Saturday, 8 March 2014

Book review: Carmen Castillo's Un día de octubre en Santiago

Carmen Castillo, Santiago de Chile: Ein Tag im Oktober (Rowohlt, 1981, trans. from the French by Anna Kamp) (out of print in German but used copies available; Spanish edition available for Kindle - no English translation, as far as I can tell)

I was walking home a few weeks ago when I passed a house with various old books laid out on the windowsill. It's quite common here to put unwanted items outside for people to help themselves if they want them, so of course I took a look at the rather bashed-up offerings and this caught my eye.

I initially thought it was a novel, but when I started reading I realised it was a memoir of a Chilean militant who went underground after the 1973 coup and eventually went into exile in France. Carmen Castillo was a member of the leftist Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) and married to its co-founder, Andrés Pascal Allende (nephew of Salvador Allende). She went underground with another MIR leader, Miguel Enríquez, who was killed by the DINA (secret police) on 5 October 1974. This is the "day in October" referred to in the title of the book. Castillo, who was pregnant, was wounded in the attack that brought down Enríquez. She was detained for some time but eventually allowed to leave the country. Her baby was born in England but only lived for a few weeks. She wrote the book while living in Paris.

Castillo describes her life in hiding, the torture undergone by her comrades, and what various people were doing on the 5 October, the momentous day when Miguel was killed. The book is only about 150 pages long and her prose is sparse, but not unfeeling. The passages about the torture suffered by the militants are difficult to read, but the admiration Castillo feels for the bonds of loyalty between her comrades is very clear. A more ambiguous character is "la flaca Alejandra", an MIR militant who works for the DINA following her capture. Castillo does not merely condemn this treachery, she describes Alejandra's physical condition and her explanation that, when the DINA take her out on the street to point out MIR members, her uncontrollable trembling alerts her captors to the fact that she has recognised someone.

The book is interesting for several reasons: Castillo knew many important figures in the MIR and describes them as personal friends, not just as historic personalities; for the same reason, it can be somewhat confusing for the reader even with the translator's notes. She is also writing from the perspective of exile and grapples with the question of returning to dictatorship-era Chile (which, in the end, she did not). I had never previously really considered the practicalities of guerrilla movements in the pre-digital age: the assigned meeting points and back-up meeting points, the secret messages, the struggle to secure a safe house, the need to be able to rely on one's comrades. In a note to them at the end of the text, Castillo writes that "this is not a political book, but it does tell a political story". She sums it up well.

Castillo later became a documentary filmmaker; I haven't seen any of her work, but I will now seek it out.

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