The Atacama desert: a 'vast open book of memory' whose clear skies have allowed astronomers to look back in time to uncover the origins of the universe, whilst archaeologists excavate human remains from pre-Columbian times miraculously preserved in the arid climate. But it is also a place where women come to search for traces of their husbands, murdered by the Pinochet regime and disposed of at unrecorded sites, whose locations must still be known to those involved. Patricio Guzmán's acclaimed documentary Nostalgia for the Light (2010) contrasts these researches into our distant past with the difficulties in uncovering Chile's buried history. Not far from the observatories there is an old nineteenth century mining camp, whose remoteness and cramped old huts required only the addition of barbed wire for its conversion into a concentration camp after the 1973 coup. The film interviews an architect and former prisoner who memorised its dimensions and exact layout so that if he was released he would be able to draw and bear witness to what he had experienced there. At another camp, a doctor with some knowledge of astronomy taught a small group of fellow prisoners about the stars. One of them remembers how "observing the sky and the stars, marvelling at the constellations, we felt completely free." The military put a stop to this, convinced that the prisoners might be able to escape, guided by the constellations.
The fortieth anniversary of the coup was marked last week by the Whitechapel Gallery with a showing of Compañero: Víctor Jara of Chile (1975). This deeply affecting documentary was built around an interview with Joan Jara, who fled to England with her two young daughters after the killing of her husband. The evening also included readings and short film clips, beginning with a sequence from Nostalgia for the Light in which leaves blowing outside an old Santiago house turn into a galaxy of dust motes. Watching this, memories stirred in me too, from a period when my wife was interviewing victims of the dictatorship as part of the legal team trying to have Pinochet extradited to Spain or prosecuted in England. A few years after that, work took me to Chile and I went to visit Pablo Neruda's house, La Chascona, which he designed to resemble a boat and evoke ideas of water and the sea. As journalist Jollyon Attwooll writes, 'the house's original plot of land had streams and a waterfall that so captivated Neruda and his wife they felt compelled to buy it, and, as the house took shape, water was diverted to flow right outside the galley-like dining room'. On the day of the coup La Chascona was raided 'and the running water that had at first so charmed Neruda was used to flood the house.' All these years later, we still do not know whether Neruda, who died a few days later, was poisoned. Whilst the bones of the great poet are being examined now by toxicologists, lawyers are pursuing a new case against Victor Jara's alleged killer. His widow Joan, like the women searching the desert in Nostalgia for the Light, refuses to let the past be forgotten: “we want to shine a light on the severe human rights abuses from this era and bring those responsible to justice.”