Last night I finished typing up the transcription of the half-hour long conversation I had with Chilean novelist Antonio Skarmeta. He is probably best known to all you hopeless romantics out there as the author of “El Cartero de Neruda,” which was adapted to the silver screen as “Il Postino” and took home the Oscar for best foreign film. I had the opportunity to speak with Skarmeta while he was in Los Angeles earlier this month. The acclaimed novelist was touring the United States with his newly translated book, “The Dancer and the Thief,” which he discussed at length on my program “Uprising.”
After the show, I invited Skarmeta for another interview to speak about his life in Chile before, during, and after the military coup of 1973. I engaged with humbled attentiveness the Gepeto-looking speckled storyteller who voice was tempered with the cadence of wisdom and a merriment of life a masterful artist of words possesses. The following is but a brief excerpt omitted from my final draft submission where we speak about the politics of memory in present day Chile.
San Blogman: Let’s talk about the politics of memory in modern Chilean society. This past December was the centennial of the labor massacre known as La Matanza Santa Maria de Iquique and there were multiple events in remembrance. What did that anniversary mean to Chileans, and to the politics of memory in a society in transition?
Skarmeta: You have to put this tragic episode in a frame of many tragic episodes of repression of the people of Chile along its history. It is not different to what has happened in many other Latin American countries. Now, Chileans, especially young people, have a political conscious and a sense of history so they remember. The media has analyzed the massacre and there have even been very powerful films about it. The episode is quite alive in the memory of Chile. You can put that episode in the same frame of the coup of Pinochet and other sad episodes.
San Blogman: When I look at modern Chilean society I see a revival of Mapuche activism with dramatic hunger fasts making demands upon the new government to release political prisoners and to remove the military off their lands. What does this new wave of Mapuche activism tell us about Chile today as it demands a longer gaze into the country’s past?
Skarmeta: This is a very important subject because Chilean Mapuches have been segregated from society for a long time. They have been through different political governments. My feeling is that justice has never been done to them. These are people who are very courageous who defend their landscapes and territory. Sometimes because of development, others try to take their lands. There is trouble there and this government now, due to the magnitude of the problem, has created a commission for dialogue and solutions. There are violent episodes, here and there, of resistance but I have the feeling that if the Mapuches negotiate, they could find, with the social sensibility of the current government, a solution. However, some Mapuches have already lost patience.
San Blogman: Speaking of the current government that Mapuches have to contend with, what does the presidency of Michelle Bachelet represent in Chile? She is the first woman to hold that position. She was also a victim of Villa Grimaldi and her father was killed by the dictatorship. Does she symbolically represent a restoration?
Skarmeta: The solution that Chile found, after the referendum of 1988 when the people of Chile said no to Pinochet, opened the way to democracy. Since 1989, we have had democratic presidents in Chile who belong to the same center-left coalition, La Concertacion, which links together social and Christian democrat forces. They were all parties that opposed Pinochet’s dictatorship. Michelle Bachelet is the latest president of this coalition that has been ruling Chile for more than 15 years with success.
As you say, she is the metaphor of the new Chile, of a country that is trying to make justice without revenge, without hate, without violence and by peaceful means to bring the people together. She herself, of course, was in a concentration camp. Her father, General Bachelet, was tortured in prison and died as a result. Michelle Bachelet then became exiled. All the things that have happened to her makes her a metaphor of recent Chilean history. As such, she is a very sensitive person to other people who have suffered the same. That’s a reason why she has put an emphasis on social politics. Now, when you are in a democracy, you have to respect all the different forces that are moving in society. Sometimes you can’t go as quickly as you would like. You have to find a balance between what you want and what you can do politically.
Stay tuned as the full length transcript of our conversation will hopefully be published soon!