:: Article

A Ghost Giving a Speech

By Rodge Glass.

[Image: Roberto Matta‘s La vida Allende la muerte, 1973]

1st October 2013

My favourite quote is, ‘No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy’. I came across it by accident when looking for something else, during the research for my short story, ‘Do All Things With Love’. Though originally said by a vicious 19th Century General, Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder (who ruled the Prussian army for three decades) it gives hope to my pacifist protagonist Harry, who is wandering the streets of Canada at the time, dazed, in the days after his wife has died. The quote was originally used to remind Harry that change does not always represent death or failure, but it has since been useful to me too, as it is easy for any writer embarking on a big mountain climb (which is what all novels are) to forget that the writing process, no matter the material, is as much about responding to circumstances as it is about creating them.

The first thing I did when I learned I was coming to Latin America was to draw up battle plans for my political novel set between there and the UK. I researched the writers I wanted to read and learn about (Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s two Nobel Prize winners foremost amongst them, but especially the master of wild late 20th and early 21st century fiction, Roberto Bolaño), listed places of interest (the Andes, Casa Rosada, Terra del Fuego, the Atamacama desert), and researched the museums and archives (Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, Neruda’s museum in Valparaiso, Gabriela Mistral’s hometown in the Elqui Valley). I had a title, Once a Great Leader, and a concept. I even had a beginning. All of which, my quote reminded me, might not last to the end of the flight across the Atlantic. Which is fine, as long as you breathe deeply, don’t expect a pregnancy to last three weeks, and learn to make plans as you go.

With time and experience, every good writer learns to accept that their initial ideas are flawed. This could be on a large scale (perhaps the setting is wrong, the characters, the plot) but it is more often in miniature, the line to line, where even the best artist is caught in a constant cycle of coming up with words, phrases and sentences which initially seem perfect but which, they soon realise, need redrafting, moving or abandoning completely. Unless we novelists want to lose our minds, this means accepting we are not geniuses, but it also means learning that our brains are capable of temporarily tricking us into thinking we are. Dangerous. But unless we are supremely arrogant, deluded or ignorant, this is a force for good. Why? Because it is a reminder that the writing process is about carving something slowly and consciously with the tools in our minds, not trying to grab it fully formed, as if we were catching treasure which just so happened to be falling from the sky. Before embarking on my research in South America, had already been through several drafts. The gender of the main character had changed, as had their family background. It had been abandoned twice, and twice been overtaken by other books which have been published since. No problem if no one is expecting you to finish – if you stay awake, the first ideas often lead, eventually, to the right ones. But now? It’s all very well philosophising about the writing process, overlooking the Andes and feeling lucky. But the frightening thing about this year-long adventure I have just embarked upon is that I have promised to write a book. I can’t have a tantrum in January and decide to paint instead. So I need to be able to adapt my battle plan as I go, and not imagine unreal defeats (as Helmuth Von Moltke might say) if I lose a few soldiers on the way.

After arriving in Buenos Aires in the last days of August, I found a copy of the novel Amulet by Roberto Bolaño in a tiny bookshop in San Telmo. I hadn’t intended to start my book with Bolaño at the front of my mind and this wasn’t even (apparently) one of his best, but I read the book in a night, something about it wouldn’t leave me alone, and then suddenly could see a way for a copy of the novel to find its way into the hands of my protagonist, Emilia Moya. (Name since changed to Gabriela.) Yes, I thought, this book, about a Uruguayan woman trapped in a University during a massacre in the 1960s, has parallels with the life I imagined for my Chilean heroine. They are both isolated and brave, but deluded too. They are self-critical. They believe they are imposters. And then I had the idea that the book could be given to her as a present on the day she leaves her job. Which just so happens to be, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Emilia (soon to be Gabriela) would take the same route as me across Chile. And like me, her thoughts and feelings about her connection to the place would have to change, dependent on what she found. All I had to do was go looking, and expect change, at least in the earlier stages. Battle plans become less relevant as the fight goes on. If you’re lucky, you can learn to survive on your instincts.

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. (The most famous victim was the musician Victor Jara, whose music can be heard in bars, at house parties and at political demonstrations up to this day. Every bone in his hands was broken, so he could no longer play guitar. When he kept singing in the face of torture, they cut out his tongue.) If you go to La Moneda in Santiago, the government palace which was stormed by the army on 11th September 1973, you still see photographs and flyers relating to the missing, under the words, Donde estan? Or, Where are they? So I wanted to be here to witness the anniversary.

It might seem at first glance as if these events could seem remote for some younger Chileans, especially the generations who are too young to remember the dictatorship. But it is the student population which is the most politically active section of society, currently in between a series of sustained strikes aimed at cheaper education for the masses. Meanwhile, there is an election due in November, between two leading candidates, ex-Presidenta Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. Aside from this being notable for being a rare contest between two women in a continent with a reputation for the dominance of machismo, the history of the respective candidates also brings the 40th anniversary of ‘Onze de Septiembre’, sharp into focus. Bachelet, the candidate of the moderate left, is the daughter of a man who was tortured by the Pinochet regime in those dark days of the 1970s. Matthei, the candidate of the moderate right, is the daughter of a man accused of perpetrating torture under Pinochet.

