Hernán Rivera Letelier grew up in the mining towns of Humberstone and Algorta, in Chile's Norte Grande, at the tail end of the nitrate-mining era: a major stage in Chile's history and in the history of the industrialized world. He tells Ariel Dorfman (as related in Dorfman's Desert Memories, 2004) that his earliest memories are of "eavesdropping on [the] adult conversations" of the miners who ate their meals in the Letelier home; his mother padded the family budget by selling home-cooked meals to the bachelor miners. The stories he was listening to were of the last remnants of the nitrate industry, already moribund by the time of his childhood; he listened well, and has built a successful career as one of Chile's most popular novelists (although mostly overlooked, until recently, outside of Chile) telling the stories of the pampa salitrera, the mining camps built in the Atacama desert at the end of the 19th Century by British and German firms and operated until the middle of the 20th Century, and of the people who lived and worked there.
Rivera Letelier's 13 novels to date span the length of the nitrate-mining era and the breadth of the Atacama desert -- from the 1907 massacre of striking workers retold and reconstructed in Our Lady of the Dark Flowers (2002), to the 1942 mining camp strike in Providencia in the (surreal) Art of Resurrection (2010), to the later dusty remnants of Coya Sur in The Fantasist (2006), on the verge of becoming a ghost town -- somewhat reminiscent in all of Faulkner's treatment of Mississippi. (or John Ford's, of the Old West?) The Art of Resurrection won the prestigious Premio Alfaguara and has happily brought his work some well-deserved recognition. It is the story of a week in the life of Domingo Zárate Vega ("better known to all as the Christ of Elqui," sort of a Chilean Rasputin who wandered the country in the mid-20th Century preaching his gospel) -- in which he searches for, finds, and loses his own Magdalene.
My translation of a portion of Chapter 4 of the book will be up soon at The Unmuzzled Ox, under the title "Christ in the Desert".
Monday, April second, 2012
The proceedings were honored by the priestly presence of three old men, survivors of the massacre. They were seated in the first row, legs together, hats resting on their knees, listening and watching everything, granitic, absent.
Since the first time I read The Art of Resurrection, I've read Santa María de las flores negras, and so I get a flash of recognition at the end of Zárate Vega's sermon in chapter 15, when he is introduced to the old miners who had survived the massacre in Iquique -- the oldest of them is Olegario Santana, the War of the Pacific veteran who is already 56 years old at the opening of Flores negras, feeding breakfast to his pet vultures. Now he is 91 years old and is present only as a stony visage. I had a hunch when I was reading Flores negras that Santana was Rivera Letelier writing himself into the story, and I'm going to stick with that impression -- nice to see him here.
Sunday, October 23rd, 2011
(from Chapter 3 of Our lady of the dark flowers)
From the four points of the compass they came, the strikers on their way to Alto de San Antonio in their long, dusty caravans. The village was boiling over with excitement. As you looked into the chaos of the crowds streaming through the village's streets, you could see signs bearing the names of salitreras, La Gloria, San Pedro, Palmira, Argentina, San Pablo, Cataluña, Santa Clara, La Perla, Santa Ana, Esmeralda, San Agustín, Santa Lucía, Hanssa, San Lorenzo, others that we hadn't even heard of. And that's not all -- covered with dirt from their heads to their feet,the strikers came singing, shouting, not only the oficinas in San Antonio's district, but from every district in the Pampa del Tamarugal. The influx of people showed no signs of letting up. The strike had spread across the pampa like a duststorm -- "Good dust, the dust of righteousness, my brothers" crowed Domingo Dominguez, walking among the crowd. To the bird's eye, there were more than five thousand of us, pushing together into the streets of the village, bringing our power to the strike. Men of every race and nationality, groups which had clashed in bitter fratricidal wars, were coming together now under the sun, under a single standard -- that of the proletariate.
Sunday, March 6th, 2011
The events of Chapter 19 of Our Lady of the Dark Flowers are unfolding like a malevolent clockwork, like a bad dream in which events cannot progress any way except toward their preordained, tragic outcome -- in short like history. "They are turning this place into a mousetrap," Olegario Santana thinks as he returns to the school of Our Lady of Iquique, perhaps for the last time -- he tries to persuade Gregoria Becerra to leave the school but she is steadfast in her commitment to the strike.
