Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 31, 2010

Clandestine in Chile

chileby Gabriel Garcia Marquez
translated by Asa Zatz

It makes me happy that the image on the cover of this book is a still from Miguel Littin’s film Acta General de Chile, the film that is the subject of Clandestine in Chile. In his introduction to the book Francisco Goldman says that he doesn’t know anyone who has actually seen the film, and after a quick poke around it doesn’t look like I’ll be adding myself to the list of people who have seen it any time soon. Which is probably okay, because the tale of how it came into being provides plenty of entertainment for the moment.

Clandestine in Chile is a piece of reporting, a brief 116 pages gleaned from 18 hours of interviews. While the text is Garcia Marquez’s, he retained the first person voice of Miguel Littin, and it is his story – the story of how he reentered Chile after 12 years of exile, disguised so that even his own mother had trouble recognizing him, to make a film about life under the dictatorship of Pinochet. Struggling with intense nostalgia, and the identity crisis brought on by his extreme disguise, Littin traveled through Chile for 6 weeks. Using three international film crews and the complex network of the underground resistance, he escaped in the end with 105,000 feet of film – a long donkey’s tail to pin on the backside of Pinochet!

The book is filled with a certain amount of tension and suspense (after all, Littin is on the list of people absolutely forbidden to ever return to Chile) but in spite of the sense of urgency and the close calls it is not a rip-roaring adventure. There is a subtlety to it all. Littin senses the change in his country and its people – there is a heavy dread in the air, a somber silence – but it is at times difficult to see what is wrong with the picture in the brightly lit, clean streets of Santiago. Comic and surreal by turns, the story is definitely an interesting one – all the more so because it is true.

Being a film lover myself, I got a kick out of Littin’s escape into a movie theater when he needed to clear his mind, and how he stalled his project for a few hours to watch Amadeus. He mentions the first film he ever saw as well as a few other films that impressed him. I wrote them all down for future reference. Of Littin’s own films, the only one I have located so far is The Jackal of Nahueltoro, the movie that kind of saved his life when he was escaping Chile in the chaos of the coup. I’ll be watching that in the next few days.

This was the last book on The Wolves reading list for 2010. What a fantastic year of reading! Three cheers for us all. We have a new list for the new year which I am very excited about and will actually post about soon. For the moment, Happy New Year and happy reading in the new year.


  1. I couldn’t find much information about the film online either, which is odd because one website I did find (linked to at the end of my post) stated that it won several international awards, including four at the Venice Film Festival, and intensified global criticism of Pinochet’s regime. Very odd.

    More than any adventure or suspense I picked up on that subtlety too. It felt very surreal to me – that one can return to someplace familiar and find all these new, threatening elements.

    • That’s what I thought – that the film was well received, etc. I’m going to keep searching.

      The combination of 12 years of change to his country, as well as the impact that the disguise had on Littin definitely made things surreal. What a mind trip! I could understand why he was a little bit crazy – dashing out into the night for dangerous solo walks, keeping all those cigarette packages… A processing overload for him.

  2. Happy happy new year, Sarah! I adore that cover. Didn’t realize it was a still; actually thought it was a painting. So anyway, as expected, I haven’t gotten to this yet, but it is good to know that none of you thought it was terrible, so I surely won’t pass on it, just take my own lazy time..

    • Thanks for suggesting this Claire! I am a reluctant Garcia Marquez reading for some reason, but I enjoyed this quite a bit. And the NYRB edition is just lovely!

  3. Happy New Year, Sarah, and hear hear about the year of reading for the Wolves! My library has a few of Littín’s films on VHS and DVD (some unplayable on my deck) but frustratingly not Acta. Weird! Anyway, glad you found this book interesting–I thought it might be only OK because I never hear people citing it as one of García Márquez’s best, but I really liked it quite a bit.

    • Oh, great idea – I should see if I can ILL some of the movies. And I wonder if the college here in my town has any of them at their library. I’ll check – and I’ll also get my friend the film historian to poke through his stash. 🙂

      I did like the book quite a bit as well. It’s only my 2nd book by Garcia Marquez, so without a clear idea of what his style is, I just read it for the adventure. And that was great!

  4. I mentioned how much I like the cover in my (late) post, too – it’s so clever how the box is covering up his face. 🙂

    I’m glad you mention Littín’s escapes into movie theaters and obsession with seeing Amadeus, because those were some of the oddities of his character I forgot to leave out of my post – there were so many to choose from! Basically I thought this was a very interesting character study of Miguel Littín, even though most of the political tension etc. didn’t really work for me. Nonetheless, a pretty compelling 116 pages.

    • Compelling for sure. I just reasoned out over at EL Fay’s post that I land somewhere between you and Frances and she and Richard. I was both bemused and affected by the story. Like I mentioned in my post, I felt the tension and the surreality of the situation. Simultaneously, I was curious about how much of what Littin saw was just a projection of his own personal nuttiness – made more intense because of his struggle with the persona he had to embody…

  5. The Littin character was saved for me when he decided to duck into that theater to catch Amadeus. But at the same time, it really made him all the more ridiculous because obviously the peril he thought or wished us to think that he was in could not have been quite that real if movie breaks fit in the schedule. Something so ridiculous about him. I alternated between laughing and irritation.

    • The more I think about it the more I am convinced that a little bit of Littin’s adventure was all in his head – like the imminent peril he was in. I thought his desire to see Amadeus was funny but I actually laughed out loud when he put the entire operation on hold in order to watch it. A little ridiculous indeed – but to me, oddly endearing.

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