so uncertainty wins out in big ways as well as small. All Bolaño is the same, it’s doubt doubt doubt, and no more so than in 2666.
Five: Post-National Me, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Tell People I’m English
I had no idea this had been said about Bolaño, and the article didn’t say who’d first used the phrase ‘post-national fiction’. But immediately my ears pricked up. I had that experience so many of us do when we find that particular book, or story, or writer, who touches a nerve so strong that it feels as if it covers us completely. Like our whole bodies have morphed into a funny bone and the world has briefly come, even just for a second, sharp into focus. I read this line about Bolaño and thought: that’s me! I’m post-national! Or at least, I desperately want to be! I’d not thought it through yet but the sentence hit me in the gut, and it did so because like every other writer, everywhere, ever, I’m obsessed with myself.
Six: Dancing With Bolivar
To suggest that Simon Bolivar is a controversial figure is not, in itself, controversial. Even in his own time, this was true. How things have changed. Today he is glorified as the messianic figure who freed Latin America from the Spanish conquistadors, who bravely traversed the most unaccommodating of terrains in the name of liberating his people – and to deny him this would be to lie about the place in Latin American history he certainly deserves, a history which loves its heroes. The tales of Bolivar’s affection for his dog, the tragic early death of his first wife and also his passionate love for Manuela Saenz (she has her own museum) suggest a caring, sensitive man capable of compassion and understanding. But it’s not all love letters and sensitivity and the honest struggle. There’s more, which should be said. For example, if you’re Ecuadorian, you owe more to his underling, General Sucre. If you’re Chilean, you owe more to another key General, José Carrera. The Argentinian San Martin played a crucial role which is often forgotten. (Though rarely by the Argentinians.) The trouble with truth is, it’s complicated.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 1st, 2014.