Literary Chile in Exile


When tragedy strikes a nation, it ultimately shapes its literary landscape for some period of time. Anyone who chooses to bring along the works of contemporary Chilean writers on their Chile tours will undoubtedly encounter stories of exile. One’s travel to Chile will be enriched by reading such tales.

Coincidentally falling on the eleventh day of September, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in 1973 and the subsequent seventeen-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was such an event. Many writers living in Chile at the time were forced to flee the country and wrote about the upheaval of those troubled times during their exile. To help those who are planning to travel to Chile to understand how the coup has shaped modern Chile, here are some reading suggestions. All lauded for their literary merit, these books describe Chilean life between the coup and the restoration of democracy. Five presidents have led Chile since then, all democratically-elected.

Isabel Allende, cousin to the fallen leader, is one of Chile’s best-selling writers. Though the setting of her 1985 novel, Eva Luna isn’t identified as Chile, the plot’s political unrest makes it seem so. Her political thriller, Of Love and Shadows (1987), too tells of lives altered by a military junta.

Though well-known in Latin America, Roberto Bolano didn’t hit the international literary scene until his works began to appear in English after his death from liver failure in 2003 at age fifty. Arrested briefly as a dissident by the Pinochet regime, he turned from poetry to fiction for the money. Unlike most of his novels which are set somewhere other than Chile, Bolano’s novella, By Night in Chile (Nocturno de Chile), deals with the problems of his own country, a political satire about teaching Marxism to Pinochet.

Salvador Allende named Argentine/Chilean novelist, playwright, poet and essayist, Ariel Dorfman, as his cultural advisor at the beginning of his presidency. Dorfman lived in Santiago from 1954 until the coup. His 1990 play, Death and the Maiden, and 1999 memoir, Heading South, Looking North: A Bi-lingual Journal, describe life under the dictatorship. His 2011 memoir, Feeding on Dreams, Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, offers a perspective on how a nation deals with trauma.

Born in 1936, the prolific and much honored novelist, Poli Delano, offers the perspective of a young man living in the bubble of youth in his 2003 novel, In This Sacred Place. Oblivious to the changing world around him, his outlook is altered by the coup. In This Sacred Place was the first of his works to be distributed in the United States. Delano returned to Chile in 1984.

The plotlines of several of novelist/journalist Jorge Edwards’ works involve living in and after exile, the most recent of which is The Dream of History (El Sueno de la historia). Edwards spent his own exile in Barcelona. In 2000, he became the first Chilean writer to win the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes award.

A posthumous Pablo Neruda finds his way into the plot of Jose Donoso’s 1988 novel, Curfew. Set in the Pinochet era, the story surrounds Neruda’s widow whose death causes political factions to rally. By the time the 1973 Chilean coup occurred, Donoso, had already left Chile. He stayed away as a protest against the Pinochet regime until 1980. His next two novels, The Garden Next Door (El Jardin de al Lado), published in 1992, and Despair (Desesperanza), speak to the homesickness for one’s homeland and exile.

For those who prefer lighter fare for their travel to Chile, the detective novel, The Neruda Case, by Robert Ampuero, has recently been translated into English. Written by Chile’s Ambassador to Mexico, it is a political thriller about the rise of Augusto Pinochet.

Thomas Hauser’s 1978 account of killing of an American journalist who disappeared in Santiago after the fall of Allende, The Execution of Charles Horman, an American Sacrifice, and after the release of the 1982 movie, Missing, under that title.