Salvador Allende and the Value of Memory

September 11, 2023 Salvador Allende Chile W.G. Sebald Memory Italo Calvino Jay Owens Amy Sodaro Dictatorship

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 although I was mesmerized by the book, it first eluded me why. Sebald chronicles a hike through Suffolk and tells stories about the loss and abandonment he encounters, one sad tale after another.

That sounds like a difficult read, but I could hardly tear my eyes from the pages. Maybe that’s because what Sebald never becomes voyeuristic; he doesn’t mine the tragedy for content and he certainly doesn’t dwell on tragedy for tragedy’s sake.

Finally it dawned on me that Sebald might have wanted these stories to become a monument:

that which speaks directly, through the fact that it was not intended to speak - the layout of a territory that testifies to the past activity of human beings better than any chronicle of their endeavours.

In a particularly memorable tale, the author writes about how the coastal town of Dunwich became slowly consumed by the sea, until one day a big storm swallowed what was left of it. It’s a story of slow oblivion, but Sebald keeps the memory alive, actively fighting against the currents of forgetting. And that’s precisely the purpose our melancholy serves: It stops us from accepting that what happened was a foregone conclusion, and that other realities were—and are!—always possible.1

The ruins of DunwichThe ruins of Dunwich

  1. In Dust, Jay Owens goes even further: But — as a substantial body of human rights scholarship argues — memory is necessary. It’s necessary for coming to terms with and righting the wrongs of the past and thus preventing future violence, sociologist Amy Sodaro writes: there is an ethical duty to remember.”↩︎

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