In countries that have emerged from brutal 20th-century dictatorships, the past isn’t staying in the past.
Even the best-laid plans, in my experience, often don’t survive contact with vacations. Unlike some past trips that shall remain nameless but know what they did, thankfully this time around there were no hurricanes, passport thefts, norovirus outbreaks or other crises. But it turned out my reading list was way off base: the last thing I wanted, while baking in beach-town heat, was to read novels about others doing the same. So “The Guest” remains firmly in my to-read pile.
Instead I read “Lee Miller: A Life,” by Carolyn Burke, which I tossed into my carry-on at the last minute. Miller, a pioneering artist and photojournalist, had a Forrest Gump-like ability to cross paths with history, and the biography had me marking every fifth page or so to note her perspective on a famous 20th-century figure or event.
For reasons I cannot explain but did not resist (vacations move in mysterious ways, best not to fight it), I then felt compelled to reread “The Firm,” by John Grisham, which I don’t think I’d picked up since college. In our post-Panama Papers era, the 1991 book seems almost wholesome: how naïvely loyal for such a firm to limit its dirty dealings to just one institutional client! And how extraordinary that the lawyers involved would be willing to risk prison and work 90-hour weeks for the chance at a salary in the mid-six figures.
But I was in Spain, and still myself, so it wasn’t too long before I started to think about the Franco dictatorship and its unresolved legacy. “Ghosts of Spain,” by Giles Tremlett, does a good job of capturing not just the history but the feeling of a country that has charged into the future without fully acknowledging the past.
That is a dilemma for every country in one way or another, but it’s reaching new urgency for many of those that have emerged from brutal 20th-century dictatorships. In Chile, President Gabriel Boric announced this week that the country would mount a search for the remains of over a thousand people who were disappeared under the military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Of the more than 1,400 people abducted and secretly executed during the dictatorship, only 307 have ever been found and identified. “Flowers in the Desert: the Search for Chile’s Disappeared,” by Paula Allen, documents the efforts of a small group of women to find the remains of 26 men — the searchers’ husbands, brothers, and sons — who were taken from the northern town of Calama and secretly buried in a mass grave.
In 2013, while I was in Guatemala City to observe the genocide trial of former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt, I found the country’s struggle over its past literally written on the capital’s walls. City-center buildings were blanketed with photographs of the disappeared, xeroxed school portraits and family snapshots that combined defiant memorials with a desperate plea for truth. Meanwhile, handmade banners painted on bedsheets fluttered in the wind on the sides of highway overpasses, emblazoned with the right-wing refrain that “There was no genocide!”
Francisco Goldman’s “The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?” draws a map from Guatemala’s dictatorial past to its troubled present, showing how perpetrators of past misdeeds committed new killings in order to preserve their own impunity, allowing the violence of the dictatorship to metastasize into the country’s nascent democracy.
That culture of secrecy and violence was like a petri dish for political graft and other abuses. But last month’s presidential election brought the unexpected victory of Bernardo Arévalo, an anticorruption crusader. His supporters hope that the fear-driven culture of the past may finally lose its grip on the machinery of power in the present.
Reader responses: Books that you recommend
Kim, a reader on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, recommends “The Sportswriter” by Richard Ford:
I’ve been saving up the Frank Bascombe set for a year or two, and this, the first of four, hasn’t disappointed. Ford just gets inside the skin of his characters, and then adds layer upon layer of emotional, historical, political, cultural, geographical and humorous context. There are loads — far too many to quote — of ‘wow’ sentence moments, or amazing character insights that lift Ford up to the top of his profession. I’m an Aussie who had the luck of a three year stint living in Virginia Beach from 1991-94, and this book — with it’s flawed, but sympathetic central characters — transports me back to a slower, but no less complex time.
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