Crítica de la memoria: 1990-2010 by Nelly Richard

Richard, Nelly. Crítica de la memoria: 1990-2010. Santiago: Ediciones UDP, 2010. 270 pages; Ch$12, US$24.28.

Is there a more controversial subject than memory? Susan Sontag denied that there was such a thing as collective memory and considered personal memory a poor substitute for thought. Nelly Richard’s Crítica de la memoria examines the uses and abuses of memory in the aftermath of the Pinochet regime, when a wounded and divided nation was supposedly on the way to being healed. What in fact emerged, according to Richard, was a cosmetically retouched nation that combined the surface gloss of a consumer society with the irreparable damage left by the dictatorship. Like the Cheshire cat, Pinochet faded from public view until only the grin remained. Appointed senator for life, an amnesty protected him and his officers from being charged with human rights violations. Neither the Rettig Commission that investigated human rights abuses committed during the military regime nor the Valech Report on political prison and torture were allowed to name perpetrators or bring them to trial.

What can memory mean under such circumstances? Richard focuses on the period between 1990, when Patricio Aylwin assumed the presidency, and 2010, when the conservative, Pinochet supporter Sebastián Piñera was elected President and proclaimed a “government of national unity.” The earthquake that shook Chile at the beginning of his presidency and the saga of the mining disaster, which kept the country at the forefront of international news for several weeks, had the fortuitous effect of altering the meaning of “victims” and “disappeared,” which during the Concertación[1]governments unequivocally referred to the military regime's execution and torture casualties.

There is nobody more qualified than Richard, a prestigious Latin American culture critic who, during the Concertación period, edited the journal Revista de Crítica Cultural to undertake an investigation of a social imaginary that for two decades effectively stifled the inconvenient memories of the Pinochet regime. Richard argues that memory designates a zone of voluntary and involuntary associations that move between incomplete formations of the past and the present. The critique of memory distinguishes memory as a false plenitude from the fragmented, inchoate, and sometimes unrepresentable memories of the terror state, and deciphers the omissions, breaks, and elisions of pacifying discourses.

What is invigorating about the book is that Richard does not conceal her own anger and disgust at the long process of prevarication that thwarted all attempts of the relatives of the disappeared to investigate and the collusion of sectors of Chilean society in protecting the memory of the Pinochet regime. This collusion came out in the open in 1998 when Pinochet was arrested in London, an arrest that provoked his female supporters to demonstrate in the streets of Santiago displaying touched up color photographs of their hero in stark contrast to the demonstrations of the families of the disappeared who carried black and white photographs taken from family albums in silent accusation against those who sanctioned and concealed the atrocities.

In an impassioned denunciation, Richard records some of the “obscenities” of the transition: the confessions of Luz Arce and Marcia Alejandra Merino, two women who, after being tortured, collaborated with the secret police and were eventually given the rank of officers in the DINA (the Intelligence Service), and the television and book interviews in which the notorious torturer Guatón Romo re-enacted with obvious enjoyment, encouraged by the interviewer herself, the torture session and the breaking of the victims. What is most obscene in these cases, Richard argues, is that the horrors described and the prevarications they recount did not cause a ripple among the public. Following the Romo interview, there was no trace of “the scandal that ought to have emerged from the verbal and ethical confrontation between one voice and another” and that should have indicated “the abyss of incommensurability that ought to have separated the voice of the journalist from that of the torturer.” It was as if the torturer’s filthy memory was on the same plane as that of his victims.

The alliance of the state with a neoliberal economy and the media effectively separated justice (in the limited sense of the Concertación) from truth. Yet there were cracks in the facade. Richard identifies a number of cultural texts, art works, and actions that provoked experiences of dislocation (in the work of Lotty Rosenfeld), of disappearance (in Carlos Altamirano’s Retratos), and the dismantling of news stories (in Catalina Parra’s collages).

Richard seems to agree with Susan Sontag that there is no particular value in memory itself, unless it activates thought. Her procedure is to highlight the contrast between cultural texts that reaffirm the official story and those that disrupt it. Rather than the past being a place to be trawled for forgotten objects, she depicts it as a moving screen that shifts under scrutiny as is the case in Patricio Guzmán’s film, Obstinate Memory. In this documentary, Guzmán filmed screenings of his l973 film, The Battle of Chile, which was shot during the last days of the Allende regime and was not shown in Chile for 23 years. Obstinate Memory records the reactions of different generations to the film—those who remembered the Allende regime and the coup and a new public of students and young people. In one sequence, Guzmán has an orchestra parade down a main thoroughfare in Santiago playing the anthem of Allende’s Popular Unity party, a deliberately anachronistic gesture that, in Richard’s view, productively juxtaposes two periods—the one marked by the revolutionary enthusiasm that preceded the military coup and the dehistoricized present of the transition.

The “Concertación,” an agreement between left and center political parties, came to an end with the election of Piñera, but the myth of reconciliation and national unity lives on. The millions who watched the worldwide coverage given to the President as he welcomed the Chilean miners back to the surface were not shown the dramatic happenings at the other end of the country where 35 Mapuche were on hunger strike and were convicted under Pinochet’s anti-terror laws. Though they have now been released and the terror laws repealed, the difference between the global coverage of the trapped miners and the silence around the Mapuche is a disturbing reminder that the controlling practices of the consensus are in place globally. Richard’s book is a valuable primer on how memory is manipulated in neoliberal societies and of its uncontrollable residues.

Jean Franco is Professor Emerita of Spanish and Portuguese, English, and Comparative Literature at Colombia University. Among her published works are The Modern Culture of Latin America (l967), César Vallejo. The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence (l976), An Introduction to Latin American Literature (l969), Plotting Women. Gender and Representation in Mexico. (1989), Marcando diferencias. Cruzando Fronteras (l996), and The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City. Latin America and the Cold War (2001), which was translated into Spanish as Decadencia y caída de la ciudad letrada and awarded the Bolton-Johnson Prize by the Conference of Latin American Historians. She is at present working on racial discrimination and globalization in Latin America.


 [1] In l987 General Pinochet called a plebiscite to determine whether or not he would remain in power. His election was opposed by a group of parties calling themselves the "Concertación de Poder por el No." They won the plebiscite and under the name of Concertación por la Democracia put forward Patricio Aylwin, who was elected President in l990. Four presidents belonging to the Concertación governed between l990 and 2010, when Sebastian Piñera, who led a conservative coalition, was elected.