Review of Carmen Aguirre, Something Fierce (Vancouver: Douglas & Mcintyre, 2011)
New Socialist webzine
15 February 2012
Something Fierce recently won CBC's Canada Reads 2012 contest. It has been long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. It was also nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Here we offer an appreciation by J. Kavanagh.
If I had to limit myself to one word to describe Something Fierce, it would be "raw." Aguirre does not claim that this, her first book, flowed from her pen this way. She credits her editor with always challenging her to be more immediate, more direct. But the story could not have been written without Aguirre's clear recall of so much of her life and her willingness to relive painful experiences.
The story is engaging, if not always easy to read. But you will want to keep on reading because she illuminates an experience that most of us will never have first-hand. We see the world through the eyes of a child, then a teenage girl whose parents are involved in the dangerous struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Eventually we see her as a young adult, herself now committed to the revolutionary struggle.
As a child she meets Chileans arriving in Vancouver, their bodies bearing the marks of Pinochet's torture chambers. Even her childhood games imagine participation in the struggle. Her mother and father separate and eventually she and her sister are taken to South America by her mother and her mother's new partner. They will assist the Chilean resistance from Bolivia and then Argentina.
With this she begins a life of disguise and deception. She cannot be honest with friends back home in Vancouver about where she is and what she is doing. She cannot be honest with people she meets about what her family is doing. If she witnesses racist abuse directed at Indian people by border guards, she must remain impassive, not draw attention to herself. Friendships made in one city are for the most part abandoned when they move on. They cannot know who might be watching them.
As they move from place to place they must blend in, even if it means mixing with people from the political elite. Even if it means talking to medical students who accept that supervising torture will be a part of their job.
At one point she befriends a German/Chilean family living in Argentina. They are openly in support of Pinochet. Even more startling, they are quite open about their admiration for Hitler. Carmen must remain non-committal, not only for fear of betraying her parent's activity, but because the girl in this family is her only companion in an isolated backwater.
When Aguirre arrives in South America, she feels like she has come home. But at the same time she experiences South America with some of the sensibility acquired during her years in Canada. She bridles against the routine sexism of young men in Bolivia. Once, out with friends, she begins to offer a few young men the same kind of mocking harassment she has experienced on the street. Her friends are amused and frightened at the same time, and the young men are thunderstruck to be greeted this way. But this is a rare exception to her normally prudent and careful self.
The move from Bolivia to Argentina reminds her of how brown she is compared to the average Argentinian. For a time she reacts to this by becoming a shy homebody, devoting herself to keeping their home clean and tidy. Through her we experience the Falklands War and its aftermath as it was experienced in Argentina, including the mistreatment of Argentinian soldiers by their officers, and the public hostility to them after Argentina's defeat.
Through her we experience runaway inflation. On one occasion, her parents leave her for a time while they are carrying out their political assignments. They leave what they believe to be adequate provision, but in the weeks while they are gone the money they have left becomes increasingly worthless. Only when she is down to her last scrap of food does she get a gift of food from a family friend.
This book has much to teach a broad audience about imperialist brutality. I am sure there are many people who have no knowledge of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. And who can blame them? Where would they get this knowledge? That experience is typically not part of our political discussion. Or worse, Pinochet is lauded for his fiscal policies (See Niall Ferguson's TV series "The Ascent of Money"). It is worth remembering that the much-revered Margaret Thatcher dismissed the leftists who opposed Pinochet's rule as sore losers.
Some readers may be left hungering for more. While the resistance certainly inspired great commitment and courage, was it as effective as it could have been? Why did the resistance decide they had been defeated, just as Pinochet's rule was coming to an end? What can we take away from this book to make us more effective today?
Aguirre did not set out to answer those questions. I don't know of any book that addresses them. Such a book could be written by any number of serious scholars. But only Aguirre could have written this book. She has given us the gift of her own experience. For many readers this may be their first exposure to the reality of struggles in the Third World. I hope it inspires them to read more.
J Kavanagh was involved in the Chilean solidarity movement beginning days after the coup of September 11, 1973. He is presently retired in British Columbia, but remains politically active.