Fifteen years have passed since the overthrow of Chile's last elected government, the Popular Unity regime of Salvador Allende. Other Latin American nations--Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia--have passed in this period from democracy through dictatorship to democracy again. Chile, however, which for more than half a century maintained one of the continent's proudest liberal traditions, has remained under the heel of the military. An entire generation has now matured beneath the gloomy authoritarianism of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
It is into this world that Jose Donoso, Chile's most famous living author, thrusts us into his new novel, "Curfew." Manungo Vera, a famous protest singer, returns to his native land after a 15-year Parisian exile. His relationship with the mother of his son at an end, his career in abeyance due both to a recurring tinnitus and a personal crisis before the prospect of middle age, he arrives in Santiago the day of the wake of Matilde Neruda, the widow of the nation's greatest poet, Pablo Neruda, dead himself in the earliest days of military rule.
In the 24 hours that follow, we witness Vera's re-entry into a world no longer his. At the wake of his old friend from the days of the Nerudas' residence in Paris, Vera is drawn to Judit Torre, a former revolutionary herself returned from exile, apparently reintegrated in the society and yet secretly involved in a complex and intensely personal conspiracy. At the Neruda house, amid the crowd of mourners, the two individually confront old comrades-in-arms, young radicals with romantic revolutionary visions, the privileged opposition distrusted by their more intensely politicized friends. Later, after a chance meeting on the street, Vera and Torre together come in contact with other elements of Pinochet's Chile: the ever-growing army of the country's dispossessed, ragtag ragpickers whose only hope must be apocalyptic revolution, as well as those who to a greater or lesser extent have made their peace with the gray and implacable monstrousness of institutionalized repression, informing, torture.
Donoso, who himself spent long years as an expatriate, documents the perverse effects of a decade and a half of dictatorship. A government which, as most of its ilk, sees itself as above politics, has created a society in which politics permeates and predetermines everything. He shows us the uneasy alliances and furious infighting among various factions of the Left, which reduces all the groups to equal impotence as the country stagnates in economic and spiritual torpor. Among the regime's supporters, meanwhile, there is an equivalent kind of jockeying, the peevish concern for minor privilege which can determine life or death for someone run afoul of the authorities. Trapped in a world in which, overtly, the personal is political and vice versa, in which one's fate can be determined by bad timing or caprice, Donoso's characters can make no plans, live with no assurance. Judit Torre, for example, embodies the contradictions of life in a military police state. Of privileged family, she nonetheless became a revolutionary and the companion of one of the movement's leaders. Captured, she was arbitrarily saved from rape, released from her secret prison by bureaucratic oversight, issued a passport by a sympathetic functionary himself later disappeared. Anxious for revenge for a violation that never in fact occurred, yet ravaged by a sense of unworthiness beside those who have suffered more gruesomely, she still imagines almost against her will a possible happiness with Manungo Vera in Paris: safe, distant, private. Vera is himself torn, tempted constantly to flee back to the Rue Sevastopol at the same time he is drawn further and further into the drama of his martyred homeland.
Unlike much of Donoso's other work, including his most famous, "The Obscene Bird of Night," this book depends little on the magical, on that dreamlike mix of the quotidian and the supernatural we have come to expect in much Latin American literature. Magic is here, however, woven sparingly throughout the text, and, is, finally, the sign of the very faint hope with which Donoso concludes. Magic. Children. Art.
These are perhaps the means by which Chile and its people may achieve some future redemption. Yet, this is a land, for the last 15 years, populated by people who "defined themselves through hatred, (and so) their lives gave them intolerable pain because of this sad mutilation history had imposed upon them." The novel ends not with love consummated, but merely with the notion that, in a day not too far distant, the word might be uttered aloud. It is a bleak but fitting conclusion to this dark and moving novel.
Donoso is fluently served by his translator, Alfred MacAdam, though, interestingly, "Curfew" is not what the book is called in Spanish. Perhaps the translation of the original title seemed to publishers here too grim or dramatic for the American audience, so many thousands of miles from the realities of Santiago. There, in Chile itself, the book is called "La Desesperanza." It means despair.