A NOTE ABOUT EXILE
PERHAPS IT was inevitable. Because I have lost my country three times in the course of one lifetime, the attempts at self-scrutiny that habitually accompany human existence have, in my case, been forced to grow and ripen through the fragmentation of many arrivals, returns, and departures, complicating the natural intricacies that every exercise in remembering, every memoir, already faces. Life may unfold chronologically for the body and for bureaucracies that keep track of such things as births, marriages, deaths, visas, tax returns, expulsions, and identity cards, but memory does not play this game in quite the same way, always manages to confound the desire for tidiness. And so, for readers who might feel perplexed as they accompany the protagonist in his struggle to find a way in and out of a labyrinth of recollections, a timeline, fixing the major events into a semblance of order, has been added at the end of this book. I don’t necessarily recommend that readers consult that chronology. But how could I, of all people, deny to those who wander in the desert a stable glimpse of stars that can perhaps guide them to a safe haven?
AS A CHILD, I would often dream of surviving my own death.
Lying there alone in the dark, I’d imagine what it would be like to watch my body stretched out on a bed, and everyone so sad, and all the while I’d be invisibly nearby, eager to jump out from the other side of immortality. Gone from this world for just a few hours and then mischievously alive again, ready to witness the bewilderment of the living when I’d resurrect, Hey, look at me.
Of course, when the opportunity finally did arise, when the day came many decades later and I heard a voice tell me that I was dead, that according to a newswire my body had been discovered that day, September 12, 1986, in a ditch on the outskirts of Santiago, hands tied behind my back and throat slit, it turned out that to witness my own death was less amusing than my childhood fantasies had anticipated.
Not that the news itself was that surprising. After all, I had been returning on and off to hazardous, dictatorial Chile for three years, ever since the military had allowed me back in 1983 after a decade in exile; so anything and everything could have happened to me there, but not now, not now that I was teaching a semester at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, safely ensconced in the office where the reporter from United Press International had tracked me down—could I comment, please, on the fact that I had died?
“The reports of my death,” I said to him, “have been greatly exaggerated.”
A moment after I’d delivered that deliciously absurd sentence of Mark Twain’s, I began to feel sick. The humor had put a cautious, witty distance between myself and somebody else’s death, and postponed the need to ask the question: If I hadn’t been murdered—at least not yet—then whose throat had been slit in that ditch in Santiago?
I learned the answer soon enough, but first had to respond to another telephone call—from my mother in Buenos Aires, desperate because she’d been contacted by some callous journalist seeking a statement on her son’s assassination. Having reassured her that I was very much alive, my thoughts went out to another mother; there had to be a woman in Chile who could not explain away that killing, a woman who was at that very moment overwhelmed with grief, a woman, a wife, a sister. I had been infected enough by recent history to know that in times of tyranny it is mostly the men who do the dying and the women who do the mourning.
Somebody real had died in Santiago.
His name was Abraham Muskatblit.
On September 7, 1986, just five days before that macabre telephone call, a small ultra-left guerrilla commando had come within inches of slaying Chile’s dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. A massive and peaceful movement in opposition to Pinochet had been growing in strength, and the military took advantage of that attack to clamp down on dissidents of all stripes.
As I watched the repression unfold from afar, my weird hope was that my friends in Chile would be taken to prison, the only safe place in a country where men in ski masks, bent on revenge, were breaking down doors and kidnapping citizens. By the afternoon of September 8, bodies began to turn up all over Santiago.
Among the dead was Pepe Carrasco. I had taught him the delights of Don Quixote at the University of Chile when he had been one of my students in the early sixties. Though he had afterwards abandoned literature for the more urgent career of journalism, we had not lost contact, nor our shared love for Cervantes. In fact, when we’d managed to meet the few times I’d been able to visit Chile since 1983, I would jokingly call him Sansón, an allusion to another Carrasco, the barber in the Quixote.
“Sansón, Sansón,” I had called out one afternoon in Santiago a few months before he was executed, when I’d noticed him at the edge of a crowd that had gathered for the funeral of a student killed by the police. Pepe was accompanied by two sons just arrived from Mexico, where the family had been exiled. “This is the man,” he said to them, pointing at me, “who taught me to tilt at windmills.” The extent of our last conversation. Tear gas and batons broke up the throng of mourners, but I’d managed to send a farewell gift to Pepe Carrasco, the same words for everybody in Chile those days: Cuídate, Sansón. I asked my friend to take care of himself.
As if by pronouncing those syllables, naming the danger, we could conjure it away.
