Monday, February 25, 2008

Antonio Skarmeta: The Dancer and the Thief

Jonathan Yardley reviews Antonio Skármeta's The Dancer and the Thief.
Obviously the outcomes of both courtships must be left for the reader to discover, but The Dancer and the Thief is much more than an agreeable caper. Though Skarmeta scarcely ranks at the very top of Latin America's remarkably distinguished and varied literary elite, he is a serious writer to whom the death and rebirth of democracy in his native Chile is an endlessly compelling subject. Now in his late 60s, Sk¿rmeta fled Chile more than three decades ago as Pinochet clamped down -- he had practiced journalism and taught literature at the University of Chile -- and though he has lived in Germany on and off since 1975, his burning interest and literary preoccupation remain his home country.

His attitude toward it, as toward its capital of Santiago, is a mixture of exasperation and love. When Vergara Gray tells his son about a forebear who invented the telephone but lost the U.S. patent to Alexander Graham Bell, the boy replies: "You are so Chilean. Instead of commemorating victories, you celebrate defeats. Like our national hero, Arturo Prat: everybody remembers him with great affection because he lost the naval battle of Iquique against the Peruvians." Though in fairness Skarmeta really ought to acknowledge that Peru itself honors as "heroes" many leaders who lost battles in the same War of the Pacific, it is true that the self-deprecatory streak runs strong in Chile. It is scarcely anything to be ashamed of.

Skarmeta also is proud of Chile for rising above Pinochet and establishing what now is one of the few strong democracies in Latin America. Its president, Michelle Bachelet, is capable and widely respected in the international community, its economy is strong and its vino is maravilloso. Though the ending that Skarmeta gives his characters falls well short of happy, the Chile that he portrays herein is vibrant and strong.
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