On 9/11—that haunting date—in the now-distant year of 1973, a right-wing coup d’état backed by the government of the United States overthrew the democratically elected government of Chilean president Salvador Allende, an avowed socialist. Allende died. A week later, so did his friend Pablo Neruda, as well as the great Chilean singer and poet Victor Jara. A general named Augusto Pinochet came to power, backed by a powerful military, and for the next two decades supporters of the Allende regime disappeared, ever so quietly, into a homegrown Gulag. Chile went dark and quiet, its thriving literature and pop culture silenced for a generation.
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Pinochet has been dead for four and a half years, with more than 300 criminal charges outstanding against him in international and domestic courts. His fascist government, having acceded to a plebiscite, fell from power in 1988, and Chile has been democratic ever since. Chileans still wrestle with the troubled Pinochet era, though, and it and its aftermath form the backdrop for Carlos Franz’s powerful novel The Absent Sea, published in Argentina in 2005 and just issued in English translation.
You were 14 years old when the Pinochet coup took place. Were you directly affected by the events?
No, I wasn’t affected directly. My small middle-class family opposed President Allende’s leftist government and celebrated the coup. I was against it, partly, I suppose, out of adolescent rebelliousness, but also because I saw in the aerial bombing of the governmental palace, which a few lightly armed supporters were defending, such a disproportionate use of force that even a child could sense something was very wrong in it. Laura, the main character in my novel, says something similar.
A few years later, my father disagreed with the military running Chilean diplomacy, his lifelong vocation, and he was subsequently expelled from his post. He fell into severe depression, became a chronic alcoholic and soon died in poverty at the age of 55. Those events destroyed my family. So, you see, I must correct my first assessment—I was affected by the coup. Even the nonvictims were affected by that historical trauma.
Are Laura, Claudia, Mariano, and your other characters modeled on people you know, or are they purely products of your imagination?
I suppose all fictional characters are, to certain extent, a mixture of experience and imagination. In my case, I am definitely inclined toward the imaginative source. While it is more difficult to create characters mostly from imagination, I feel freer working that way. And, more important, I suppose my characters feel and behave more freely.
Recent events in Spain surrounding the death of Federico Garcia Lorca and the search for the poet’s grave suggest, as William Faulkner said, that the past is not past. Did you feel any qualms about writing about recent events in Chilean history, when many of those who engineered the coup and subsequent terror are still alive?
I felt more unease for the victims. The Absent Sea is not a novel of denunciation, not even a political one—except in the sense that it is a “politically incorrect” novel. As I understood it, it is a modern tragedy. The sort of tragedy that George Steiner prophesied 50 years ago would be impossible to write anymore.
As such, I risked hurting legitimate feelings. The bad and the good appear intertwined in the soul of the hangman as much as in the heart of the judge and the victim. Laura feels that terrible attraction of the weak toward naked force. She associates with her torturer and even loves him. That instinct to survive at any cost isn’t an easy memory to be reminded of. Nonetheless, I’ve been approached by several people who told me, “I was there. I recognize that.” Better a hard truth than an embellished tale.
Most American readers, it seems safe to say, recognize the names Borges, Vargas Llosa and Garcia Marquez. Most, it also seems safe to say, don’t know many other South American writers, particularly those of your generation. Who are some of the younger South American writers that North American readers ought to know about?
There are several very good writers. In my generation, the Chilean Roberto Bolaño was the best, something that’s already recognized in the United States. But I won’t make a list. It would be too long, and I don’t like name-dropping.
Suffice it to say that the main traditions in South American narrative are in continuous evolution, blossoming in surprising new forms. The more intellectual trend in the Rio de la Plata basin [Borges et al.] is spreading all over the continent now, mixing with a strong tradition of social realism. There is a powerful new and cosmopolitan generation in Colombia and Peru writing without too much regard for national borders. South American literature is experiencing a new boom, of strong and diverse creativity, that leaves behind old clichés. It has been long overdue.
You seem to be quite at home in English. Have you ever written fiction in English or translated your own work, or contemplated doing so? Or do you prefer to write in Spanish and leave the translating to another person?
My “good English” I owe to my translators. I taught the language to myself when I was almost 30 years old, with the help of Webster’s dictionary and Hemingway’s spare prose. After 20 years, I am still toiling with my bookish and broken English. But, yes, I would like to write in it at some point. For reasons similar to those of Beckett when he switched to French: to streamline my style. Besides, it would be such a liberation to write in a language you know you won’t never fully master, so you don’t have to!