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Borders of the land & mind

By Rodge Glass.

[Image: Juan Carlos Pereyra]

Hello 3:AM, the last time we spoke I was in Pisco Elqui, the tiny valley village in northern Chile where poets are royalty and life is slow…

…Today I’m writing to you from somewhere very different – a ferry leaving Chile Chico, close to the Argentinian border, and bouncing its way northwards across choppy waters to Puerto Ingenerio Ibañez. Over the next two hours we will cross what on this side is Lago General Carrera, named after the first leader of Chile during the battles for independence in the early 19th Century. (Carrera wrote Chile’s first ‘provisional constitution’ in 1812.) But if we look out to the East we will see Argentina’s Lago Buenos Aires, this being one of few lakes in the world with two recognised names, crossing two countries. Which says something about Argentinian-Chilean relations.

Over the last few weeks my wife and I have been on the move. First we headed south through Chile, exploring the mythical island of Chiloe, then crossing into Argentina via Bariloche and down to the stunning glaciers in the south, having the opportunity to see the amazing views of Patagonia from both sides of the border. My wife is a geographer so she was in her natural habitat, able to read the landscape, also to make the experience all the more satisfying for me by helping to make sense of it. It’s one thing to marvel at the Perito Moreno glacier calving in front of your eyes, great chunks of ice crashing into the water below, it’s quite another to know why it’s happening, and how. Since then it’s been back on the buses. Yesterday morning we crossed back into Chile; I’ve now entered the country three times since August. And each time, I wonder what my protagonist would make of it, if she were there. As I’ve been documenting in this blog since September, I’m here to write a novel about an imagined ex British Prime Minister, Gabriela Moya, a charismatic woman of Chilean descent whose family escaped in the wake of the 1973 coup. After her political fall, she makes a pilgrimage to Chile, to try to make sense of the country she has always called home but has not visited since her family’s dramatic departure. Her responses are at the front of my mind as I’m handing over my documents at the border.

It’s her story I’m thinking about, on and off, as we’re passing through these places on our South American travels. I’m thinking: what would Gabriela make of this? Should I bring her here? What for? Or if she isn’t going to visit the place in the novel, what would she make of it, if she did? What if she was standing at the face of the Perito Marino glacier, feeling the rush of the Argentinian wind around her and looking into Chile from a distance? (You can just about see over the border from the lookout point.) In the early days of writing a novel, I find that ‘what ifs’ like this are the most useful way to get to know your character. Not just thinking about them in the moments when you’re at the computer or taking notes (which are relatively few), not just making them live in a handful of scenes, but imagining them all the time, their entire unwritten histories, their opinions, their instincts and unknown futures. Which gives them depth. Even if you don’t intend to use it in the final story, you have to be ready to notice what they would notice as they wander the world, taking hits and fighting back in own their individual way. In Gabriela’s case, she is shell-shocked by her fall from power but is, I think, making a genuine attempt to understand herself and her mistakes. At Perito Moreno, I thought to myself: Gabriela would love this. All the noise and chaos and all the petty concerns of her recent life would disappear. She would experience for the first time in years what it is to be reminded of your smallness. And after a few minutes scanning the horizon, she’d probably imagine herself climbing over the huge land of ice, like a giant, skilfully avoiding the dangerous crevices and floating icebergs, walking direct from Argentina to her motherland. Then wondering why she had done so.

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. The 40th anniversary of the coup, marked with memorials in this little-known Scottish Chilean community got me thinking about what might have happened to these people, also about their relationship to the Chile of Pinochet, which they got out of just in time, and which they could not possibly know, having been immersed in British life for the last four decades, many of them in enforced exile. So I invented Gabriela Moya, a four year old girl in 1973, who travelled to Glasgow with her father Gustavo on a boat, fleeing from the brutality of the new regime. Gustavo’s response to the painful loss of his homeland is to reject it entirely, throwing himself and his daughter into the land which has accepted them.

