Of Love and Military Dictatorship

I finished reading Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende. It felt not one book but two (plus a dictionary of synonyms). A perfectly good love story which unfortunately isn’t the sort of story I particularly care for: “Of Love…” And the perfectly good story of life under military dictatorship: “…and Shadows“. The title should have been my clue! The best story in the book, that of the Leal family escaping one military dictatorship only to end up in another and then having to escape back, got a bit lost in it; to me it would have merited a book on its own.

I took the country to be Chile under Pinochet, not that it matters. South America’s history is full of military dictatorships. In the end, dictators are all much of a muchness and only differ in their degree of cruelty. Perhaps because I grew up under communism, I could easily relate to the various ways in which the characters in the book were trying to survive… Society under a dictatorship, no matter how benign that dictatorship is (which this wasn’t), warps in predictable ways. The worst thing about communism wasn’t that it was an economical non-starter (its fundamental ideas quite simply contradict human nature, dooming it to inevitable failure), it was the way it warped people’s characters, the way it brought out the worst in most people, the way it turned ordinary men and women into opportunists and liars if they wanted to get on in life. The way you had to think twice before you expressed your opinions. The way you had to evaluate even your family members or friends whether they could be trusted.

There’s this poignant moment in the book, when dead bodies are recovered from a mine and all the neighbourhood people are watching from behind the police cordon:

…they say they’ll take the remains to the Morgue and there we can have a closer look at them. And how much does this cost? I don’t know, we’ll have to pay something. They charge for identifying your own dead? No, man, that ought to be free…

(The translation is mine, sorry, I haven’t got the book in English.)

If you think this is unbelievably bizarre, you haven’t lived through a dictatorship. 🙂 Maybe Americans should be reading this book, after all, South America is right in their backyard…

But in the end the best bit for me was that moment when, about three-quarters of the way through the book, I realised that I could understand nearly every single word. It took me two years of reading doggedly in Spanish to arrive at this moment (although in the beginning I cheated and was reading on the Kindle with a Spanish dictionary installed which made it so much easier): arwen1968 feeling accomplished

You might also like:
On Goulash Communism
Moscow Stations
The Noise of Time

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