This impending sense of doom requires that Rivera Letelier move his narration to the past tense. Throughout the book the narrative present tense has been dominant, and the stories being told have focused on individuals, makers of free decisions within the context of the history which is the framework of the book. Here the story is the history, the concrete events of the past, where free choice is no longer relevant, and the events are related in the past tense. (And still there is a quick switch to the present tense when Olegario Santana is pleading with Gregoria Becerra to leave, when she is deciding freely to stand by the union; and somehow this is not confusing to the reader, somehow it flows perfectly.) The last words of the chapter have General Silva Renard making his fateful decision:
At this point, the general was convinced that the situation was no longer maintainable -- «in order not to compromise the prestige and honor of the authorities, of the security forces, I was faced with the necessity of checking the rebellion before the end of the day» is how he put it in his journal. Finally, he made the decision. Rising up on his steed, the sun's rays shining off his military harness, he crossed himself lightly. He raised his hand to give the order to fire.
(It is extremely disconcerting to be reading this story while the unions in Madison are occupying the state capitol and threatening a general strike. Not that I expect governor Walker to call out the state militia and fire on the protestors, although such things have happened in our history as well as in Chile's -- but this book is a sad reminder of the lengths to which those in power will go, have gone, to maintain their power.)
This chapter also features the blind poet, Rosario Calderón, who has made occasional appearances throughout the book reciting popular poetry to the strikers. He is here declaiming what I take to be another verse of his namesake's poem commemorating the massacre:
Hoy por hambre acosado
esta región abandono,
me voy sin fuerza, ni abono,
viejo, pobre y explotado,
dejo el trabajo pesado
del combo, chuzo y la lampa
y esa maldita rampa
donde caí deshojada,
soy la flor negra y callada
que nace y muere en la pampa
Pursued by hunger
I leave this place,
an old man, broken down and poor,
I leave this oppressive work,
this heavy pair, my shovel and my bucket,
this damned mine shaft
I fell down, broken;
I am the dark and silent flower
which grows and dies in the pampa.
Chilean blogger Walterio2 has posted Calderón's verses and a lot of other pampino poetry: La pampa es silente
Sunday, February 27th, 2011
Olegario Santana (the calichero with the pet buzzards) smokes Yolandas; he has a two or three pack-a-day habit, and he thinks of the woman on the front of the pack as his feminine ideal. Rivera Letelier returns to this several times; taking a cigarette and looking at the pack and thinking about women is by now (halfway through) sort of a master gesture for Santana. I'm torn about this -- it strikes me at first glance as a bit clichéed, a bit simplistic; OTOH Santana is a pretty alien figure to me. This could well be an accurate representation of his character.
I'm thinking of Santana as the physical presence of Rivera Letelier in the story, for a few reasons. He was the first character introduced; he is a loner, quiet and reserved in his relations with the others, which strikes me as the proper deportment for the author; he is older than the others (Rivera Letelier was in his early 50's when he wrote this book, which I believe is roughly Santana's age -- quite old for someone in his extremely hazardous profession) and is the most skeptical about the odds of their strike having a positive outcome, the first to express worries about the military presence building up in Iquique.
There has been almost remarkably little narrative foreboding vis-a-vis the impending massacre. The book's first half has been about the workers and their friendships, about the blossoming love between Idilio and Liria María, and about the pampino community's high hopes for a proletarian victory and a new order. The only overt foreshadowings I have noticed that were not explicitly in Santana's voice were in Chapter 7, where it is mentioned that the provincial governor has asked Santiago for military reinforcements "without hope that the unrest will be resolved", and now in Chapter 10, where new reinforcements are arriving from Arica and the situation is "turning ugly."
Saturday, February 26th, 2011
At the beginning of chapter 10 of Our Lady of the Dark Flowers, Idilio Montaño is passed out in a corner of the schoolroom where the friends are staying, sleeping off his drunken fight of the previous night. As he comes to, he hears an old pampino telling a group of young men the history of John Thomas North's acquisition of the majority of the nitrate fields in northern Chile. This expository technique seems like it should be extremely heavy-handed but I think Rivera Letelier pulls it off. Anyway, I found the history lesson quite useful.
"...This English upstart is the best example of what I'm talking about. His name was John Thomas North and they called him 'The Saltpetre King." It was this proud commoner who instigated, who provided arms and pounds sterling to secure the downfall of Balmaceda, the last rightful president of Chile..."