I’ve not lived this directly, but I do come from a Jewish family with Eastern European origins, almost all of which have been left behind now. Apart from the odd phrase of Yiddish, the odd traditional dish, we are no longer Eastern European. How could we be? How could I understand what it was like for my ancestors fleeing Germany during the pogroms of the 1850s? If I visited Germany now, or Bulgaria or the Ukraine, I couldn’t possibly feel these places were mine. I wouldn’t speak the language, though I might imagine I recognised something in faces, complexions, mannerisms, which suggested some feint connection. Much of it would be in my mind. Given all this I felt I could imagine someone who had experienced distancing from their own culture, in fast forward, in a single dramatic generation. Gabriela’s father, I decided, would teach his daughter to be more British than the British, to tailor her accent, her vocabulary, to study the success stories of the nation and copy them. To work hard in school and be ambitious. Which she does, and then some. This leaves her with a strong new identity, but also leaves an important one behind. When her life unravels, she returns to see what she has missed. She is new to Chile, me too. She is an outsider, so am I. And this is where we dovetail.

November/December 2013 would be an interesting time for Gabriela to be here, especially given that her search is dominated by the Chile of the past, her imagined view of what the country stands for. If Gabriela was here now then she would notice immediately that Chile today is still defined to a large extent by the Pinochet years and their legacy. Not so much on the streets, in a day to day capacity, in conversation. The landscapes and personalities of Chilean cities, towns and villages are as diverse as any on earth, there’s no point trying to generalise from the Atacama Desert all the way down to the lip of Antarctica. But one field where the past – and a particular part of it – dominates is the political realm. On November 17th the first round of the national elections took place here, with many Senador and Diputado spots in Parliament up for grabs, also the Presidency. Though there were nine candidates, most votes went to Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Mattei, who are now fighting in a second round of voting, which will take place just a few days from now. The entire campaign, and even the rules of the campaign, are part of the legacy of those divisive, difficult years of the military junta. For the weekend of the election, my wife and I travelled to Santiago to see how the capital experienced it.

There are many interesting aspects of this election, the first being that this is a 
South American election fought between two female candidates, in a continent notorious for machismo attitudes, and for (largely) a distinct gap between the genders in terms of opportunity. So Gabriela would no doubt find it interesting that these two have made it to the top of their respective political parties, proving that women are able to rule in what has traditionally been a man’s domain. (Bachelet was previously Presidenta from 2005 to 2009, leaving office with a record 85% approval rating.) On top of this, gender has been made a non-issue by the fact that both leading candidates are women. But Gabriela is the kind of person who would also note that most women in Chile are still restricted to traditional roles in the family, experiencing little opportunity for advancement in the workplace, if that’s what they want. (The expensive Chilean education system makes social mobility notoriously difficult.) Let’s be honest, Gabriela might say: though undoubtedly talented and hugely qualified, Bachelet and Matthei have reached their elevated position partly because of what they represent about the country’s past. Like many politicians, they are symbols as well as human beings, something further evidenced by the presence in the Chilean parliament of Isabel Allende. The daughter of Salvador Allende (not to be confused with his niece, the novelist Isabel Allende), she is another high profile woman with connections to men of Chile’s past. Gabriela would be scathing.

Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei knew each other as children, where they grew up in a military base, a place where both their fathers were senior figures in the armed forces. (Some say they were friends, but most commentators now agree that is an exaggeration, something added for dramatic effect.) Bachelet’s father was famously tortured by the Pinochet regime after the coup; Matthei’s father, a senior man in Pinochet’s Chile, was in charge of places where that torture allegedly took place. You have to be very careful what you say about these issues, these allegations, and of course Evelyn Matthei is not responsible for her father’s actions, but it is not controversial to say these two women were on opposite sides of the divide at the most painful time in Chile’s history. So it is deeply symbolic that they are now fighting over the Presidency, Bachelet on the left, Matthei on the right. Bachelet’s much-better financed, personal campaign which portrays her as a mother figure to the nation has led the way all the way through, by a margin which in most countries would be considered vast – the fact that the election is not over yet, after November’s first round, is also an indicator of the legacy of the Pinochet years.

