Doubling the Double Life: Arturo Fontaine’s Novel of Chilean Terror
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La Vida Doble : A Novel
author: Arturo Fontaine
translator: Megan McDowell
publisher: Yale University Press
pub date: 05.28.2013
pp: 312
tags: Fiction , Latin America , Literary History

Marguerite Feitlowitz on La Vida Doble : A Novel

Doubling the Double Life: Arturo Fontaine’s Novel of Chilean Terror

February 10th, 2014 reset - +

A CHILEAN NOVELIST sits, notebook in hand, in an assisted living facility in Stockholm. Sitting across from him is the old woman dying of cancer, who is giving her final interview after a self-imposed silence of many years. She has granted him exactly five hours to get the story he came for. Or the story she is willing to serve up.

Can I tell you the truth? That’s a question for you. Are you going to believe me? That’s a question only you can answer. All I can do is talk. It’s up to you whether you believe me or not.

And, a little later: “I want you to call me Lorena,” she says, withholding her real name. She has thrown down the gauntlet. A former idealistic leftist guerrilla, well trained in ballistics and bank robberies, she is about to explain how she betrayed her comrades to the torturers and murderers loyal to Pinochet. “I became one of them,” she states as a plain fact. She’s been through it all before, with the clerics and judges and journalists connected to the 1991 National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation[1] — for who better as a witness than one who was in it on both sides — and is persuaded: “All they really want is a moral adventure tale, a self-justifying pornography of horror,” in service of “a new civic accord.”

While concertación was a defining feature of the post-dictatorship transition, though, Lorena’s assessment is extreme and infused with self-contempt; according to the Commission, 2,279 persons were killed for political reasons, 957 disappeared following arrest, 641 deaths could not conclusively be attributed to politics, and 164 were caused by leftist resistance groups. Subsequent government studies, based on testimony with as many as 30,000 persons, document much higher figures. As of May 2012 (two years after the novel’s original Spanish-language publication), close to 80 former agents of Pinochet had been convicted. Trials are ongoing.

Lorena says she eventually testified against her former Pinochetista protectors, including a suave lover with whom she was besotted, and who was sentenced to many years in jail, but does that mean she came full circle? No, the only “circles” she knows about are Dante’s, she says, particularly the ninth and final realm reserved for traitors. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, she intones, but, in this context, that’s a comparatively minor point. What she omits is what Virgil says to Dante regarding Nimrod, “Leave him alone — let’s not waste time in talk; / for every language is to him the same/ as his to others—no one knows his tongue.”Here is a central paradox of the novel: Lorena, talking nonstop, does so from a place beyond where language is truly comprehensible.

We are not really in Stockholm, then, but in a precinct of hell, which Lorena entered the moment she turned traitor. “I’m putting this material of vague, nightmarish horror in order for your benefit, and for mine,” she tells the novelist. The memories have been eating her up; she can’t hold it in any longer. And yet, as she says, “The truth was invented not to be told.” Here she is quoting the comrade who died to save her life, and what he meant was that a revolutionary “never cracks under torture.” She considers this interview a kind of torture, to which she feels a moral compunction to submit and a reflexive need to resist.

Once upon a time, she recounts, a brainy French major who endured an adoring but rather hapless father and bitchy, hypercritical mother, finds refuge in books. She’s swept away by Neruda, Vallejo, Darío, and Cortázar, whose work she still quotes with dead-on precision — and by the romantic songs of Diana Ross. Disappointment in love drives her to find more bookish comrades, who pore through Lenin, Marx, Bakunin, and their caravan of Russian revolutionaries. (She keeps to herself her abiding attraction to French surrealists and European deconstructionists.) The lure is irresistible: “Our writing of fire will incite the common masses to rise up.” Physical training in the mountains, bonfire convocations, the ceremonies of secrecy and solidarity seal the deal. Exceedingly potent are the recorded speeches from Comandante Joel: a physician who had worked with Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia, fought in Angola with the Cubans, and miraculously survived a grievous battle injury by swimming a treacherous river to an isolated clinic in a mysterious forest. While the details are hazy, the message is messianic. The voice in the recordings is quiet, cultured, and mesmerizing. Comandante Joel speaking through the starry skies in the mountains is the very model of a revolutionary god. “We are violent Christs,” a comrade called the Spartan tells her. She will henceforth be known as “Irene.”

“I want you to picture this clearly,” she insists to the novelist. Having proved her mettle and her faith, “Irene” is given a central role in an armed bank robbery; exactly as planned, she walks out with US $30,000 and 4,000,000 Chilean pesos. Zigzagging through downtown as she’d been taught, “in a tenth of a second,” she loses her nerve and dives under a truck, listening to the machine guns killing her comrades, and waiting to be captured. She is still unsure as to whether she was simply scared, or unable to bear the suspense of not knowing she might be caught. She describes herself as always having been teleologically inclined.

