Sign in

If you are a registered user, enter your email and password

William Styron and Arthur Miller in Chile

The «no» of politics and the «no» of life

Jorge Edwards
Writer Photographs: Marcelo Montecino Santiago, Chile Á - N.1

William Styron and Arthur Miller’s visit to Chile in 1988 —to support the journalists being followed by the dictatorship— was absorbed by the general hustle of this period of substantial changes. Jorge Edwards, who was close to both writers, here tells the story of these strange days and reflects on the specific weight of the sheer instability of freedom of expression.



Towards the middle of 1988, after 15 years of military dictatorship, Chile started to campaign for a referendum that was, curiously, proposed by Pinochet’s 1980 political constitution. According to the constitutional regulation, the country was calling the people to decide whether the general would stay in power for the following eight years or if he would abandon the charge and call presidential elections. It was a difficult situation for Chileans to understand, and almost impossible to explain to foreigners. But, after all, I think it was related to the state of rights that had existed in the former Chile, a situation, a national tradition, that had been interrupted abruptly, violently, but that had not been entirely destroyed.

The jurists of the 19th Century, the founding fathers in the criolla version, had managed to create an exceptional phenomenon in Hispano-America, something that in the old Chile was called “religion of the State”, and that some referred to as “State in form”. The military coup of September 1973 had disarticulated this “State in form” in a clean shot, but there had survived, in spite of everything, legal loopholes and crevices, nostalgias, utopias?


Be it as it may, the obligation to call a referendum figured, by omission, by distraction, or by an excess of confidence, by whatever it was, in this constitution voted by the partisans of the general. It proved that it was better, for the desirable democratic health of the country, to have a bad, partial constitution, a total legal void. Following serious vacillations, grave internal divisions, I think the democratic opposition understood with clarity, with a good political instinct, that these legal antecedents, used with skill, with prudence, could serve to organize and channel the end of the Pinochet era.


Atypical solutions

In those days I was president of the Committee of Defence of Freedom of Expression, and they had had contact with the International Pen Club, with societies of authors of different countries, with two foreign entities that are well connected: Amnesty International and Index for Censorship.


The cause of freedom of expression was not exclusively Chilean, of course, and now, after 30 years, I’m convinced that it’s still one of the most important universal causes, one of the most urgent in the widest sense. More than once have I regretted letting our committee die when the fall of Pinochet made it apparently unnecessary. So, in those days of the Autumn of 1988 the possibility arose, I don’t remember exactly how, of the great characters of North American literature, the dramatist Arthur Miller, the novelist William Styron and his wife, also a writer, Rose Styron, would travel to Chile with the support of the Pen Club and the embassy of their country, to empathize with Chilean journalists that were monitored and harassed by the dictatorship.

It was an interesting episode at the start of a transition: the downfall of a Latin American dictatorship, typical in many ways, including its implacable cruelty, in an electoral campaign and a referendum with which they surprised us, that were essentially inventive, imaginative, precisely atypical. Venezuelan friends that are now exiled in Madrid, asked me whether Chile’s experience can be useful for today’s situation in Venezuela. I don’t have a good answer. At the end of the 1980’s, there were visible loopholes in the Chilean military regime. Some of these had to do with a growing freedom of expression. Others with the gradual organization that is never easy, of an efficient democratic opposition, that included organisms of the Church such as the notable Vicaría de la Solidaridad. In any case, I tell my Venezuelan friends that invention and imagination are always useful, and if they join together with a tranquil vision, not a hysterical one, not excessively optimistic of the adversary, they can take you far. It wasn’t the “vote with a rifle” that the former extreme left had spoken so much about, but the vote without a rifle, or in spite of the rifle. It was a movement of Chilean civil society, that the military hadn’t managed to destroy everything, and that perhaps the Venezuela of today has been more severely punished and eroded.


I forget many details about that far away visit of the North American authors, I remember others, and I reread the works of Miller and Styron with maximum attention. The first “detail” I remember, which is much more than a detail. All the press reviews talked about Arthur Miller as “the husband or ex-husband of Marilyn Monroe”. Some young poets said that they had trembled with emotion as they approached the author of Death of a Salesman: they were going to shake a hand that had touched the divine body of Marilyn. They hardly said anything about Willian Styron and it seems that they weren’t interested in knowing anything. And let’s not even mention the charming Rose Styron. No one was interested in a character that hadn’t appeared on Hola, or in its equivalent at the time. With three or found honorific exceptions, the press, that these authors had travelled to defend, showed an overwhelming mediocrity. They were only interested in the mediatic value of the travellers. They didn’t manage to buy or look for one of their books, to read anything or analyse anything. I don’t know if it’s improved at all since then. I have my doubts.