As the newspapers and television polls made clear in the days before the anniversary, this is a complicated legacy, and not everyone agrees about whether the coup was a force for good or evil. The majority of Chileans believe the overthrow of a democratically elected socialist leader was the most difficult hour in their history, but a less vocal minority think that Allende, friend of Cuba, was a Marxist, and that the Marxist threat had to be defeated. This needs to be seen in the context of the Cold War, also the fact that some Chileans say the economic policies of the Pinochet regime (for example, privatising the crucial copper industry, also employing US economists to develop economic strategy) has led to Chile being the country it is today, one of the most stable and prosperous in Latin America. Stable and prosperous, yes, but that doesn’t stop annual rioting in the poorest areas of Santiago, every 11th September, by people who are still calling for a basic standing of living. Also there are regular protests by left wingers who are calling for the abolition of the Chilean constitution which still, amazingly, survives from Pinochet’s era. For an outsider, it is impossible to appreciate all these issues in a short space of time, or to understand what all this means in 2013, but it is possible to listen, read, watch, and to hear individual stories. Which is what I’ve set out to do.

During the anniversary week I travelled towards Santiago, the vast, sprawling multicultural capital, and spent the day of the 40th anniversary at the Museum of Human Rights, a large metallic building right in the heart of the notorious Barrio Brasil. It looks vaguely military in nature, as if it is a leftover bomb or artefact from some battle, though the square outside has a very different feel, being the UN Declaration of Human Rights carved into a large wall. The ground floor of the museum is dedicated to a large map of the world, where the countries highlighted are ones where human rights atrocities have been committed in recent decades – to see just how many places light up is dazzling. The ground floor also houses copies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on Chile, written after the end of the dictatorship in 1990. Above this, on the first floor, the story of the Chilean coup begins, including a minute by minute report of how the army took control of the state on 11th September, starting with the takeover of the port city of Valparaiso at dawn (where the military ships are docked) going on to describe the assault on the government palace (twenty bombs in fifteen minutes, including one smashing the front entrance apart, while the President and staff were inside) and ending with two films: one of Pinochet’s press conference explaining the reasons for the coup and claiming moral authority, the second being eye witness statements from those were both inside and outside the palace on that day. The audio of Allende’s final speech to the nation, given live on the radio, unscripted, while the bombs were falling around him, is also available in the museum. Whichever side of the political divide Chilean visitors are on, it must be hard for them to listen to it. Which makes what happened next notable. It wasn’t in my battle plan for the day, but I ended up seeing that speech delivered live, several times, by a ghost, outside the Museum of Human Rights.

I think it was a live art exhibition of some kind, though there was no announcement to explain what we were about to see. Chairs were laid out in front of the entrance to the museum, roses scattered on the pavement to represent bloodshed, and twenty participants lined up in pairs, holding white handkerchiefs in the air. The sound of bombs crashing into buildings and sirens filled the air, coming from the speakers nearby. A large pair of broken glasses, just like the trademark ones Allende used to wear but as tall as a giant, stood outside the museum’s front entrance. Then a man dressed as Allende took the central seat, as the Santiago crowds slowly gathered round, looking to see what was happening. I was slow to notice it, but eventually realised the man dressed as Allende was wearing a suit covered in flour. He began to deliver his final speech, the one playing on repeat in the museum, and finished, as in that, with ‘Viva Chile!’ Then he walked off the stage. A roar went up and the participants sat down in the chairs which had been laid out, which were also set out in pairs. Then each participant walked into the audience, which was now large, and took the hand of someone who they led to a chair. After that, things happened quietly. Each participant seemed to be reading something to the audience member, though the rest of us weren’t meant to hear it. Why? I kept waiting for something to be explained, but perhaps we were supposed to imagine it for ourselves. So I imagined that the stories of those who were affected by the day of the coup were being told by the participants, to their selected partners, each story being delivered to an audience of one so the audience could not hide. I looked at those listening, and wondering if they could understand, if they were from here or were tourists like me, brought up so many miles away, believing the only 11th of September happened in this century, in North America. I wondered if the families of the disappeared were somewhere in the audience, and if so, whether they might be hoping to be selected to take part. Before I knew it, the whole process was over, the selected audience members were back in the throng, now swelling visibly. And then what? Well, then it all started again. The ghost of Allende reappeared and made his appeal once again. The white handkerchiefs were held high once again. I thought, would this go on all day? Then I thought, what would my character make of all this, if she stumbled across this? I hadn’t imagined, in my original battle plan, that she would see this event, I couldn’t have known it was coming and I still can’t visualise exactly how it will play a part in the novel. But it will feed in somehow, and I won’t forget it.

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: Monday, October 28th, 2013.