Novel Explores Love, Loss Under Chile's Dictatorship

Jun 26, 2015

Florencia Mallon wrote several books and articles about the events preceding Chile's 1973 military coup and the subsequent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. These were intended for her colleagues in the field of Latin American history.

With her first novel, Beyond the Ties of Blood, the University of Wisconsin professor aims for a wider audience, weaving a love story into this period -- plus the truth-and-reconciliation process that followed.

Her protagonist is Eugenia Aldunate (pronounced eh-oo-HEN-ia al-doo-NAH-tay), a young woman from a land-owning family who attends a leftist political rally in the capital, Santiago, in 1971.

The demonstrators filling the Plaza Baquenado were energized by the election of President Salvador Allende, a Marxist, but are growing impatient at the pace of programs such as land redistribution.

Eugenia isn't there for politics. She's looking for her boyfriend, a member of the Socialist Youth. Dressed in heels and a turtleneck, she's out of place among the "unwashed bodies" in hippie clothing. Weaving her way through long-haired men and bra-less women, she asks the leader of the Revolutionary Left, Manuel Bronstein, for help:

"Do you know Sergio Undurraga?"

Manuel scoffs upon hearing the name. Like many radicals, he doubts the commitment of wealthier compañeros like Sergio. Manuel then jokes about how a "cute pair of legs" might further delay Sergio. Seeing he insulted Eugenia, Manuel back-pedals:

"I'm just angry because me and the guys from the University of Chile, we're always the ones left holding the bag. The guys from the Socialist Youth at the Catholic University claim to be such radicals, but they can't get up before noon."

As the late-morning sun begins to bake the plaza, Manuel takes Eugenia to a juice bar and the two begin talking. Sergio shows up soon after, but already Eugenia has become more interested in her new acquaintance, the red-bearded Manuel.

The bombing of La Moneda, the presidential palace, during the 1973 coup.
Credit Wikipedia

Author Mallon wanted to make Manuel a romantic figure, similar to Che Guevara. But she didn't want to stray too far from political realities, which in Chile involved people taking land that lawfully belonged to others. To make Manuel more sympathetic, Mallon has him lead takeovers of vacant urban land to house migrants from the country.

In rural areas, such takeovers were far more confrontational, as Mallon learned during her scholarly research in the country's south.

"Landowners and their families remembered this as a moment of great trauma," she says. "The authority that they thought they had over their land, and the people who worked for them, was challenged very deeply and often violently."

In many cases, Mallon says, the owners didn't get much warning. "They'd knock on the door in the middle of the night and say, `You're out of here,' and the families would have to pack their things and leave."

Meanwhile, in the cities, conditions deteriorated as stores closed, causing shortages of food and other goods. This led to growing anger at the Allende government and plans by top military officers for a coup d'état.

On Sept. 11, 1973, a besieged Allende delivered a final presidential address from his palace, punctuated by nearby gunfire and explosions. At the same time, the military began arresting known and suspected leftists. Against this backdrop, Mallon has Eugenia and Manuel hide from police and soldiers as they get kicked out of a succession of apartments by suspicious landlords.

Digging into her savings, Eugenia rents a tiny room behind a gas station. Not long after, soldiers kick down the door, acting on information extracted from an imprisoned compañero. In a damp, moldy cell the soldiers quickly go to work on Manuel, but he gives up nothing.

Manuel kept Eugenia in the dark about his political activities, but she's tortured anyway. Toward the end of her ordeal, the soldiers let Eugenia see her horribly disfigured lover one last time before he's "disappeared."

While in prison, Eugenia discovers she's pregnant, which saves her life; the Pinochet government exiles her, and she gives birth to a daughter, Laura, in Mexico City.

When the book opens, it's 1990 and Eugenia and Laura are living in Boston. Pinochet is no longer Chile's president but maintains control of the military, prolonging uncertainty for those in the country -- and for exiles hoping to return. During this time, a lawyer from the newly-formed Truth Commission contacts Eugenia, seeking information about Manuel on behalf of his parents. This causes her nightmares to worsen:

She had gone backwards, as if no time had passed since her arrest. She started waking up in the middle of the night with a huge weight pushing down on her chest, making it hard to breathe. Still dreaming, she felt men attach prods to her arms, nipples, and toes, then shoot her body full of electricity. She relived the burning sensation for a few seconds, but then she felt herself lifted out of her body, as if she were flying. Looking down, she saw faceless figures holding her down, forcing her down. Then she would always wake up. She began pulling palmfuls of hair out of the drain every time she took a shower.

When Eugenia returns to Chile, she quickly becomes consumed by her search for the missing, while Laura struggles to understand the country and the family Eugenia left behind -- both total strangers to her.

For Mallon, Laura's alienation mirrors that of other children who came of age as the dictatorship ended. The professor says she heard from members of this generation at a 1986 conference in Santiago, where she presented a paper about the military's bloody intervention in a land takeover. Mallon says this incident, like many others, wasn't part of the national discussion.

"The younger generation had an amazing hunger to know," she says. "They filled all the seminar rooms, and they had questions. They really just wanted to know what had happened."

Mallon says many of these children felt cut off from those who lived through the Pinochet years, and this plays out in the novel when Laura hears her mother's frequent nightmares. Unable to comfort Eugenia, or understand her pain, Laura pulls away. Mallon says this became typical among Chilean families:

"And so the children who never got to know the father or mother who was disappeared very often feel marginalized, because the attention is all being paid to the people who are no longer there."

Florencia Mallon, author of "Beyond the Ties of Blood"

If you're wondering about the book's title, and how it figures into the story, you'll have to read to the end. Without spoiling anything, Mallon says blood relations are the most common bonds that hold society together. But she says rebuilding a traumatized nation like Chile will take a broader definition of "family."

"What is necessary," Mallon says, "is for people who have not been damaged by the coup and the dictatorship to be willing to listen and to bear witness to those who have been."

In the audio link below, Mallon talks about the significance of Eugenia's full name (Eugenia Aldunate Valenzuela) in Chilean society. Mallon, a native of Santiago, also explains her Chilean name. And if you're wondering if the author was personally affected by the coup and dictatorship, she was not. She was living in the United States, studying at Yale.

"The coup happened on the first day of my graduate school career," she says.

Mallon is a professor of History at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Her novel is published by Pegasus Books.

To read and hear interviews with our other Summer Book Series authors, scroll down to the bottom of this article. You'll also find links to interviews from previous Book Series. And we encourage you to continue discussing these books using #WNIJReadWithME.