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Richard Eder

In Chile No Hope Is a Good Beginning : CHILE Death in the South by Jacobo Timerman; translated by Robert Cox (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.95; 130 pp.)

December 20, 1987| Richard Eder

Someone whose fingernails have been torn out can use his hands only with vehemence; only with gentleness.

Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine editor who was abducted under the dictatorship, held incognito and tortured, has been, ever since, one of the most piercing voices raised against the state brutalities of our times. He is dramatic, graphic and concrete; his writing is memorable in its ability to convey passion and wit in terms of everyday incongruities.

Timerman's style is extreme. His message, on the other hand, is of a moderation, even a benignity, that startles in its contrast.

His report on Chile shows both of these traits. The aberrant quality of life under the 14-year-old dictatorship is conveyed in sharp and sometimes bizarre detail; at the same time, Timerman's prescriptions for a solution are low-keyed, and dramatic only in their avoidance of drama.

At his best, the author uses words as though they were picks and shovels, and he were excavating a living person from the ground; not only to rescue him, but also to establish his exact name.

So he begins his book trying to suggest the particular quality of being Chilean. Chileans, he writes, speak incessantly of their country. "They know it represents fear and trembling, but they believe in the magic of the name.

"Chileans say that life goes on in the churches, the courtrooms and the cemeteries. The rest is survival. They will survive General Pinochet and the dictatorship because on the other side of their bondage is Chile."

Timerman alludes here and there to the spectacular repressions of the years immediately following the overthrow and death of Salvador Allende. He tells of the general who toured the countryside by helicopter, shooting groups of leftists and peasant leaders each time he touched down. He writes of the unconventional arrival at his post of the rector of the University of Santiago, newly appointed by the military government. An air force general, he landed by parachute, high-polished boots first.

The author is mainly concerned, though, with a much more economical repression that followed. It was not selective--which, after all, requires considerable energy and thought--as much as deliberately hit-or-miss. Thus, a well-born woman writer, with a relatively minor role in the human rights movement, answered a knock one day and was promptly beaten up by two plainclothesmen on her door step. ( Pour encourager les autres .)

A partial repression can be as effective as a total one; and much easier to keep going. Timerman, with his experience with other dictatorships, notes with bemusement that in Chile there is a vigorous opposition press and even radio.

There is also an active cultural life; most particularly in the theater, where numerous small companies put on work that more or less openly denounce the current situation. It is high-brow stuff and runs no risk of bringing the masses out onto the streets.

It is perfectly possible, Timerman writes, for the intellectual opposition to live in what he calls "The Alternative Life." By tolerating it, the government keeps tensions from building up. And once in a while, the longish leash is jerked tight. During an artistic gala at one of the cultural centers, the front door opened, a shot was fired into a stained glass window, and the door was shut again. Just a few weeks ago, a number of leading theater people received death threats.

Timerman cites figures that make dramatically clear the extent to which the military takeover has served to transfer income from the poor to the rich. In 15 years, he writes, the total national income declined 15%. In the same period, the income of the wealthiest 20% of the population increased 30%. That of the poorest 40% declined 50%. For its part, the military has become a separate, privileged society, with economic incentives carefully scaled to benefit everyone from the rank of corporal upward.

As for Pinochet, with elections of some kind due to take place, he has been changing his image from that of severe autocrat to that of benevolent grandfather. His supporters are beginning to distribute selective patronage in tactical fashion.

Meanwhile, the Democratic opposition, though united in calling for Pinochet's departure, has been unable to agree on a common program. Such a program, Timerman writes, would not persuade the general to leave, but it would transform and revitalize the stagnant political climate. Also, he continues: "It might have made the politicians abandon the magic world in which they go on believing that what has happened could never happen."

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