The Norte Grande of Chile, the world's driest desert, had ''engendered contemporary Chile, everything that was good about it, everything that was dreadful,'' writes Ariel Dorfman in his brilliant exploration of one of the least known and most exotic corners of the globe. For 10,000 years the desert had been mined for silver, iron, and copper, but it was the 19th-century discovery of nitrate that transformed the country into a modern state and forced the desert's colonization.
The mines' riches generated mansions and oligarchs in Chile's more temperate region—and terrible inequalities throughout the country. The Norte Grande also gave birth to the first Chilean democratic and socialist movements, nurturing every major political figure of modern Chile from Salvador Allende to Augusto Pinochet. In this richly layered personal memoir, illustrated with the author's own photographs, Dorfman sets out to explore the origins of contemporary Chile—and, along the way, seek out his wife's European ancestors who came years ago to Chile as part of the nitrate rush. And, most poignantly, he looks for traces of his friend and fellow 1960s activist, Freddy Taberna, executed by a firing squad in a remote Pinochet death camp.
From the Hardcover edition.
Prolific Chilean writer Dorfman and his wife, Ang lica, travel north from Santiago, Chile, through the world's driest desert, the Atacama, an area where two millimeters of rain can cause a deadly mudslide. In recounting his journey "to the origins," Dorfman brings elements from his broad range as a writer. Dorfman the journalist weaves encyclopedic information into his text (e.g., facts on Monte Verde, possibly "the oldest settlement ever discovered in the Americas"), while Dorfman the poet gives color to the desert ("a dizzying array of browns and grays and terra-cottas") and vitality to places like Pampa Uni n, once "a town of brothels and bars, opium dens and gambling joints, a town only visited now by the whirlwinds and the shifting sands." As Ang lica searches for truths about her family history, Dorfman the novelist unravels the labyrinthine tale along with her. The playwright, a keen listener, lets diverse others tell much of the tale, including a "gathering of elderly pampinos," novelist Hern n Rivera Letelier and archeologist Lautaro N ez. Throughout the three-week trip, Dorfman the human rights activist foregrounds the figure of the desaparecido as he searches for "the disappeared body" of his friend Freddy Taberna. Archeology and astronomy, history and legend, intimate detail and public policy, relics from 50,000 years ago and mass graves from three decades ago are joined in this compelling trek. Readers whose baggage includes, as Dorfman's did at the beginning, "a deep-seated prejudice against deserts in general" will change their tune as they travel through this book, which entertains, informs and deeply engages. Map, 23 b&w photos.