Sunday, January 22, 2012

Victor - An Unfinished Song
by Joan Jara
Bloomsbury, 1998

Review by Ramona Wadi

"I need the wood and strings of my guitar to give vent to sadness or happiness, some verse which opens up the heart like a wound, some line which helps us all to turn from inside ourselves to look out and see the world with new eyes." Victor Jara

In the preface, Joan Jara expresses relief at the opportunity to relate such an integral part of Chilean history. Indeed, this memoir soothes, enraptures and enrages the reader, with the knowledge that each page brings one closer to an atrocious epilogue - a reminder of the horrors unleashed by the military coup of Augusto Pinochet.

Joan Jara's narration is provocative and poignant. From the first pages one senses the fervour of socialism, coupled with the experience of a British woman in Chile. Arriving in Chile as a ballet dancer who later took up teaching, the initial experience as a foreigner quickly dissolves as her life with Victor becomes the immediate reality. Their lives together soon become overshadowed by a short lived socialist triumph with the election of Salvador Allende which descended into tyranny with the emergence of right wing violence and the US supported military coup which degenerated into a bloodbath.

The Nueva Cancion Chilena was part of the left's struggle against imperialism, integrating itself with the people and becoming a voice for the laments of the poblacion. Like other nueva cancion singers and groups, such as Inti Illimani and Quilapayun, Victor Jara supported Allende's presidential campaign wholeheartedly. Allende's Unidad Popular gave Chileans the hope for freedom and the song Venceremos quickly became the official hymn of the Unidad Popular.

The opposition to Allende's government was fuelled by US foreign policy, which seems to have deemed it ethical to eliminate any traces of communism in Latin America. Allende's final broadcast, in which he pledged his life to the people, was the initiation of a bloody trail that haunted Allende's supporters. In snippets of telephone conversation with Joan Jara, Victor managed to illustrate a cautious overview of events from his workplace at the Technical University. A few days later, she was informed of her husband's death by a companero. 

Victor's murder at the Estadio Chile was pieced together later by witnesses. Victor was singled out especially for torture and mockery by a soldier nicknamed 'The Prince' who, by all accounts is reputed to have been extremely sadistic in his treatment of the prisoners. Recognised as a nueva cancion singer, Victor's defiance and pledge to remain close to the people never wavered. In a poem written hours before his death, Victor Jara bequeathed the world with a testimony that paid homage to the thousands of people murdered by the military.

In the aftermath of Victor's murder, Pinochet embarked on a destructive mission against the nueva cancion. Victor Jara's song records were destroyed and the purge extended to instruments normally associated with the nueva cancion. His musical legacy still exists due to the efforts of Chileans hiding record copies and eventually smuggling them out of Chile.

Victor - An Unfinished Song is a testimony which mingles horror, exile, nostalgia and the repercussions of right wing politics. An essential read for anyone with an interest in the nueva cancion, the book is rendered intimate by the lyrics to Manifiesto and Vientos del Pueblo, as well as Victor's last poem from the Estadio Chile. It is a sphere of Chilean history yet, the universal philosophy of the nueva cancion makes this book an integral part of any person's history, whether beyond immediate recollection or a reflection of contemporary oppression.

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