What happened in a provincial town during the early days of the Pinochet regime.
Twenty years after the coup that toppled Salvador Allende’s government, Laura Larco returns to Pampa Hundida. A young judge there in 1973 when the soldiers rolled in, Laura fled abroad a few months later. Now she has come home to resume her judicial post, carrying in her briefcase a manuscript written in response to her daughter Claudia’s angry question, “Where were you, Mamá, when all those horrible things were taking place in your city?” Born in Berlin, Claudia has come to Chile “to serve justice” and make sure wrongdoers are punished in the restored democracy. But guilt and innocence are not easily defined, we see as Franz interweaves the events that unfold following Laura’s return with her memories of the town’s ordeal in 1973. The brutal Major Cáceres relied on the terrified complicity of Pampa Hundida’s authorities as he executed political prisoners in a camp on the outskirts of town, and he established an unnerving bond with Laura, fearfully attracted to him from the moment she stormed into the church where he was praying to denounce his violations of the law. Past and present narratives build to a joint climax, as Laura learns of the terrible intimacy between a torturer and his victim, as well as the willingness of ordinary people to benefit from evil deeds. Revelations of Cáceres’ crimes threaten to discredit the annual religious fiesta that by 1993 is the primary source of Pampa Hundida’s economic well-being. Wouldn’t it be better, the nervous mayor asks Laura, just to let old wounds heal? By contrast Cáceres, disfigured and half-insane, looks to her to judge him. The course of action she chooses is as unpredictable as everything else in Franz’s superbly plotted novel, which invokes the ancient gods of Chile’s indigenous people, as well as the eternal opposition between humanity’s Apollonian and Dionysian instincts, to remind us that all judgments are partial and compromised.
Dark, brilliant and disturbing. Let’s hope this first U.S. publication for Chilean novelist Franz will be followed by many more.