Donoso's Vague Chile
By Jose Donoso, $18.95
New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 310 pp.
PUBLISHED nearly 15 years after the Chilean coup that replaced Salvador Allende's democratically elected government with a military regime, Jose Donoso's Curfew explores the harsh realities that comprise life for the millions of citizens surviving under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. A grim portrait of terror, machine guns, armored trucks and unresolved murders, Curfew presents the life of those protesting the Pinochet government, and criticizes not only the mechanisms of the government but also the solutions of the Left.
It is with a series of careful character sketches, a rapidly moving plot, and detailed scene descriptions that Donoso's novel moves, sometimes tortorously and awkwardly, as if trying to imitate the horrific lives of the people it portrays. Within Curfew's chapters of machine guns and blood, moreover, Donoso's novel proves that even in an area where police stand on every street corner and seem planted for protection, it is unclear who is the object of their guard. In Donoso's Chile nothing is sacred, no one is safe, and even love perishes in the face of political complications and desires.
Curfew's plot centers on the wake and funeral of Matilde Neruda, widow of the Nobel Laurate Pablo Neruda, who was also a well known communist and recipient of the Stalin Prize. During the course of the wake, a debate ensues as to whether the widow's last wishes should be granted.
Having received extreme unction from a Catholic priest in Houston, Texas, Matilde asks her friend Ada Luz to ensure that one of the "revolutionary priests from the slums" say mass upon her death. Such wishes, however, conflict with the desires of the communist party, which, under the direction of Lisboa, wants to turn the funeral into a leftist manifestation of power without competition from the Church.
The arguing becomes complicated upon the arrival of government official Freddy Fox, who holds the authorization for the Pablo Neruda Foundation, which is to be created upon Matilde's death. He tells the communists that if they deny the dead woman's wishes and allow all leftist groups to converge on the cemetery under no specific leadership and without the church, he will authorize the Foundation. Lisboa's group accepts, but Fox meanwhile calls hundreds of police troops to surround the cemetery and to take notes on the leftists in attendance. The communists achieve their foundation, but they compromise their secrecy and power in doing so.
Curfew's action also revolves around the character of Manungo Vera, an ex-patriate hippi rock star who has returned from France in time for the widow's funeral. Once a member of that Leftist clique that so desperately wants to stage the funeral as if it were a communist demonstration, Vera has spent time in France enjoying fame, fortune, and a respite from the horrors of current Chilean life. Accompanied by his thoroughly French son, Jean-Paul, Manungo revives his ambiguities concerning Chilean politics and the Left, becoming ensnared in the political longings that, according to Donoso, inevitably catch up with all Chileans. In the process he becomes involved in an affair with a former lover, Judit Torre, an elite Chilean who seeks to avenge her rape and torture while imprisoned for political activism several years earlier.
Together they set out to find the perpetrator of her rape, staying out past curfew, midnight, in hopes of shooting the military official. Vera and Torre must hide in bushes from the armored patrol cars that roam the streets with a license to kill anything that moves, and in the process they revive their relationship of years before. They also discuss the inner conflicts--Torre torn between her aristocratic heritage and her love for her people, and Vera confused between his distance from Chile and his desire to help.
The climax of the novel occurs at the actual funeral of Matilde Neruda. Thousands of communists, Leftists and friends converge on the local cemetery to protest and to show respect for the dead, including the perennial drunkard Juan Lopez, or Lopito, as he is known to his friends including Vera and Torre. Angered by a policeman's laughter at his incredibly ugly and clumsy daughter, Lopito picks a fight with the machine gun man and is put in jail without bail.
Vera and Torre attempt to secure Lopito's release, but they realize only too late that they are helpless in the government's insidious tangle of lies and deception. Although he is too weak to move, the police force Lopito to push a heavy cement roller across a basketball court, but he collapses and dies. Torre witnesses the entire scene, but even though she calls in her cousin, who is Freddy Fox, she and Vera are too late. Even Fox is powerless in the face of the cackling doctor, who signs Lopito's death certificate saying he died of an innocent heart attack in jail.
Disgusted with Chilean politics, Torre and Vera resolve to go to France to be together for the rest of their lives. Vera, however, realizes he cannot deny his roots, and he travels south to find his father. For her part, Torre finds she is not strong enough to abandon her life-long work as an activist to take care of Vera's child and Lopito's ugly little girl. Resolving to work again for freedom in her country, she leaps out of Vera's car and consequently throws potential love and happiness out of her life.
If Curfew's plot skips around, it seems intentional. By making events take on an almost haphazard quality, Donoso shows that to live under a military dictatorship is to learn that death, imprisonment and torture are unregulated and arbitrary things. Though the action is somewhat difficult to follow, the novel itself is intriguing, and one can only hope that Donoso's words will inspire a new generation of Chileans to fight for the freedom and love they deserve.