Clandestine in Chile

Miguel Littin was a noted film director in Chile, an associate of Salvador Allende, who was exiled when the dictator Pinochet came to power. Some years later, he concocted a scheme to disguise himself as a Guatemalan businessman and return to his homeland in order to film a documentary about Pinochet’s repressive regime. Garcia Marquez taped eighteen hours of conversations with Littin and edited the resulting voluminous transcript into this slim, narratively alert volume. As a technical feat, CLANDESTINE IN CHILE is quite impressive. Some writers spend hundreds of hours in interviews with their subjects without producing anything that approaches Garcia Marquez’s wit and precision of detail.

Such an achievement is perhaps to be expected from a Nobel Prize-winning author, yet CLANDESTINE IN CHILE may even surpass some of Garcia Marquez’s difficult fictions.

The sole flaw in this work is a sometimes crude translation by Asa Zatz that is not up to the nuances of Garcia Marquez’s prose. An example of the mistranslations occurs in a scene in which Littin, in disguise, gets his hair cut in a Chilean barber shop. The woman barber notices with surprise that his eyebrows have been plucked (in the interest of his disguise). To remain unidentified, Littin adopts yet another persona: “Casting her a languid glance, I said, ’And why not? Are you prejudiced against gays?’” The translator calls this the “ugliest joke” that the narrator could make, whereas the Spanish original termed it the “broadest” or “wildest” or “farthest-out” joke. Homophobia such as that implied by this translation is surely out of place in a film-maker who has directly felt the effects of political oppression.