According to the speaker, Balmaceda intended to nationalize Chile's nitrate resources; North owned vast amounts of the Atacama as a result of having purchased Chile's worthless bonds during the War of the Pacific. North is only dead about ten years at the time of the strike, and the speaker claims to have met him in person. He says the pampinos would joke about "Our Father who art in London..."
Interesting to think about how close to their country's history these characters are. This scene makes me think (in a US context) of an elderly Civil War veteran telling some young compatriots about a famous general he had met... Or to put it in the labor context, a grizzled old Teamster or Longshoresman telling about... My familiarity with labor history in the US (and indeed with US history in general) is far too limited to build a satisfactory scenario for either of these examples, alas.
Sunday, January second, 2011
Here is the state of play ⅓ of the way into Our Lady of the Dark Flowers, as the striking workers, having marched from Alto de San Antonio to Iquique, settle into their quarters at the Escuela Santa María* to wait for the mining companies' response to their demands:
The primary characters are four friends who work at San Lorenzo, the salitrera where the strike was initiated: Olegario Santana, a 56-year-old loner and a hard worker, a veteran of the War of the Pacific; Domingo Domínguez, a barretero, the most gregarious of the group; José Pintor, a widowed carretero who is virulently opposed to religion and religiosity; and Idilio Montañez, a young herramentero and a kite-builder. In Alto de San Antonio, these four meet up with Gregoria Becerra, an old neighbor of José Pintor's when he worked in San Agustín, and her two children, 12-year-old Juan de Dios and 16-year-old Liria María. Gregoria Becerra was recently widowed when her husband was killed in a mining blast, and there is some suggestion (as yet undeveloped) of a romantic connection between her and José Pintor. Idilio Montañez and Liria María fall deeply in love with one another during the march to Iquique (Chapter 4). Her mother initially disapproves** but by Chapter 6 she seems resigned to it and even warming to the young man.
The male characters' occupations are central to their identities; Dominguo Domínguez is often referenced as "the barretero" and likewise for Idilio Montañez and José Pintor. I think Olegario Santana has not yet been referred to by his occupation, except maybe as a calichero. Here are my understandings of some of these terms, I'm not sure how accurate they are:
- Barretero is a worker at the mine who digs trenches.
- Carretero is a mechanic who works on the carts used for hauling caliche, the nitrate ore.
- Herramentero is (at a guess) a blacksmith.
- Calichero is a mine-worker; I think it is a generic term covering anyone who works at the nitrate mines. There are several words derived from caliche that occur quite frequently in the text.
- Particular is one of the jobs in the nitrate fields; I think it might refer to someone who works with explosives.
- Derripiador is one of the jobs involved in processing nitrate ore.
- Patizorro is (I think) another term for particular.
- Perforista: another term for barretero.
Some of this stuff is pretty specific to nitrate mining in Chile, I'm not sure how it could be brought over cleanly into English. Album Desierto has a great glossary of salitrera terminology.
*It is difficult reading (mostly in the present tense) about how excited the striking workers are, how happy and hopeful they are in the face of their hardships, when you know how the history is going to end up.
**At one point Gregoria Becerra says her daughter "does not need any idilios"; Idilio Montañez' name means "love affair".
Friday, December 31st, 2010
Rivera Letelier is an absolute wizard of narrative voice, of person -- I wrote before about the shifts from third to first-person singular in The Art of Resurrection; something even more complex and initially confusing is going on in Our Lady of the Dark Flowers. This is quite possibly the only novel I've ever read which is told in first-person plural omniscient present.*
The novel opens
with the narrator telling a story, set in the present tense, about 56-year-old widower Olegario Santana and his two pet vultures** -- he "is feeding" them, they "are emitting their gutteral carrion cries"... And it is initially quite jarring when the narrator backs off and shifts to "we" -- I believe the first place this happens is at the end of the sixth paragraph, where Olegario is walking to the mines -- something does not seem quite right, suddenly he meets up with a group of men who come up to him and "we tell him" that perhaps he has not heard, but a general strike was declared last night.
