Review of Retribution & Interview w/ Carmen Rodriguez

Review of Retribution 
and Interview with Author, Carmen Rodriguez
 (Three O'clock Press)

The following was cross-posted at Rover: Montreal Arts Uncovered.

 Like many, I’m drawn to novels that explore Latin American politics, particularly those rooted in Argentina and Chile. I was immediately intrigued when I heard about Retribution by poet, translator and activist Carmen Rodriguez, mainly because the author lived through the 1973 coup d’état. Rodriguez, her husband and their two young daughters were exiled to Vancouver in 1974.

Retribution opens with granddaughter Tania receiving a letter from the Chilean Consulate in Vancouver informing her that her father may not have been who she thought he was.

Back in 1974, Grandmother Soledad Martinez and her daughter Sol brought three-day-old Tania to live in exile in Vancouver after Sol had been imprisoned in the wake of Pinochet’s military takeover. A survivor of rape and torture in prison, Sol raises Tania to believe that her father had disappeared like so many other Chileans.

 Unlike many novels surrounding the events of September 11, 1973, Retribution does not end with the Martinez family being forced into exile. Instead, it focuses on the years after the coup, on how Soledad and Sol come to terms with losing their loved ones and the brutality they suffered at the hands of the Chilean military.

 It was refreshing to pick up a book with two strong compelling women characters like Soledad and Sol. The story sheds light on how political refugees overcome loss, trauma and hatred in a new country, an aspect of political stories that is often given short shrift. This is a beautiful, complex story woven together with well-researched political facts. Rodriguez skillfully tackles heavy themes for a first time novelist, and my only criticism was perhaps Tania’s character, which was not as well fleshed out as the other two.

 Retribution is a highly realistic and satisfying read which somehow makes the magic realism of Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits seem akin to a Disney production.

I spoke with Carmen Rodriguez about her first novel at the Paragraphe bookstore in November 2011. 

There are some very difficult themes tackled in Retribution: rape, murder, torture and exile. Which parts were the most difficult to write and why?

While it is accurate to say that the topics of rape, murder, torture and exile are part of Retribution, the book is also about the regular ups and downs in the life of a Chilean lower-middle-class family prior to the 1973 coup and most importantly, about how a mother and a daughter succeed in turning horror and darkness into beauty and hope. Therefore, the whole book was difficult to write.

 I realize that Sol is a fictitious character. Yet, she was a leftist activist and social worker who fled Chile in 1974, and anyone who read your daughter’s book, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, would see that you and Sol have a lot in common. Is there a lot of yourself in Sol or does she represent a lot of young leftist women in Chile at that time?

Sol is a composite character. Some of her experiences are based on my own, but her personality, demeanor, outlook on life and actions are her own. 

Tania receives a letter through the Chilean Consulate from Judge Leiva informing her that her father may be Marcelino Romero, a man who tortured and raped women in detention after the 1973 coup. Has any such action ever been taken by the Chilean government to acknowledge its wrongdoing or make reparations?

 I don’t know. Torturers and members of the military have been tried and convicted. I don’t know if they were specifically accused of rape.

Unlike many other novels on the Pinochet military takeover of Chile, the climax of the book is not the events surrounding September 11, 1973. Instead, it is about the aftermath. Dealing with the loss of her son, the disappearance of her daughter, and the betrayal of her conservative sister, Soledad had a difficult time with her anger and pain. Your account of Soledad’s intense feelings when she arrives in Canada was very realistic. Where did you find your inspiration for this scene?

In the character. I was immersed in her body and mind at the time and this is the way she chose to (re)act at that point in the narrative.

Perhaps the most moving part of your book was when Soledad finally finds her son, Andresito. Before she finds him, she has to go to the military barracks, a prison on Teja Island and to the morgue. Is this a realistic depiction of how parents went about looking for their children after the coup? 

Yes. This happened to many people, including the well-documented case of Joan Jara, who found her husband’s body – theatre director and internationally renowned musician Víctor Jara – in the Santiago morgue a few days after the coup.

Writing a book is a long process. Could you tell us some of the steps you went through? 

 I began by imagining a trilogy: the first book would portray the family’s life in the decades prior to the Popular Unity/Allende government, the second one would take the family through the Popular Unity years, the coup and its aftermath (1970-1974), and the third one would narrate the protagonists’ lives as exiles in Canada.

After much writing and pondering, I decided to put everything into one book. It took a long time to come up with an appropriate structure for the novel and the central theme of “retribution” made its way into the manuscript in its latter stages of development.

 Are there any parallels between the student movement today in Chile and the leftist movement of the early 1970s?

The student movement of the 1960s and 70s was part of a larger movement striving for social justice. It included factory workers, farm workers, professionals, intellectuals and marginalized sectors of society. Today’s student movement was triggered by issues specifically related to education: demands for free universal education. However, this initial motivation has brought to the forefront the injustices inherent to Chile’s entire economic model and the inadequacies and limitations of the country’s democracy. Thus, the current student movement has acted as a leader and catalyst for all those sectors that are unhappy with the socio-political situation in the country.

 Is Chile as politically polarized now as it was in the early 1970s?

 In the early 1970s, Chile’s president was Salvador Allende, a socialist elected to carry out a program of ground-breaking transformations, including the nationalization of the country’s copper mines and other key industries, and agrarian reform. This resulted in fierce opposition from the U.S. government, multinational corporations, Chile’s bourgeoisie, wealthy landowners and members of other sectors of society content with the status quo. The outcome was not only polarization, but perhaps most importantly, U.S. intervention, a concerted campaign to destabilize the country and, ultimately, the military coup d’état of September 11, 1973.

Chile now has a right-wing President — economist and businessman Sebastián Piñera, who became a billionaire during the Pinochet dictatorship by introducing credit cards to Chile. Piñera was elected in January of 2010 with promises of improving the economic welfare of Chileans, but after nearly two years in office he has not fulfilled his promises. His popularity has plummeted and large sectors of the population have begun to show their discontent.

 Overall, the situation in Chile today is very different. The wealthy and their political representatives are in government, not in opposition. Large sectors of the population have organized to denounce the government’s neoliberal agenda and propose a fairer agenda, but have neither the economic nor military clout nor the desire to depose Sebastián Piñera through violent means. Piñera may feel compelled to make some changes in order to stop the upheaval and/or will be voted out in the next presidential elections.

Thanks so much Carmen Rodriguez for your time and thoughts. I wish you all the best with your book.

Other related posts:
Meet Revolutionary Mother : More on my talk with Carmen Rodriguez

Other book reviews:
Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre
The Blue Dragon by Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud, illustrated by Fred Jourdain
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien
Going Down Swinging by Billie Livingston
Incendiary by Chris Cleave
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell 
The Girl Without Anyone by Kelli Deeth
Drive-By Saviours by Chris Benjamin



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