I remember that we had lunch with the three visitors and two or three Chileans at a restaurant next to the Hotel Carrera, and that we took a walk around Santiago Centre. It was quite a pilgrim idea, an evident naivety of mine, I don’t know if it was shared by some journalists that took part in the reception, of whom I remember Sergio Marras. The travellers were obviously tired after their long journey, and the buses, the car horns, the dust, the sweaty pedestrians on the streets of Bandera, Morandé, Agustinas and Huérfanos, didn’t manage to raise their spirits. They, who we observed with the corner of an eye, didn’t say a word, but their silence couldn’t have been more expressive. Miller said at one point that Santiago reminded him of his recent trip to Istanbul. Istanbul, clearly, has a millenary history, it has the Bosporus, it has byzantine domes, Islamic minarets, towers, medieval walls. Santiago has Cerro Santa Lucía, that isn’t a bad invention, but on this occasion, we didn’t manage to get to its buttresses. Our guests, always escorted by a security car organised by the embassy, went to sleep.


The programme started some hours later, I think with a visit to the Universidad Católica. Two or three days later, facing whirlwinds of dust and dirty papers, dry leaves lifted on the Teatinos street, as we were leaving the hotel, they said in a compassionate, friendly way, that surprised me and put me in a thoughtful state:


Jorge, please leave this place. If you stay here, the contamination will kill you. We will help you settle down in our country where the air is purer: in Martha’s Vineyard, on the island of Manhattan, wherever.


I don’t know if I laughed or if I felt condemned: contamination, military dictatorship, horrible everyday stories. But one day in the afternoon, at the start of twilight, we drove on the side of Parque Forestal and the Bellas Artes School, and they exclaimed, surprised, that they found these places pretty. I think they went uptown once, but they didn’t say anything, and I don’t think there was anything to say. What can a North American intellectual say about the imitation of a neighbourhood in the province of the United States? There were meetings in the Sociedad de Escritores, in the theatre of the Universidad Católica, at the Universidad de Chile, in Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. Miller and Rose Styron, in their condition as directors of the International Pen Club, had invited Neruda to New York in the mid 70’s. This trip provoked a furious letter from the intellectual Cuban revolutionaries, or apparently revolutionaries, against Neruda, a letter in which the poet couldn’t swallow or forgive. It was a sign of those times of monitoring, of suspicion, of permanent censorship. Writers kept a watchful eye over each other, they accused each other, disqualified each other all the time, and they thought that this kind of collective illness gave them a halo of heroism. To this day I see writers with idiotic smiles and halos of political sacredness, walking around North American campuses in tennis shoes.


Before MacCarthy

Although it might not fit into the common conceptions of the time, in the Chile of the 1980’s, with Augusto Pinochet and the militaries in power, a relative openness had been produced, along with a proliferation of magazines of the opposition, never without sudden backlashes, unpleasant surprises, threats. We wrote between the lines, and readers perfectly understood what we were saying, and many of us managed to become true masters of this masked writing, which some called the language of Aesop. We met up many times in my apartment in Santa Lucía, in front of the founding hill of the city, with poets, writers, journalists of different sectors, scriptwriters and Chilean actors, and nothing really disturbing ever happened. We were all alert, attentive to telephones, steps, elevators, but no security worker rang the bell.

There was plenty of feathered rhetoric, of palatial style, pronouncing long discourses. Arthur Miller and Bill Styron, about one of these whose verbal incontinence had left them pale and tremulous, said in a low voice: “what a terrible man!”. Arthur had the mania of comparing almost everything he observed in Chile to what he had seen months before in Turkey. Sometimes I thought that he had travelled so much that he had mistaken another country for Turkey. But he was an attentive, passionate observer, and he had an interesting idea. The journalist Juan Pablo Cárdenas, animator of one of the most renowned magazines of the opposition, could walk freely by day, but he was condemned to sleep in jail every night. Miller proposed that we should all join Cárdenas on his return to the prison and affectionately say goodbye at the gates of the jail, in front of the jail keepers. And we did it during I don’t remember how many days.


