Eltit, Bolaño and the New Constitution

A few years ago, on the centennial of the Querétaro Constitution, Mexican critic Vicente Quirarte compiled a book entitled Constitución y literatura (2017), which explored the literary resonances of that constitutional document. Quirarte identified echoes of patriotism and agrarianism, of national sovereignty and educational and cultural policy, of workers’ laws and the secular state, in the poetry of Ramón López Velarde, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán List Arzubide, in the prose of Mariano Azuela, José Revueltas and Edmundo Valadés.

A similar exercise could be carried out with the new Chilean Constitution, which will be submitted to a plebiscite on September 4. Which Chilean writers does this Magna Carta resemble? Surely to many, especially of the younger generation (Lina Meruane, Alejandra Costamagna, Nona Fernández, Alejandro Zambra), connected in one way or another with the constituent process. But there could also be dialogues between the new constitutional text and the work of authors such as Diamela Eltit (Santiago, 1947) and Roberto Bolaño (Santiago, 1953), two very different writers who began writing in the period of the dictatorship.

Eltit’s novels of the 1980s, Lumpérica (1983), Por la patria (1986) and El cuarto mundo (1988), channeled from fiction the undercurrents of Chilean society such as patriarchalism, racism and sexual and political repression. Article 6 of the new Constitution, dedicated to “gender equality,” takes up old demands of the Chilean feminist movement, associated with the search for “substantive” equality of subjectivities, both in “representation” and in the “full exercise” of democracy and citizenship. Article 6 also establishes gender parity in all organs, powers and institutions of the State, while Article 10 admits diverse parental modalities, “without restricting them to exclusively filial or consanguineous ties.”

Those novels, especially El cuarto mundo, tried to make visible the social stratification in Chile and all Latin America and the Caribbean. As in Nelly Richard’s essayistic work, marginality moved from the periphery to the center of the argument and the world of indigenous and mestizo communities was understood outside the ideological capture of the discourse of national or continental identity. Articles 5 and 11 of the new Magna Carta recognize “the coexistence of diverse peoples and nations within the framework of the unity of the State,” in reference to the Mapuche, Aymara, Rapanui, Quechua, Colla and other communities, and advocate “intercultural, horizontal and transversal dialogue between the diverse worldviews of peoples and nations that coexist in the country.”

The deep protective accent of the new Constitution, which is based on an unrestricted respect for all fundamental rights, which total more than one hundred, to their entitlement and progressiveness, is the result of a political culture that settles accounts with its authoritarian past. It is not only the basic modern rights to freedom and equality, new guarantees, such as those of children and adolescents, neurodiversity, the environment, dignified death, care, bioethics, food sovereignty or digital connectivity, are contemplated and assured. Both the broad area of fundamental rights and the more limited but no less important area of representation and participation mechanisms are a lesson of commitment to democracy in the 21st century.

Among the fundamental rights guaranteed by the State are culture and education. In a well-known passage of Nocturno de Chile (2000), Farewell, a rough literary critic, says: “in this country of estate owners, literature is a rarity and it lacks merit to know how to read.” Reluctant to all the pastorals on Chilean literate culture, which abounded in the beginning of the transition, Bolaño followed Nicanor Parra in saying that the four great poets of Chile were not four (Huidobro, Mistral, Neruda or Parra) but two: Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, from Madrid in the 16th century, who had sung of Araucania, its nature and its inhabitants, and Rubén Darío, without whom, in his opinion, the eminent Chilean poetic tradition of the 20th century could not be understood.

Parra and Bolaño’s boutade was a clear abjuration of the crude nationalism and racism of Chilean elites, liberal or conservative, Catholic or socialist. The constitutional articles dedicated to nationality and citizenship do not leave the slightest loophole for xenophobia or disregard for the fundamental rights of Chileans living abroad. Article 114 states that in order to obtain Chilean nationality, it will not be required to renounce one’s previous nationality and opens several routes for naturalization. In 118 it is stipulated that all Chileans living outside the country retain the fundamental guarantees and have the right to vote in national, presidential or parliamentary elections, and in plebiscites, referendums, citizen consultations and other mechanisms of direct democracy.

Bolaño’s work specifically set in Chile, La literatura nazi en América (1996), Estrella distante (1996), Nocturno de Chile (2000) and the prose of Entre paréntesis (2004), contains multiple testimonies of his rejection of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, an authoritarian regime that he often equated with those of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Recurring scenes from those texts, related to censorship, repression, interrogation, torture and disappearances, the most cited example of which is the one in the basement of María Canales’s social gathering in Nocturno de Chile, point to a demand for transitional justice based on memory, truth and reparation.

Article 24 of the new Chilean Magna Carta, which Chileans must approve or not this September 4, but which if rejected will lead to a process of profound reform of the current law, states that “victims have the right to the clarification and knowledge of the truth about human rights violations, especially when they constitute crimes against humanity, war, genocide or territorial dispossession.” This article proscribes and criminalizes disappearance, but also torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” by the forces of law and order against citizens. And it adds: “the victims of human rights violations have the right to full reparation.”

Diamela Eltit and Roberto Bolaño / Photos from internet.
Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


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