Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review. His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara

This book review was first published in Irish Left Review here.

His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara
Smokestack Books, 2012

His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara (2012) captures a spectrum of lyrics which explicitly portrays social upheaval and the struggle against injustices. Victor Jara’s poetry resonates with memory and history woven into relics of resistance and triumph, culminating into an unfinished poem narrating the decadence of the dictatorship and initiated annihilation of socialism.

Thirty nine years after his death, Victor Jara remains a symbol for the Chilean left. Joan Jara’s foreword to the book shifts between memory and exile, explaining the commitment towards imparting Victor’s legacy in the aftermath of his murder. Living a constant battle against the right wing’s coveted practice of oblivion when confronted with dictatorship atrocities, Joan reiterates that Chilean justice is hampered by secrecy and impunity.

A founding member of the nueva canción movement together with Isabel Parra, Angel Parra, Rolando Alarcon and Patricio Manns, Victor gave constant support for Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular political campaign. Epitomised by songs such as El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido and the ubiquitous hymn of Venceremos, Allende’s campaign amalgamated social struggle and culture into a popular movement. Nueva canción served as a medium of expression for the left wing and, following Allende’s electoral triumph, many musicians travelled abroad as ambassadors for Unidad Popular.

This collection portrays Victor’s tenacity to challenge inequalities which, at times, manifested themselves into atrocities. Born in Lonquen, Victor witnessed and experienced the ramifications of poverty, finding solace in music and later conducting extensive research in folk music. Songs such as Canción del minero (Miner’s Song) and Plegaría a un labrador (Prayer to a Labourer) assert the indignity of exploitation with regard to human labour and natural resources. The helplessness exhibited in Cancion del Minero is transformed into a yearning to defeat the oppressor in Plegaría a un Labrador – unity embracing revolution and hope. Acknowledging armed struggle as a possible means to achieve dignity is implied in the last verse – evolving from solitary lament into social consciousness.

Victor pays homage to Miguel Angel Aguilera in El alma llena de banderas (Our Hearts are Full of Banners). A communist and member of Brigada Ramona Parra, Aguilera was killed during a street demonstration in Santiago in 1970. Victor contrasts the inspiration of Aguilera with the traitorous attitude of his murderers, stating “In the hiding place of rich murderers/ your name will stand for many names/ The one who burnt your wings as you flew/ cannot put out the fire of the poor.”
Preguntas por Puerto Montt (Questions about the massacre of Puerto Montt) earned Victor the rancour of right wing sentiment after singing the song at a boys’ secondary school in 1969. The song is addressed to Mr Perez Zujovic, the Minister of Interior who ordered a massacre upon a peasant community occupying a stretch of wasteland in Puerto Montt. Ninety one peasant families were attacked by 250 armed police, leaving 11 dead and many injured. The youngest victim was a nine month old child.

A particularly poignant song, Manifiesto (Manifesto) articulates Victor’s testimony as a singer, reaffirming his dedication to alleviate and revolt against violations. “My guitar is not for killers/ greedy for money and power,/ but for the people who labour/ so that the future may flower.” Victor’s declaration of “… a man who will die singing/ truthfully singing his song” was no vague metaphor but an assertion of his loyalty towards the people and a premonition of his own fate. The song is reminiscent of El Aparecido (The Apparition), dedicated to Che Guevara a short while before he was ambushed and murdered by CIA trained troops in Bolivia.

On the day of the military coup, Victor Jara was taken prisoner along with other workers and students barricaded inside the Technical University. Estadio Chile, Victor’s last poem, was written during his brief imprisonment at the stadium, which was transformed into the first detention and torture centre during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Written on scraps of paper and smuggled out of the stadium by a detainee who was later released, Victor inscribed what would be one of the initial endeavours in memory narrative, describing the brutality of the dictatorship. The incomplete poem describes the terror inflicted upon the 5,000 detainees in the stadium, documenting the soldiers’ beatings and psychological torture inflicted upon the prisoners. “One dead, another beaten as I could have never believed/a human being could be beaten/ … one jumping into nothingness,/ another beating his head against a wall,/ but all with the fixed look of death.”

Despite efforts to reveal the identities of officers responsible for Victor’s murder, most details are shrouded in secrecy and strengthened by oblivion and impunity. The Armed Forces of Chile refuse to reveal information which would further investigations into Victor Jara’s murder. In May, a documentary entitled Quien Mato a Victor Jara? (Who Killed Victor Jara?) revealed the name of Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez as the lieutenant who allegedly pulled the trigger on Victor. Barrientos has been living in Florida since Jose Paredes, an ex-conscript, was indicted for his role in Victor’s murder and refuses to return to Chile. Other officers refuse to collaborate, since the impunity laws of the dictatorship still govern Chilean society.

This poetry collection furthers Victor’s testimony of political turmoil in Chile, the years of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular when metaphors transcended the realm of illusion, and the initiation of the subsequent US aided military coup. The figure of Victor Jara has, throughout the years, become synonymous with the fight for justice despite the repression of dictatorship relics still governing Chilean society. An endeavour which strikes against impunity and oblivion, His Hands Were Gentle imparts a revolutionary consciousness, ensuring that the cry of “ni perdon, ni olvido” (neither forgiveness, nor oblivion) enters the realm of internationalism.

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