Timerman on Pinochet's Chile

Chile, Death in the South, by Jacobo Timerman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 131 pages. $15.95. The name of Jacobo Timerman is well known to the international community of journalists. From the pages of La Opini'on, the newspaper he founded in 1971 and directed until 1977, Timerman denounced the violations of human rights committed by the Argentine military dictatorship as well as subversive political groups of the extreme left.

La Opini'on and the Buenos Aires Herald were the only newspapers that dared to denounce the disappearances that were occurring in Argentina during the years of the military dictatorship: 1976 to 1984. Timerman's valiant voice caused his arrest in 1977.

For 30 months, he was detained, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement. As a result of international efforts, he was released in 1979, but was forced to leave Argentina.

One of the most poignant testimonies ever written by a political prisoner, ``Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,'' is his story of that period.

With the publication of this book, the crimes of the Argentine military could no longer be hidden, and Timerman contributed to the awakening of the dormant conscience of the world to torture.

With the advent of a democratic government in Argentina, the Ukrainian-born journalist returned to Buenos Aires. Always a controversial figure in political circles of the extreme right and left, Timerman has even been accused of being a Peronist supporter, an accusation he denies. He continues to write passionately about what touches him deeply.

The theme of ``Death in the South,'' his most recent work, is neighboring Chile. This is neither journalism nor fiction, but rather personal reflections, vignettes, and subjective recollections of his own vision of life in Chile under the military reign of Augusto Pinochet, which began in 1973.

The voice that narrates in ``Death in the South'' is personal and not at all objective.

Timerman observes Chilean society under Pinochet and focuses not on the fa,cade of normality that is found in most Chilean cities, or even the prosperity that exists in some upper-class neighborhoods but on the other Chile - the shantytowns where random abductions are common events. The Chilean military and their supporters equate poverty and misery with Marxism.

A world of soup kitchens, widows, the disappeared, hunger, random shooting, and hopelessness forms the essence of this brief but intense book. Timerman documents the several worlds that coexist simultaneously in Chile: the economically collapsing market of free trade, the alternate world fabricated for survival of the spirit as well as the body.

He speaks about intellectual and cultural endeavors that are very much alive in a censored society. Yet at times, his criticism of the cultural life in the country is superficial: ``The intellectuals are suffering from the one neurosis that is unacceptable in an artist: They are disguising what is going on around them before they have tried to understand it.'' Disguise is no more than a form of self-protection or imposed censorship in order to survive and therefore continue to create.

In another chapter, Timerman says, ``There has been growth in literature and art with themes of everyday life. But there is a scarcity of literature and art that probes below the surface in search of what is permanent. There is much artistic combativeness without creative depth.'' This statement is extremely personal and subjective. I must disagree with this comment, since one of the most important contributions to Chilean artistic life has developed out of the experience of dictatorship, and I am referring to artists living inside the country today such as Jos'e Donoso, Nicanor Parra, and Nemesio Antunez.

Commentaries such as the above, which treat the Chilean opposition lightly without exploring in depth the political complexities, may irritate, perplex, or confuse the reader. But one must keep in mind that this is an intensely personal contribution that ponders such questions as how the Chilean dictatorship operates and manages to stay so strong, and the political attachments of Chileans to the myth of Chile. Timerman asks all the questions we would like to ask; he doesn't have all the answers, either.

``Death in the Sun'' finishes with a pilgrimage to Pablo Neruda's house in Isla Negra. The poet's verses keep rising in the author's memory. Perhaps Neruda's poetry could be a Utopian way to combat tyranny and oppression. What better way to restore peace than with Neruda's verses?

Marjorie Agos'in teaches Spanish at Wellesley College.

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