A new edition of Clandestine in Chile, with a preface by Francisco Goldman, is published in July by NYRB Classics.

Subversive mission of a middle-aged enthusiast

Clandestine in Chile was written in 1985, during a period of peak activity in Gabriel García Márquez's life. The book tells the story of the exiled Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littín's secret return to Chile, twelve years after the coup against Salvador Allende, to direct a documentary film about life under the Pinochet military dictatorship. The adventure was a success: Littín, despite several close calls, wasn't caught and managed to return to his editing room in Spain with 100,000 feet of film. García Márquez interviewed him for eighteen hours, and then, ostensibly using only Littín's own words, whittled six hundred pages of transcript down into a tight and seamless narrative. If Clandestine in Chile was written as an act of personal revenge against Pinochet, the reader might well have expected a more polemical book, or one that obviously expects to arouse horror and indignation. But the book is instead like a forlorn and deadpan comedy, offering only small portions of the direness or cruelty of life under that dictatorship, as if its author could not bring himself to recount cruelties he assumed his readers were already familiar with.

Though, of course, neither Littín nor García Márquez could have known it, in two years Pinochet would be denied another term as president in a national referendum. The ballyhooed economic prosperity of the "Miracle of Chile" had taken hold, however grim life may have remained for many workers and the poor. The Chile captured as if in subjective snapshots in Clandestine in Chile seems a fairly passive, resigned, joyless place, yet Littín proves to be hardly immune to the allure of that prosperity. The population may seem dispirited compared to what he remembers and at times paranoid, but also comfortably disillusioned and patient, as if that population also possesses a secret, a perhaps infinitely cynical secret, that returning exiles never immediately grasp. Littín briefly finds himself reflecting that he could easily live quietly in this country. He and the teams of filmmakers he deploys like a spymaster throughout the country never seem to be in any real danger. There is some suspense over Littín's being unmasked, but one senses it would lead to nothing graver than his expulsion from the country; the reign of terror in this locked-up Chile seems to have subsided. There is little in this book that might disturb the tranquillity of those who argue that, on balance, the coup and the Pinochet dictatorship were worth enduring because of the relative prosperity and stability, and the return to democratic rule that was its undeniable result.

Bolaño's novels of Chile, Distant Star and By Night in Chile, were not written to further any ideological cause, but you will never have to read anything else to understand what evil was committed under Pinochet. Clandestine in Chile, ostensibly written precisely to further the cause of resistance to Pinochet's dictatorship, contributes no really memorable scene or image that conveys the horror of the military rule. The narrative, like its main character, moves about Chile's melancholy back alleys like an observant mouse, sniffing for something. That modesty may seem paradoxically at odds with the filmmaker's stated ambitions, but it more accurately reflects Littín's personality, as we are given it here, and the true meaning of his story. It is an intimate and likeably odd little tale about a successful filmmaker who gives up the comforts of his European life to infiltrate Chile in disguise in order to make a documentary film whose ambitions seem now to have been belated and even absurd. Somebody must have thought that this film – which appeared when Pinochet's dictatorship was nearing its end – had great potential to damage the regime and to fill cinemas, considering the enormous logistical effort and, I imagine, all the money that was spent to make it. The filming was carried out like a secret invasion. Three film crews were simultaneously deployed, French, Italian and Dutch, each oblivious of the others' existence, like separate guerrilla cells, dispatched to various parts of the county and supplied with covers such as having come to Chile to film a perfume ad; these foreigners were abetted by as many as six Popular Front-supplied Chilean crews. For this adventure, Littín underwent an extreme makeover: his eyebrows were plucked, he lost a lot of weight, and he had his hair completely restyled. He was taught to dress and speak in the manner of a well-heeled Uruguayan businessman, and was provided with voice coaches and also with a fake wife with whom he rehearsed as if for the film role of the century, a woman from the Popular Front whom he'd never met before and never met again, and whom apparently he really didn't like much.

The disguise was so successful that it even completely fooled Littín's mother, who responded, "You must be a friend of my son," when he surprised her with a visit at home in the provincial town where he grew up. The book's most moving scene, surely its defining one, is not one that exposes the savagery of Pinochet's dictatorship but one that implicitly reveals the sad toll of years of exile and, as the reader finally discovers at the end of the encounter, the heartbreaking devotion of mothers.

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