Book review: Atacama, a character-driven fight for a just society

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A gripping and emotionally resonant narrative of early to mid-20th century Chile, at a time and place of oppressive politics

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Atacama

Carmen Rodriguez | Fernwood Publishing (Nova Scotia and Winnipeg, 2021)

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$ 22 | 241pp


A historical fiction that spans decades and continents, Atacama explores ideological clashes with bloody and fatal consequences.

Reflecting on social justice in her second novel, Vancouver poet and educator Carmen Rodriguez highlights the enormous difficulty in achieving equality between humans – rich and poor, men and women, progressives and conservatives, straight guys and gays – under the best of circumstances. But in an age of oppressive politics, economic upheaval, militarism and corruption, a just society seems even more distant.

At its best, Atacama delivers gripping and emotionally resonant storytelling. It’s easy to see why. In his afterword, Rodriguez mentions the inspiring anecdotes of his parents; several of them found their way into the novel.

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Rodriguez also passes on his mother’s startling deathbed confession: a long-standing hatred for his father, a Chilean military officer, arose from the blood on his hands. Reflecting the author’s research on his own family history, this man evokes fear as the novel’s main villain.

The fallout from the decline of the saltpetre industry in the 1920s might be a hard sell to readers, but Rodriguez cleverly weaves economic history into the stories of Manuel and Lucia, a cursed couple born under very different circumstances.

At the opening of Atacama, the small and skinny Manuel envisages a career as a miner; we are in 1925, he is 12 years old and is happy at home in a hut on the dirt floor. Born the same year but to a socialite mother and a father quickly climbing the ranks of the army, Lucia seems doomed to a rich and easy life.

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In a few pages, half of Manual’s “agitator” family were killed in a labor dispute; he moved to a larger town, Iquique, which he considers beautiful compared to the mining colony.

Meanwhile, in her hometown, Lucia has a heartbreaking experience when human corpses emerge from the floodwaters – the work of her father’s men. With her eyes open to her family’s privilege and her father’s monstrous immorality, she refuses to stifle her indignation. She soon moved to Iquique “very, very ugly”. Lucia and Manual, two old souls, meet there.

Rodriguez traces their relationship, which evolves as their circumstances change again and again. Manuel becomes an office boy and a journalist, eventually traveling to cover the Spanish Civil War. Separated from her parents, Lucia joined the Communist Youth, took up modern dance and fell in love with Pilar, a young woman immersed in revolutionary politics.

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Both live and breathe politics; with their occupations, their activism and their deep desire for justice and equality, there is no shortage of causes. Over the decades, Lucia endures infamy, learning that “the communist ideal of equality for all did not include homosexuals”; she reinvents herself, changing her name to the one the author shares with her. Heartbroken and hardened by Spain, Manuel nevertheless maintains faith in a better world.

Reunited, he is an anarchist and she is a communist; both have little confidence in “bourgeois institutions”. Bound “by pain and a common enemy”, their complicated friendship lasted for decades, until 1949 when, like “the bane of the earth”, they were transported to a prison camp in the Atacama Desert.

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A less successful aspect of Atacama concerns character and exposure. In Rodriguez’s imagination, the characters are often presented as exclusively engaged in politics and the related debates about motivations, tactics, and positions. From time to time, they register as embodiments of ideologies and slogans, rather than as individuals; they are concerned with universal health care, labor laws, the interests of the proletariat, the oppressors and free education… and the workers, capitalism, the revolution, Stalin, the intellectuals and imperialism.

Fortunately, when they are in love, in mourning, angry, or elated, they are involved as characters in a novel.

This occasional stilted characterization is compounded by detailed exposure. Rodriguez limits the narrative flow with lists of names and events that don’t serve his novel particularly well. These patches could even induce a fear of quizzes dormant since high school.

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Consider just two examples:

“A few days later, west of Artesa de Segre, the Nationalists were arrested by the Twenty-Sixth Division, the army that our anarchist hero Buenaventura Durruti had originally formed in 1936 and which the militia of Barcelona had come to join. Now the Division was awaiting another nationalist attack.

“This is how we learned that Republican Colonel Segismundo Casado and Socialist politician Julian Besteiro had staged a coup against Prime Minister Juan Negrin and replaced his government with a National Defense Council. Apparently, Casado, Besteiro, and their allies believed that, unlike Negrin, they could negotiate a “good” peace deal with Franco.

With such mouthfuls of factual recitation, Rodriguez takes the risk that readers will lose touch with the beating heart of a novel that otherwise deserves praise.

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