She is discovered by a stunned-looking, dandruff-afflicted young officer; she is tortured, kept for 29 days, and then released. She resumes giving French classes and going to art openings, and hobnobs with the Swedish cultural attaché. (Her former comrades are perforce suspicious — death is honorable; capture poses a threat to the whole organization — but give her the benefit of the doubt.) After 70 days, Pinochet’s intelligence forces bring her back in. They’ve discovered she has a longstanding knack for treachery: she had breached the “everything for the Revolution” promise by refusing to send her small daughter to be raised in a group home in Havana, and they exploit this.

Je est un autre, “Irene” says. And for her it’s literal: when she is not leading the existence of an edgy bourgeois intellectual, she is working for the Chilean Central Intelligence agency — exposing her ex-comrades and safe houses and participating in interrogations, and thus keeping her daughter safe. Always the avid student, she takes courses in intelligence and counterinsurgency, and is sworn in to an official job in the organization. “Irene” and “pre-Irene” have ceased to exist; she is now “La Cubanita,” and assumes a Caribbean accent (which she finds amusing, given her impeccable Chilean diction) for interrogations. Not that she ceases to live in terror — but the fear is blunted by a gilded existence, by expensive clothes and cosmetics, restaurants and champagne, a fancy apartment high above the smog (and torture centers) of Santiago. She spends a lot of time in front of her mirror, seeing herself now as beautiful and sexy. Anita attends school at the Alliance Française with the children of diplomats, bankers, and industrialists.

La Cubanita’s double life will take what some (though not she) might call a sudden redemptive turn. In the midst of a midnight raid on a safe house, she recognizes a voice, the voice of Comandante Joel, issuing forth from an old, paralyzed man in a wheelchair. Shot in the abdomen, he is bleeding out, helpless against capture and subsequent torture. In yet another “tenth of a second” Irene reappears and shoots him, causing his head to “empt[y] over the wall like a smashed cup.” In the ensuing confusion, she escapes, runs to the Swedish Embassy, where the cultural attaché arranges her asylum. By the time of the present interview with the novelist, she’s lived in Stockholm for over 30 years. She has taught French at Berlitz, learned Swedish, and still does the odd translation. Until this very moment, she has held the secret of her movement’s lying sacred myth.

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A highly esteemed novelist, poet, and philosopher, Fontaine is on the board of Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which, through research, exhibitions, performances, and other activities, seeks to draw attention to human rights violations committed during the Pinochet dictatorship. He has based this book on extensive primary and secondary research. His characters are fictional, and so are many of the specific events. At the same time, he is careful with political and social context — indeed Lorena-Irene-La Cubanita admits that she “goes on and on” about context, insisting her interviewer needs to know the intellectual background. Fontaine is specific about the practices of both the revolutionary groups in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, and their respective repressive regimes. He is precise about weapons and strategic in his use of ironic detail — for example, that Bulgarian and Czech guns were used by the Chilean army to kill socialists. Everything we learn we learn from Lorena, and because her “real-life” information is impeccable, her fictive authority is formidable. Further complicating matters is that, in his creation of Irene-La Cubanita-Lorena, Fontaine utilized some infamous cases of female collaborators. In Chile, there are three paradigmatic examples: Luz Arce; “La Flaca Alejandra” (her real name is Marcia Merino); and “Carola” (real name, María Alicia Uribe Gómez). Arce, a member of the Socialist Party, and Merino, a member of MIR (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria or Revolutionary Left Movement) were broken under torture; “Alejandra” actually turned over “Carola,” her MIR comrade, for detention and torture. Arce and Merino have publically testified and expressed remorse; Arce has undergone a Christian ordeal of confession and repentance, aided by the Vicariate of Solidarity; “Carola” worked for the DINA (Chile’s Intelligence agency) until 2000, when she retired with a full civilian employee’s pension. Unlike Arce and Merino, “Carola” has lived an exceedingly private and isolated existence, caring for her ailing mother. It was not until 1994, when a former MIR comrade identified her on the street, that the police required her testimony about the notorious Manuel Contreras, for whom she worked directly. “Carola” still refuses to be interviewed, and when she goes out, wears large sunglasses and scarves about her face. These stories, as riveting as they are repulsive and frightening and pitiful,[2] have been extremely controversial in Chile.

Fontaine’s Lorena seems to be closest to “Carola,” whom ex-comrades recall as rigidly private, professionally meticulous, and frivolously obsessed with fashion. Even as a professed member of the MIR, she dressed like an elegant political conservative.