Is "we" the group of men? That's what it seems like at first; but as the novel progresses, "we" becomes more general, it is the workers of the pampa as a general class. The narrator is not a singular person or a distinct group of people -- the group of men would not have been able to narrate Olegario feeding his birds -- but is rather the voice of the pampino community. By doing this Rivera Letelier includes you the reader as a member of that community and makes it very easy, after a little hesitation, to get inside the book. Thinking of the story as a movie: when the narrator is telling about Olegario feeding his birds (and throughout the book in passages where he is speaking about "he" and "them"), he is describing the action onscreen as you watch the movie -- the present tense makes this work -- but when he shifts to "we", you realize you are part of what you're watching onscreen.
*I can't think of another one. Can you? I can't imagine this has never been done before; still it is quite distinctive.
**Well I'm pretty sure they're vultures anyway -- they are called jotes, which I think serves as a generic way of referring to birds, not buitres -- but they are described as carrion birds with pink heads, so vultures. Possibly jot is a Chilean term for vulture. Vulture does seem like an unlikely bird to have as a pet; but I am leaving that to the side for now, suspending disbelief.
...And, confirmation! Googling around for jotes in the Atacama brings me to a page from the Museo Virtual de la Región Atacama, with pictures of a vulture, "Jote de Cabeza Colorada (Catarthes Aura)". Wiktionary lists jote as a Chilean term for turkey vulture.
Wednesday, December 29th, 2010
This week I've started Rivera Letelier's Santa María de las flores negras, Our Lady of the Dark Flowers -- the title is a reference to this anonymous poem, "The Dark Copihue, Flower of the Pampa", published in 1917 commemorating the 1907 massacre at Escuela Santa María de Iquique:
Soy el obrero pampino
por el burgués esplotado;
soy el paria abandonado
que lucha por su destino;
soy el que labro el camino
de mi propio deshonor
regando con mi sudor
estas pampas desoladas;
soy la flor negra y callada
que crece con mi dolor.
I am the pampino worker
A blind man** recites this poem in Chapter 3, among other folk poetry about the workers' struggle. (This seems like an interesting way of interweaving fact and fiction, since of course the poem was not written at the time the novel is set. The author is turning the poem into an element of his fictional world.) The red copihue is Chile's national flower; the poet (who Sergio González Miranda speculates* could be Luis Emilio Recabarren, fixture of Chile's left wing in the early 20th Century) sees a black flower growing from the blood and sweat of the pampino workers.
Exploited by the owner;
I am the outcast, abandoned
fighting for his destiny;
it is I who lay the roadway
of my own disgrace
irrigating with my sweat
this desolate pampa;
I am the dark, silent flower,
flower that feeds on my sorrow.
*Dr. González Miranda is a professor of sociology at the Universidad Arturo Prat in Antofagasta, and seems like a great source for poetry of the workers' movement in Chile; besides the linked article I also found a piece by him from 2003 called "Habitar la pampa en la palabra: la creación poética del salitre". Professor González Miranda's books are available from Ediciones LOM.
**The blind poet might be, if I'm understanding a statement in Chapter 4 correctly, Rosario Calderón, listed by Poesía Popular as the author of Poesías Pampinas in 1900.... Ah -- no -- I missed a note in Chapter 3 that the blind man's name is Rosario Calderón "just like the famous poet who publishes his works in El Pueblo Obrero."
Thursday, December second, 2010
What is fundamental, o my brothers, is not our suffering; it is the way we carry this suffering down the path of our life.
The Christ of Elqui says this at the end of his sermon in Chapter 15, a sermon which I am thinking tentatively of as his "sermon on the mount" (and it bears remembering that there was reference to a sermon on the mount in the first chapter...) It might also bear comparison with King's "I have a dream" speech -- although I'm having a hard time understanding the "Imagine" portion of the sermon, it seems more whimsical than heartfelt.
-- The Christ of Elqui
I love the quote and it strikes me as a distinctly Buddhist sentiment, indeed almost a direct paraphrase of something the Buddha said, though I cannot remember what specifically.
The occasion for the sermon is a memorial service on December 21st, the anniversary of the massacre at Santa María de Iquique (which I learned of a couple of years ago from Saramago's blog) and coincidentally, the day after Zárate Vega's forty-fifth birthday. Two books I am hoping will help me understand Chilean labor movement history are: Rivera Letelier's earlier novel Santa María de las flores negras, set in Iquique at the time of the strike; and Lessie Jo Frazier's Salt in the Sand: Memory, Violence, and the Nation. Also a Google search for history of nitrate mining in Chile produces some useful hits like this one.
Previous posts about Our Lady of the Dark Flowers
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