Of which there are many. Many outsiders are surprised to find, as I was, that Chileans still use the constitution which was brought in by Pinochet in 1980, considered to be controversial at the very least, if not a bizarre anomaly. Latest polls suggest 85% of Chileans want a new constitution. Which makes it curious that neither major candidate has promised to change it completely – Bachelet has discussed some minor concessions, but has focused on issues like education instead. (She wishes to bring in new taxes which, within six years will provide free education for all. Hence the slogan, ‘Chile por todos’, ‘Chile for everyone’.) Only radical candidates, who gained miniscule amounts of votes in the November 17th vote, were arguing for a complete overhaul. Why? There is no simple answer to this, but to say the Pinochet legacy is complicated is something of an understatement.

And yet, so curious that Pinochet’s rules still govern. But then, it’s a little known fact in the West that many of the post-Pinochet years included the dictator still in government in some form. After the plebiscite voting him out of power in 1988, he clung on for another two years before physically passing on the mantle to a new President in a public ceremony – and even then, he was not run out of the country or prosecuted for his crimes. On the contrary, he managed to retain a role as commander of chief of the army for another ten years, as a continual thorn in the side of democratically elected leaders who followed him. Over that time he worked hard to protect his legacy, as he saw it, and defended his loyal lieutenants who carried out his atrocities. Also, he managed to secure a senator for life position upon retirement. There has never been a complete outright rejection of his rule, or overturning of his policies. It was him who brought in the rule that any future Presidential candidate has to have more than 50% of the vote in the first round in order to be victorious – any less and you need to go to a second round, which inevitably brings candidates closer in results, and closer to the middle ground. Also, crucially, it means that the victorious candidate does not have the votes to carry new laws by themselves in the resulting parliament, no matter their second round majority. In the current election, this series of checks and balances is made to look ridiculous.

In a tensionless fight, Bachelet gained 49% of the November 2013 vote, her nearest challenger Matthei back on 24%. And yet, despite the massive margin, both candidates have spent the last month campaigning in a run off against each other, everyone knowing that Bachelet will win again, though her power to push through change has already been curtailed. The candidates have spent more time campaigning in poorer areas in the run-off, as these saw lower turnout in the first round – voting is no longer compulsory, and nearly 50% of Chileans don’t bother any more, such a damning indictment after just two decades of free elections following the (sort of) exit of the much-feared General. What Gabriela would make of all this I’m not sure yet, but as she travels the length of Chile trying to get to know her homeland, she won’t be able to fail to notice the adverts everywhere, of bold-looking, confident women striking out a new future, even if the unspoken context behind these posters suggests that the country hasn’t yet entirely dealt with its past. As she hasn’t dealt with hers. But the challenge is, how do you face the past? And can you ever be sure it’s entirely left behind? Indeed, no matter how painful that past is, is ‘leaving it behind’ something any honest person should aim to do? Pinochet was still in office when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (a system later used in post-apartheid South Africa) reported in chilling detail the crimes of his regime: the General rubbished the report and stayed in post. I think of this when I see the posters of Bachelet and Matthei, and of how for some they will always be girls caught up in the fight of their fathers’ generation, no matter what they achieve in their own right.

My wife and I are going to be moving on from Chile soon. After four months, Gabriela’s story is going to take her over another border, as she searches for a lost family member, one of Pinochet’s infamous ‘Disappeared’. Once we’ve left, I’m sure I’ll start seeing it in other ways. I’ll no doubt forget many of the negatives, the frustrations of being in this nation of contradictions, and the memories we have gained here, the luck and great experiences and the goodness of the place will come to the fore in my mind. Which should put me in a better place to write about it, in the way Gabriela will be writing about it too, in her fictional memoir A Guilty Woman Abroad. But for now, the waters are calming, the clouds are parting to let more light onto the Lago General Carrera, and we are heading to our next stop. North!

Feliz Navidad, 3:AM, Happy Christmas, and speak to you in 2014…

Rodge Glass is the author of six books, most recently LoveSexTravelMusik: Stories for the Easyjet Generation, as well as the biography Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, and he is co-author of the graphic novel Dougie’s War: A Soldier’s War. He is supported by the Edge Hill University REF Investment Fund, and by Arts Council England. [Pic: Georgie Glass]

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 19th, 2013.