Lorena-Irene-La Cubanita is no composite. She is a complex and original creation, acutely alert to the dark, even perverting, powers of her own story. Unlike Arce and Merino, she expresses no remorse; she finds the “Christianoid” concept of redemption and forgiveness disgusting. She rehearses a whole spectrum of intellectual and sensual pseudo-explanations: the failed Freudian family romance; the sexual insecurities (her mother never allowed that she was pretty, let alone alluring); the abandonment by both her father and the father of Anita. Among the hardest passages to read are those in which she gives graphic details not just about cocaine-fueled sex parties, but also about the genital particulars of her lovers, and her preferences regarding penile shapes and sizes. I had to wonder what Fontaine was up to in these elaborately written, quite sickening pages that go far beyond anything I’ve read in testimony. Lorena is responding to the silent novelist who listens and writes in his notebook, all the while projecting a desire that she fulfill the general fantasy of “pornographic horror,” that she deliver the frisson that comes with both exposure to and superiority over betrayal and abandon. (Her commentary on Persona — what Ingmar Bergman filmed in Persona, she says, “was a woman listening,” implying that the mute novelist is actually the spectacle — hangs in the air.) She will describe the interview as a form of torture, will accuse the novelist of being “the sadistic one”; here, she gets back some of her own, as though to say, I know what you want, you filthy-minded, moral adventurer. Well, then, here. That the novelist would actually write down these words is a clear signal that in doing such an interview, one checks one’s innocence at the door.

And yet, tragically, there was innocence in this bookish girl. For all her sharpshooting and intellectual marksmanship, Lorena was in many ways a literary romantic. Sent by the movement to Paris on a mission to secure the support of a certain glamorous female French journalist, both solidly left and anti-Soviet, Irene is enthralled with the idea of finding a lover in the City of Light. (And of course she will, none other than the journalist’s dashing Italian paramour.) But for her first order of business, she is late to the meeting with the reporter — punctuality being a cardinal revolutionary virtue — and why? Because in the Place des Vosges she spots Julio Cortázar at a nearby table sitting with, whom else? La Maga. Lorena sees everyone at his table as a character from Hopscotch, from which she quotes by heart. (It’s worth pausing over the fact that the chapters of Hopscotch may be read in multiple arrangements; it’s a playful argument against any story being absolute and monolithic.) She dashes to a bookstore, buys a copy of the novel for the author to sign, but they have left; she finds them in a gallery looking at a print of Mt. Fuji, and she’s back inside the novel, with Etienne telling Horacio and La Maga about Van Gogh and his love of Japanese prints. Her delirium is endearing — she’s young, she’s in Paris, she’s read everything, she’s following Horacio into a shop where he plays with an antique trumpet. And then, in the blink of an eye, the tall, boyish, handsome mage (the actual author) has disappeared. Irene arrives breathless and apologetic at the meeting; but the severe journalist can’t help but be charmed by the story of Cortázar, whom she knows favors the neighborhood. Within hours, Irene will betray the reporter and by extension the cause to which she is sworn (the reporter will make no fact-finding trip to Chile); and yet Lorena’s memory of those days in Paris continues to glow.

Fontaine uses Lorena to utter a haunting critique of the left. She wonders out loud: What if Allende was telling us, through his own suicide, that we were not supposed to fight? That we would be crushed? That he, Christlike, was dying for us, that we might live? What if we were supposed to understand that resistance was only going to make it worse? That “the time for tomorrow was not today,” no matter how fervently we sang Victor Jara.

Everything I’m telling you is incomprehensible. I’m telling you about a way of life that is gone. I’m talking to you from a junkyard of broken, illusory, lost ideals.

We learn at the end that the novelist has paid handsomely for this interview, enough for a sizable legacy for Anita, who, years ago returned to Chile, and may know nothing, or everything, about her mother. Significantly, it is the one question that is kept out of the room.

As the novelist is leaving, Lorena reminds him, “Truth is impossible, the truth was invented not to be told. [italics in original] And her final utterance is both a command and a question: “Look, see how there’s light even now over the Baltic?” It’s not the elements she’s unsure of; she has no idea what another person might actually see.

A word about this fine translation, which presented a myriad of challenges. In Spanish, Fontaine makes use of a host of verbal registers and levels of diction. One of the most poignant aspects of Irene-La Cubanita-Lorena is her exacting feel for the Chilean landscape, her knowledge of exotic trees, her sense memories of a particular beach, her native immersion in Santiago. Megan McDowell achieves the subtle shifts in this woman’s voice as she tries to order her account; she maintains tautness in an account that must never (but could easily) flag, and clarity in a realm of horror.


[1] Formed by the democratically elected president Patricio Aylwin, the commission was headed by Raúl Rettig, one of Salvador Allende’s ambassadors, and its final document is often called the Rettig Report. Click here to read the report.

[2] See Luz Arce, The Inferno: A Story of Terror and Survival in Chile, translated by Stacey Alba Sklar, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004; Michael J. Lazzara, ed., Luz Arce and Pinochet’s Chile, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, and Diamela Eltit, Emergencias, Escritos sobre literature, arte, política. Santiago de Chile: Planeta, 2000. I also recommend the 59-minute documentary La Flaca Alejandra by Carmen Castillo, 1993, which can be viewed at www.rebeldemule.org. A recent piece on “Carola” is “Historia de una traición,” by Claudia Farfán and Alberto Labra W., at www.quepasa.cl/magazine/articulo/print.html?id=3993.

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Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, and the translator of literary works from Spanish and French. 

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