Times Literary Supplement: Pinochet, Volcanoes, and Buddhists
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: a haunting new novel about Pinochet’s torture squads in Chile, the life of volcanoes considered, and the surprisingly warlike Buddhists.
Pinochet’s Loving Torturers
Chile has a late 20th-century history that tends sharply to divide supporters of Right and Left. General Pinochet was the country's leader under various authoritarian guises between 1973 and 1990; either he was a doughty anti-communist or a disgusting dictator, a determined master of anti-terrorism or a man who suppressed liberty and unleashed his torturers on civilians on a massive scale. In his remarkable third novel, La Vida Doble (Double Life), the Chilean novelist Arturo Fontaine looks into this ugliest corner of all, the torture chambers of the Pinochet regime, and, argues TLS critic, David Gallagher, he does so “with an independence, and freedom of mind, that will irritate many readers on both Left and Right.”
The novel is about a young middle class woman who, abandoned by her boyfriend when pregnant, wanders into an opposition march, and becomes absorbed into a left-wing militant group. Subsequently arrested, she is subjected to extreme torture, does not give anything important away and is then released so that the secret police can discover who she really is. When they do, they arrest her again and threaten to hurt her daughter. This breaks her, and she becomes a double agent, helping to interrogate her former colleagues and beginning an affair with El Flaco, the most senior torturer. As the pair indulge in some after-sex philosophizing, he tells her of a dispute he once had with his boss. Instead of catching and isolating insurgents, he had argued, they were disseminating terror, breeding hatred, and producing a vested interest in there being more insurgents, because that way their power, and budget, would increase. And El Flaco “opens his long arms inviting me to understand him,” says Lorena. “Because that is what he is asking of me, that I see him as a good man. In the middle of the filth and grime, a man who is just and who loves me.”
An unlikely discussion between a couple of torturers, Gallager posits, but this is not a novel for anyone looking for clear-cut moral outrage. The monster, it seems, is not out there, but within us. El Flaco feels let down not only by his superior, but also by the underlings who, according to him, get carried away, arresting and torturing people on their own initiative. At every level, people manage to keep carrying out their revolting tasks without guilt. The world of the insurgents has its moral ambiguities too. Did they achieve more than bring on more repression and provide an excuse for the dictatorship to perpetuate itself? What the heroine objects to most is that her former comrades should later have come to see themselves as victims. They wanted to conquer the world. They wanted to establish their own dictatorship.
In this moral quagmire, Fontaine discerns an equally confused line between torture and sex. At first, they seem polar opposites. A naked body, while it is being humiliated by its torturers, seems to be an abyss away from the body that once aroused men’s desires. But the torturers often rape their victims and some of the victims end up desiring their tormentors. She herself had been particularly excited with one prisoner who never confessed under torture. After a torture session she lies next to him in his cell, and gives him a massage. “It was lovely touching him. I imagined the flesh below the skin and thought it must be good to eat. In other times, when we were anthrophagi, I would have eaten mouthfuls of that flesh.”
The Life of Volcanoes
Sir William Hamilton, 18th-century diplomat, vulcanologist, art collector and husband of Lord Nelson's mistress, is the hero of Alwyn Scarth’s highly readable Vesuvius: A Biography, two chapters of which are devoted to his exploits on the turbulent mountain where nervous British aristocrats were keen to go as close to the smoking crater as they dared. He also stars in Volcano: Turner to Warhol, a major British exhibition this month at Compton Verney, a house near Stratford-upon-Avon that, says Richard Hamblyn in the TLS, has “developed a reputation for hosting innovative arts events in the six years since it opened to the public as an exhibition space.”
The Volcano exhibition is certainly innovative, drawing its story not only through historical or artistic heroes, but from volcanological stages that plot the life cycle of an active volcano from dormancy to awakening, through violent eruption and aftermath, then back to quiescence once more. “It is a clever curatorial conceit that allows an eclectic mix of eras and styles to hang together in every room, connected by the seismic narrative.” The book’s best chapter, argues Hamblyn, is its last, in which Scarth assesses the likely impact of the next major eruption of Vesuvius. It makes for disquieting reading, given that the population of the region (some 600,000 people) has doubled since the last outburst of 1944, with thousands of modern-day lazzaroni living in illegally built high-rise housing that continues to creep up the volcano. “Russian roulette,” as Scarth observes, “is not a game that volcanoes usually lose.”
Buddhists at War
Have you heard about Vakkali, the Buddhist sage who attained Nirvana while slicing his own throat? Those of us careless enough to have associated Buddhists with the principally peaceful arts of life may learn a good deal from Katherine Wharton’s TLS review of a new book, Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer. The doctrine of “no-self,” it seems, is easily linked to the idea that killing is no evil: “the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning,” as a 17th-century sage once elegantly put it. Buddhist Warfare, argues Wharton, forms an accurate history of violence in the name of religion. Its most shocking material is the studies of various sutras that justify killing with detailed reference to the Buddha’s central philosophical tenants. The book therefore presents a uniquely Buddhist “heart of darkness.”
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.