Now it was his funeral being carried out in Santiago and I wasn’t there to attend it. That the circumstances were so familiar only made them more painful. We seemed to be trapped in an incessant repetition of the 1973 coup, when the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende had been brought down. Now, again, thousands were being hunted down, and again it was impossible to ferret out their fate, even to speak openly on the telephone. The wife of one of my friends was enigmatic when I called from abroad. “Jaime let me know that he’s sleeping with his clothes on,” she said. I completed her words with my own thought, just in case . . .
Because I’d already been told that Pepe Carrasco’s captors hadn’t let him dress before they hauled him away. No te pongas los zapatos, they said to him. No te van a hacer falta. Don’t bother to put on your shoes. You won’t be needing them.
And two days later, the news of my fraudulent demise had arrived, flowing and bleeding into the slow and endless death of Chile itself.
I felt like a ghost, and not only because I could not intervene in what was happening in that country of mine to the south of nowhere, change any of it. A ghost because I couldn’t remember a time when there were other forms of passing away, when people died of old age or of sickness or in car accidents. Because everyone who had received the announcement of my execution hadn’t for a moment doubted its veracity; every last person had considered a murder of this kind to be a most natural, indeed almost normal, occurrence.
Death had violently entered my life forever on September 11, 1973, the day of the military takeover. I had been able to escape the carnage due to a chain of miraculous coincidences that had kept me away from La Moneda, the presidential palace, where I’d been working as the cultural and press adviser to Allende’s chief of staff. But luck would take me only so far. The Chilean Resistance—hammered out of the remnants of the Unidad Popular parties that had accompanied Allende’s presidency and were fighting to continue to struggle under extreme duress—had ordered me to leave the country, and I had eventually, and reluctantly, made my way into exile. Nevertheless, I could never shake the sense that I was living on borrowed time, that a death was awaiting me in Santiago. Barely a few months before I was informed of my execution in Santiago, Jesse Helms, an ultra-right-wing Republican senator from North Carolina, had denounced me on the Senate floor and offered a dossier on my travels that could only have been culled by Pinochet’s secret police, could only have existed if those men were spying on me. Maybe I was in danger. Hadn’t Pinochet targeted opponents in Mexico, blown up Orlando Letelier, Allende’s minister of defense, in Washington? Hadn’t his neofascist allies stabbed a prominent Chilean in the streets of Rome? Was this a premonition of things to come, a night in my future when I would be transformed into a real ghost?
I fought back against my phantom circumstance with the weapon I had been brandishing since childhood to defeat the threat of my own extinction: I began to tell the story, transmit
the lives of those who could not speak, either because they were dead like Pepe or because they were silenced like my imprisoned compañeros.
And I did so in English, the lingua franca of our era, which might give me access to the decision-making elite of the United States. And what of Spanish? The Spanish in which Pepe had died, the Spanish of his tormentors as they approached him, the Spanish that awaited me, along with my possible death, as soon as I returned to the Santiago of death squads, what of the Spanish spilling out of me and inside me? The Spanish that needed to tell the story as well, in the language of the victims, in the language of the perpetrators, so the community and the country would not forget, so the terror could be tamed with words? The Spanish of Borges suggesting that the future was an indecipherable book that we are unable to read until fate has brought us face to face with the man who will murder us? The Spanish of García Márquez and his hope that death might someday not be foretold, una muerte anunciada? The Spanish of García Lorca as he looked straight at the firing squad, the Spanish he whispered to name the ditch, la zanja, into which his body would be cast?
Spanish would get its turn. I promised my Spanish that I would get to its ambivalent sweet syllables as soon as I dispatched the article on my false death in English. The Spanish I had been born into had, by then, learned patience and tolerance, the advantages of sharing its breath with a rival tongue, had learned to cohabit in a civil way with the English zone of myself.
It had not always been like this.
It was in a New York hospital in the winter of 1945 and on a day I do not remember that I had renounced the language of my parents. An Argentine child of two and a half only recently arrived at the cold desolation of wartime Manhattan, I had caught pneumonia and, after three weeks of confinement in a hospital ward, had toddled out sane in body and probably insane in mind, unwilling to speak a word of my mother tongue, unable even to this day to recall the loneliness I must have endured under those white monolingual walls where I embraced English forever. Though forever is a dangerous word for anyone belonging to a family of perpetual wanderers. In 1954, McCarthyism forced my father to flee the United States (just as fascism had previously forced him to leave Argentina), and the family trailed him to a Chile where everyone spoke Spanish, that dreaded, despicable, alien tongue. It took me a while, but ever so slowly I fell in love with the land and the language and, ultimately, with one woman, Angélica. I also fell in love with the peaceful revolution led by Salvador Allende, so by the time he had won the elections in 1970, I had reappropriated the word forever: I would live and die forever, para siempre, in that one country of my dreams, I would see social justice in all of Latin America, I would not need to speak or write in English, not ever again, a language that my febrile radical brain identified with imperialism and U.S. domination. Nor did my attitude change when the 1973 coup ferociously descended upon me and my people, and I was flung into an exile I did not desire. I would stay faithful to my Spanish, I told myself. I would return in glory, en gloria y majestad, to Chile. Along with my people, mi pueblo, I would emerge, we would emerge, from the shadows. Saldremos de las sombras.