In my memory and in my recent rereading of his work, I see Arthur Miller as a writer of social commitment as well as the struggle for public liberties. Death of a Salesman is the drama of a person devoured by routine, by time, by need. In a society in which everything is sold, Willy Loman, the main character, is condemned to be a salesman to the end of his days, although he hates his profession. The actors that played Loman, like Frederick March, like Lee J. Cobb, went on to be legends of modern theatre. The dialogue in the works of Miller is colloquial, from the street, incisive, with moments of harshness to brutality. It was a theatre of everyday reality with all its gradients. At times, as in The Crucible, a kind of story of the fanaticism, the political and religious intolerance of the witch house, appears on first plane, on the theatrical scene. Miller had been called to declare by the parliamentary committee of anti-North American activities, that of the famous senator MacCarthy, at the start of the Cold War, and at a time when it was difficult and dangerous to do so, he publicly refused to collaborate. The first director of the staging of Death of a Salesman was Elia Kazan, whose problems with the anti-Communist committee of MacCarthy were divulged worldwide.


«With three or found honorific exceptions, the press, that Miller and Styron had travelled to defend, showed an overwhelming mediocrity. They were only interested in the mediatic value of the travellers. They didn’t manage to buy or look for one of their books, to read anything or analyse anything»



Ice on the tracks

With these antecedents, to assist the reactions, the commentaries, the attitudes of Miller in the Chile of Pinochet, was doubly interesting. His thoroughly professional sense as a man of the theatre was continuously revealed. He could quote an episode of the classic Greek theatre or discover the theatrical aspects of any given episode. In a way, he was almost exactly the antipode of William Styron. Styron was quiet, introvert, more affectionate, in some sense more distant, even more indifferent. But the work of Arthur Miller is always theatre, with the excess of theatricality that you often find in Samuel Beckett, in Eugenio Ionesco, in Albert Camus. The narrative prose of Styron is handed over with less ease, but with dramatic elements that sometimes go further. And his essay on depression and madness, Darkness Visible, read many years after having been a close witness in Chile, without taking quick conclusions, but with a hue of perplexity, with a non-formulated question, of his silence, of his inwardness, it acquires a far greater sense. It is literature as form of action, combat, compromise, in the case of Miller, and as illness, as a passionate aesthetic option, as a death instinct, in the other.


Before his return to New York, I gave Miller an English translation of my Persona non grata. It was a response to the things he had had to listen to from his American-Chilean informants. Some weeks later I received an extraordinary letter from here, that I don’t have in front of me, but that is found in the latest Spanish edition of the book. This letter was the criticism of any unipersonal dictatorship, of the idea of the providential man capable of making a solution to all the problems of a society. It was perfectly valid for the cases of Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro. Afterwards, I wrote a letter to Miller from the University of Georgetown in Washington D.C., where I taught a course of Latin American literature, and he responded with an invitation to the opening night of a play of his on the island of Manhattan. I believe this happened on the cruellest of the North American winter on 1989. I took a train after saying goodbye to José Donoso, who lived with his wife Pilar in Washington, and who worked in a well-known centre of studies. I remember that we talked about the deposit of his archives that Pepe had done at the University of Princeton and his with that those papers were opened thirty years after his death. He put this condition in writing, and I understand that it was not respected, in circumstances and for reasons I don’t know. I embarked on my journey on the train thoughtful, and somewhat moved, sunk in the contemplation of a landscape of snow, of fog and dense clouds. But suddenly a very loud sound was heard under the train; the express from Washington D.C. to New York City was gradually detained in a frozen plane. A glacial chill started to enter the carriages and all the travellers had to recur to our coats and scarves and all the wool we could take from our luggage. There was a heavy piece of ice between the rails that had hit the bottom of the train, destroying an essential element of the heating. The tranquil, reflexive journey in the winter landscape had become a dangerous halt, with serious risks of general freezing. We had to return in precarious conditions to our starting point. When I told him the episode on the phone the following morning, Arthur Miller started a long, interesting reflection about the tricks and dangers of modernity. He had recently travelled with a veteran aviation pilot and had noted that when they were landing his neighbour pilot held onto his seat with an expression of panic. “In conclusion”, he said, “if you had travelled in diligence as in the 19th Century, you would have arrived at your destination with more security and without the smallest accident”.


In conclusion, we laughed and said we’d see each other, which never happened. And I never heard anything more of Bill Styron and Rose, his wife. In any case, I’m currently reading a mediocre translation of stories of Styron’s youth, of the war of the Pacific and of huge steel moles attacked by Japanese suicide aviators, stories that make me think of narrations of Jack London I read decades ago, and I’m going into an extraordinary anti-slave novel in spite of the fact that a novel shouldn’t be anti or pro anything, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and I tell myself that Styron is one of the great North American modern writers, and I think that perhaps his silence, his introversion, his explicit depression, conspired to make him less known and more read out of his country, but the crevices and caves of literature are like that, and perhaps it’s better that way.

Ernesto Ayala