Diamela Eltit

by Julio Ortega

Diamela Eltit.

During the Augusto Pinochet years, Diamela Eltit was the leading Chilean writer working in her country, and one that kept exploring new margins of resistance and creativity.

Her novels are radical projects that dispute the public space, the national interpretation and the role of genres under authoritarian conditions. Her most recent books are El lnfarto del alma (heart attack of the soul), a narrative on love in a madhouse, with pictures by Paz Errázuriz, and Los trabajadores de la muerte (death workers), a novel about impoverished peddlers in neoliberal Santiago. Her writing has an avant-gardist’s freedom of forms, a political reaffirmation of margins, and an exploratory and rebellious edge. After working as a cultural attaché for the democratic government in Mexico City, Diamela Eltit now divides her time between Buenos Aires and Santiago, and is a frequent participant in forums and workshops at American universities.

Julio Ortega In your 1994 book El infarto del alma, which includes photos by Paz Errázuriz, you show that it is possible for love and eroticism to exist in an insane asylum, and that the desocialized, placeless character of these institutions can provide an added vulnerability and freedom to the discourse of love. If love is in fact an eloquent form of madness, what artistry of love does the asylum promise?

Diamela Eltit El infarto del alma was a literary experience, a book to which I am still indebted, in the sense that I feel a tinge of regret for not having pushed the writing further. This particular asylum is one of the most extreme in the country—with the understanding that all asylums are extreme places; it is a public hospital that takes in terminal and indigent patients. These are people who carry all of their belongings with them around the hospital; you can imagine the immense daily effort that this entails, and its disproportion to the minimalism of their belongings. It is incredible that these lives, which transpire with such slowness and such effort, should evolve into love affairs. Love in a place like this is a poetic and political act. It laughs in the face of a bourgeois system that turns couples into economic alliances, or commercial enterprises. In the asylum, these social constructs do not exist; they are replaced by the terrible burden of survival and by an unexpected notion of the other. This notion is at the heart of the crisis of these patients, who do not even have a reliable self that they can count on. The art of love is what this space bequeaths to us. The wonderful thing was to be able to reveal the existence of such a subversive union.

JO In your novels, marginal and decentralized spaces are clearly a privileged position, of speech, of the subject, and for the embodiment of a new order. What do you find and what are you seeking in society’s internal margins?

DE I find it aesthetically and politically stimulating to work, think, and exist mentally in spaces that are, in a manner of speaking, not “officialized” by the dominant culture. Of course I am thinking of movable places that shift, mutate, and revert back to themselves. In general, official culture softens artistic production and creates a domesticated subject, a sensible literature, and a well-mannered intellectual who functions successfully and comfortably—but whose success is necessarily anodyne—within the dominant system of the moment. In my case, there is a kind of “un-positioning” that is not really part of a deliberate program but which comes about little by little; it is a torsion or distortion that impedes the literature that I frequent from becoming normalized or centralized.

JO In your novel El cuarto mundo (1988 in Chile; 1995 in the U.S. as The Fourth World) twins converse in their mother’s belly. In Vaca sagrada (1991 in Chile; 1995 in the U.S. as Sacred Cow), a woman bleeds, intermittently and lucidly, throughout the book. In Los vigilantes (1999; The Policemen) a mother and her son are pursued by the ubiquitous police. These narrators speak from the experience of asphyxiation; they are against the wall, on the edge. Is this a reflection of the position of the feminine voice in our society today, or of writing itself?

DE It’s true, and I’m not exactly sure why, but these characters that appear to me are marked by a sense of being hunted down, and of hunting themselves down. I believe that I function better in a certain dramatic register, though in truth I have a great tendency and vocation for irony. I imagine that the feminine condition is at the origin of this tendency, but I am not really interested in the ideology of the feminine that the system has so cleverly created: a direct, “light,” consumable, and, most importantly, bourgeois femininity. This construction has nullified the possibility of debate, of a space for discussion, and, paradoxically, has promoted silence. I am more interested in the violence that can come out of working within a femininity that transgresses and questions itself. I am not talking about literary militancy. With few exceptions, I am not a fan of literature that is actively and consciously referential. I still think of literature as a thing that can defend itself, of signs as things that can alter the logic of utilitarian language. I think that literature is capable of presenting, through the literary sign, a “feminine” that is more jagged than this and less functional. So I think in literary, rather than in simply sociological terms: if this, then that; if the other, then something else; and if woman is this and the other thing, this is what we owe, or that is our obligation.

JO One could say that you have composed a significant part of your work “under your breath” during the Chilean military dictatorship, and thereafter in dialogues, forums, and debates. What expectations have been fulfilled in the long transition to democracy? Is present-day Chile capable of recalling all of its recent past?

