Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fact and Fiction

When I left Chile in the late 1970s, I was consumed with a need to process what I had experienced and what I had thought I had learned. That processing took the form of having chats with friends and by writing. In particular, I wrote a series of articles for my hometown newspaper—which I began during my time abroad and continued after I returned.

But I had an urge to do more. I had been studying literature while in ConcepciĆ³n, and I was flush with enthusiasm for Latin American writers and the art of the novel. As some writers—mainly writers of fiction—like to say, fiction can get at deeper truths that straight journalism cannot. That may be overstating it, but certainly fiction can get at truths differently and can touch different levels of our minds than a simple documented accounting.

In the years after my return to North America, I had it in mind to write a novel about a Latin American country. It would deal with a political situation comparable to Chile’s in the years immediately preceding my time in that country. It would be about a country polarized between two different political cultures and belief systems and about a man who rises to become the leader of that country, thereby causing the level of polarization to rise to the point of violence—making him a martyr. And all of this would be seen through the eyes of a young North American named Thomas Dowd. Clearly, this character was inspired by the journalist/filmmaker Charles Horman, who was seized and subsequently killed during the golpe against Salvador Allende in 1973 and who would be the subject of the 1982 film by Costa-gavras, Missing.

That particular novel never got written. During the ensuing years, I always seemed to have jobs that made heavy demands on my time and mental juices. And, as time passed, my original story idea seemed less interesting. It wasn’t really the ideal vehicle for getting at some of the themes I was really interested in, i.e. the strangely symbiotic yet mutually alienating nature of the culture clash between Anglo America and Latin America and, particularly, the frustration (for the Anglo-Saxon mind anyway) of the persistent ambiguity in the Latin American world. Even though I lived in Chile only a few short years after the Allende presidency and resultant coup, while there I got completely different and contradictory versions of what had actually happened and how things had actually been, depending on whom I talked to.

The ambiguity one experiences by living in a place is in sharp contrast to the narratives spun by people who need to fit events into a political agenda. And in the Pinochet era, Chile was one of those places that got a lot of spinning. A vivid memory of my return to Seattle was a visit to an aunt whom I loved dearly. She was a very well read and very well informed woman, but she never asked me a single question about my time in South America. Instead, she handed me a copy of The New Yorker, which she had been saving, and told me that it had an article about Chile that I should read so I would truly understand the country where I spent the previous year. I found myself trying to tell my friends—especially my politically engaged ones—that Chile was a real place with real people, not a parable to be taught.

So my story idea evolved. Instead of seeing things through the eyes of Thomas Dowd, he would not actually appear in the novel. Instead, his presence would haunt it. The story would be about two acquaintances of his in the small California town he came from. They would be two teenagers looking for escape and who would decide, nearly on an impulse, to head south of the border in 1971 to look for him. We would experience a bit of Latin America through their young, somewhat naive perspective. Their 1965 Chevy would carry them on a journey down pot-holed Mexican roads more or less as Huck and Jim traveled the Mississippi on their raft.

I have finally finished that novel. You can find links to it by clicking here. I had a title for it long before it was completed. It is called Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. That was something a friend of mine happened to say once in response to some comment I had made about Mexico, and it stuck in my head. It was not only a nice shorthand for the fact that Latin America is well into its post-imperialism phase but also for the universality of our mortality.

With that mouthful of a title and the above summary of my book’s genesis, I have done my best to make it sound meaningful and profound. The fact is, however, that the book is really a bit of a romp. I gave it every bit of male late-adolescent testosterone that I had left. The characters are not very well behaved and they get into well more than the odd spot of trouble. I indulged myself in a fair amount of guilty pleasure by portraying behavior and attitudes that were politically incorrect even in that time, let alone now.

As I was writing it, the parallels with the current day were striking to me. Issues like border security, immigration, political polarization, privacy concerns and U.S. foreign policy hang over the story’s action—just as they still preoccupy people these days.

Mostly, though, the book turned out to be a cockeyed tribute to my childhood best friend. I want to be clear that the two main characters in the book are definitely not him and me, but a fair amount of his personality—at least as it was in his wayward youth—found its way into the character of Lonnie McKay. And there is more than a bit of our own personal inter-dynamics in the relationship between Lonnie and the narrator. But, sadly, we never went to Mexico together.

After some really bad luck in his life, my friend died last autumn. It’s too bad he never got to read the completed book. He would have gotten a kick out of it and would have given me a hard time over parts of it. But in my more spiritual moments, I think that he was the one giving me the push from the afterlife to finally get it finished.

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