In July of 1990, when the dictatorship ended and I returned to Chile in what I thought was a final homecoming, it seemed that my prophecies had come true, it seemed that my exile was over.
History had other plans. Six months after our arrival in Santiago, Angélica and I packed our bags one more time and headed north—and here I am, twenty years later, sitting in my study in North Carolina, writing this introduction in English, far from Chile and far from the young exile who swore that some things are forever, here I am, living in a land defined by a second September 11 and yet another act of terror. It is true that when I finish this text I will immediately turn to my Spanish, as I did that day when I was informed that I had been murdered in Chile. And it is true that I still predict that we shall, our species shall, someday emerge from the shadows.
And yet this is not the future I had imagined, this separation from my community, this mongrel heretic of language that I have become, this insurgent nomad of the earth who writes these words.
How did it come to pass? How did the exile I had been so intent on renouncing forge me into someone who could not find a way home? Why did my country not respond as I expected to my love affair with it? Who was to blame? Was it that land, the world, me? And how is it that I became a bridge for the multiple Americas so often at war in the outside world of murderous nations and forbidden borders? Was it necessary and even inevitable that I should end up thus, my Spanish and my English making love to each other inside me after so many years of fighting for my throat? Was there a deeper meaning or message in the maelstrom of my dislocations, had I learned a lesson worth sharing with others during these intense journeys to the South and then to the North, this back-and-forth of body and mind into which my existence has been transformed?
It has taken me many years to grapple with those baffling questions about my own identity. I made a first attempt in the mid-1990s to come to terms with the reasons why I always set out resolutely in one direction and ended up, over and over, taking a different, even opposite path, as if the sadistic demons of history were bent on playing with me and my expectations. But that book, Heading South, Looking North, only took me and the reader up to the coup of 1973 that forced me to flee Chile; it left the author dangling and about to start his exile, left many questions unanswered. I may have avoided tackling the decades of death and tenderness and solidarity and despair that followed because they were too painful to deal with, maybe I needed time to understand the hidden traumas of separation, the revelations that come to us when—as in the course of a terminal illness—we suddenly see in an entirely new light family and friends, light and darkness, betrayal and loyalty, power and responsibility.
Or maybe I was wise enough to know that we do not choose our books but, rather, they choose us, they are aware, sitting or seething quietly in the recesses of the heart, that their moment of birth will arrive only when the midwife, the birth canal, the many strands of creative copulation come together, demand relief and recognition and air. Waiting for the seeds that have been planted who knows how long ago—such a tired metaphor and yet so true—to ripen into words.
When was that moment for me? When did Feeding on Dreams start to swim towards these words I now write?
It must have been a vague day in 2006 when I accepted the suggestion of Peter Raymont, the renowned documentarian from Canada, that he film the story of my life in the three countries that had defined it. Or perhaps it was during the subsequent journey to the Argentina of my birth, to the Chile I had returned to and then left for good, to the New York I had never wanted to leave as a child, maybe it was while I retraced and filmed my steps that some earthquake of language began to shudder me into the need to make final sense of my existence, to attempt to resolve in my literature what my life had denied me, craft some illusion of home and stability, some sort of pattern behind and inside and beyond my incessant drifting from language to language and land to land, the fate of so many in our times, so many in our forgotten past.
The project was given more urgency, I believe, by the events of 9/11 in the United States, that strange and terrible Tuesday when my life was torn asunder again as death surged from the sky, the second September 11 of desolation I had experienced. More urgency because that day confronted the citizens of the land where I lived, where I had made my home with Angélica and our two sons, where my granddaughters were born, it forced the United States, and therefore the world as well, to confront the major questions about violence and forgiveness, memory and justice, tolerance and terror, that I had been working through with my fellow Chileans and fellow exiles for a good part of my life. More urgency because we live in times when, in some twisted sense, we are all exiles, all of us like a motherless child a long way from home, times when we are threatened with annihilation if we do not find and celebrate the refuge of a common humanity, as I believe I did during my decades of loss and resurrection.
So here is my story.
As near to an understanding as I can achieve.
It is, above all else, I suppose, the story of how I tried to defeat death in the late twentieth century, what I would like to remain behind when it comes for me and I won’t be around to state that, alas, the reports of my death have not, after all, been that greatly exaggerated.