DE It has been a truly staggering passage from democracy to dictatorship, and then from dictatorship to democracy. I published under the dictatorship, during those dark, wounding years. And the transition back to democracy has been traumatic. Memory is altered by political interests and by the forces exerted by savage capitalism. Memory is the thing that is most battered by the neoliberal system, which requires an unsatisfactory present in order to oblige the subject to obtain fulfillment through consumption. The only epic dimension within the neoliberalist notion of desire is in purchasing, and the potential for indebtedness. Of course, on the fringes there are solid realities, voices that conserve their memories, mental or social zones that prove irreducible in the process of the globalization of the neoliberal project. Part of me continues to struggle because of the inability to achieve complete justice in the face of the excesses of the past. Pinochet’s imprisonment is a milestone, but the images of the ex-dictator’s captivity pale in comparison to the conditions of captivity of his victims, so the consolation can only be partial. But perhaps we must be satisfied with this minimum. I haven’t yet been able to do so. I don’t believe I ever will.

JO When you began writing, Latin American art was living its heroic period, through workshops, comunidades de base, discussion groups, and practices of aesthetic renewal. Today, one could say that these writers have stepped forward into the public space of media culture, into the ebb and flow of the market. How do you see these processes, and what place have you found in which to continue to explore freely?

DE It’s true, when I wrote my first books I was immersed in an antidictatorial epic and ethic. It was a generalized feeling, and in Chile it was called the “alternative” world. Even so, from the beginning my books provoked a certain resistance within the system. My first novel Lumpérica (1983; E. Luminata, 1997) was not what one would call a transparent work. And, later on, if we are going to discuss the difficulties of inclusion, we would have to talk about the central role of the market—by which I mean the overvaluation of commercial literature, and the way that publishers favor this type of writing. But of course this is a result of the neoliberal hegemony. Beyond the costs, the question in this new media-filled reality is, clearly, how to keep desire alive. It may be that there have always been stumbling blocks in literary creation and that today we are experiencing a change in the technology that drives those stumbling blocks. I don’t know, but it’s possible. I try to think in less functional terms, in terms of desire and of the imagined. The truth is that personally I am horrified—as I would be by a horror movie—by the idea of an official writer. I’m partly king when I say this, and I’m caricaturing a bit, but I find the writers who go around proclaiming a series of clichés and banalities to be terribly tragic. They aspire to become portable, recyclable oracles, and in the end they fit perfectly into a market that asks them to furnish more and more truths for their readers. What I’m talking about, beyond the changes that are taking place in the social landscape, are the tensions that exist in the system, the repressions, everything that the system excludes. This is the heart of my work and the marionette string that moves my hand to write.

JO Tell me about the play that you are currently writing.

DE I’m finishing a play that I’m not sure could ever be performed on stage. What matters to me, what interests me, is the writing of a dramatic work as a literary experience. I am still thinking about the body and power, the body and the obligations that are imposed upon it, the body and its desolation. And also the cruel way in which different systems attack the body through refined, painful, and sustained processes, like debt in the case of the neoliberal system. There exists a residue of fascism that I am trying to dramatize. I am working in these genres, and at the same time writing several screenplays about the fascist component of power. These screenplays are non- or anticommercial. I find it interesting to propose an alternative economy, one that is more wild and unexpected, a literary place that is, in appearance, more poor, less populated. I’m not talking about Romanticism or literary essentialism, but rather trying to point out the deliberate and conscious construction of a space that is troubled, ill-conceived, poorly realized.

JO What are you reading with interest these days?

DE I’ve been interested in the Portuguese writer Antonio Lobo Antunes because of his aesthetic of emotions; it is an obsessive kind of writing, very extreme in its syntax. In fact—and I find this fascinating—his novels closely resemble one another; only the subject changes, but the construction is the same from one work to the next. This amazes and captivates me. And I’m reading a book that just came out called Cartas de petición, Chile 1973–1989 by the professor and critic Leonidas Morales. He has selected a series of letters written by victims of the dictatorship and their relatives, requests to be set free or inquiries about the whereabouts of family members. It is an extremely moving book, essential for understanding the dimensions what happened in Chile, and especially interesting because the letters are written by common people. Leonidas Morales finds connections between these letters and the petition letters written by the original inhabitants of Chile to the authorities of the Spanish Crown. It is an essential book, though of course painful to read.

JO You have lived for several years in Mexico City, and now you have moved to Buenos Aires. Is one lifetime enough for those use two cities?

DE Well, we are talking about a privileged situation. Really, I have lived my whole life in Chile; I only left in 1990. I’ve done things backwards. Mexico City has been very important to me, and I still miss its energy, its mestizo way of life, its vibrant folk art. I have maintained some wonderful friendships which in some measure make up for the daily loss of place. Then I arrived in Buenos Aires and soon found myself caught up in the literary density I sense here. But the tragic reality for me is a kind of provincialism that I feel and cannot leave behind. I’m not talking about patriotism; there are aspects of Chilean society that I consider deplorable: the arrivism, the classism, what amounts to a kind of deliberate ignorance. But beyond that I miss my neighborhood, my block, my friends’ faces, and the political destiny of those in need. But, going back to your question, I counter with my own: what lifetime could be enough to encompass the two fundamental poles of this continent, Buenos Aires and Mexico City?


Translated from the Spanish by Marina Harss.

Latin American literature
Writing process
Winter 2001
The cover of BOMB 74