Salvador Allende and the Value of Memory

September 11, 2023 Salvador Allende Chile W.G. Sebald Memory Italo Calvino

Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.”

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

It’s 50 years to the day that the Chilean Air Force bombarded the country’s presidential palace. On September 11th, 1973, a military coup used lethal force to topple the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende.

The worst was yet to come: Allende’s death marked the beginning of a U.S.-backed military dictatorship by Augusto Pinochet, who would rule Chile for 17 years, during which the regime tortured and killed thousands of left-leaning Chileans. Pinochet also instituted economic reforms that caused dramatic inequality in the country.

The flames coming out of the palace marked just the beginning of a slow-moving calamity that still affects present-day Chile.

Smoke coming out of La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace. Picture by Chas Gerretsen.Smoke coming out of La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace. Picture by Chas Gerretsen.

Nevertheless, any anniversary must focus on a single day. This particular one offers a lot to latch on to, from the photos to the sounds of Allende’s last radio broadcast, aired right before his suicide in the besieged palace. I think what makes them so impactful isn’t just a sense of shock or injustice; it’s knowing what would go on to happen that makes it all the more tragic.

Of course history is riddled with events like this; shock waves ebb through the course of history, and sometimes we fixate on the fate of an individual to make them less abstract. When I wrote about Tina Modotti in 2017, I deliberately lingered on the tragedy surrounding her story. Let’s just be melancholic”, I appealed.

Today I spent a lot of time lingering on Allende and the events of that fateful day in Chile. But I also kept wondering why: What was my melancholy really good for? In the cold harsh light of day, lamenting an unrealized historical path doesn’t serve any purpose; at worst you could think I was moping.

I just finished W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and though I was mesmerized by it, the book also confounded me. As Sebald chronicled his walk through Suffolk, he tells tales of loss and abandonment, strings together one sad tale after the other. It sounds sad, but I could hardly tear my eyes away from the book. Maybe because what Sebald had done wasn’t voyeuristic; he hadn’t mined tragedy for content. It finally dawned on me that I liked it because Sebald had wanted these stories to be a monument.

The ruins of DunwichThe ruins of Dunwich

In a particularly memorable tale, Sebald talks about how the coastal town of Dunwich slowly got consumed by the sea, up until a big storm swallowed up most of it. Among this story of slow oblivion, Sebald’s story keeps the memory alive, actively fights against the powers of forgetting. And that is precisely the same purpose that melancholy serves: It stops us from accepting that what happened was a foregone conclusion, and that other realities were—and are!—possible.

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