AT THE BEGINNING of Sweet Country , the heroine of the novel, Eva Maria Araya, is traveling by foot through the streets of Santiago to consult a psychiatrist. It's a trip that takes over two hours, but she can't find a bus or a taxi: this is August, 1973, and there are already signs of the breakdown of normal life that preceded the overthrow of Allende. The aura of doom is almost palpable. "The streets themselves seem stretched too tightly, nervous and wary like the humans who crowd each other off the sidewalks. This is the time hardest to endure, when the tepid rays of a late winter sun disappear along the broad avenues, leaving the city in fear and darkness."
The stage is set, then, and Eva seems to be speaking directly across the footlights to us, with startling clarity, when she tells the psychiatrist what it feels like to be part of a country on the edge of disaster. "I cry a lot. My nerves are rubbed raw from worry. It's getting to the point where my mental state interferes with my job; I'm very forgetful and I snap at people.... I misplace important papers. Sometimes I just stare into space and don't do anything."
Eva is a kind of Girl Friday for Allende's wife, and this position -- although not politically important -- places her in danger. For days and weeks she wavers in indecision: should she leave Chile altogether? The country slides further toward ruin; there are signs everywhere of the violence to come. At the psychiatrist's suggestion, Eva records all this in a journal, which forms a large part of the novel. It is well done -- divided not by dates but by the categories of thoughts that cross her mind ("Father," "Chile," "A Sunday Dinner, May 1973") -- and it gives us a clear sense of Eva's intelligence and sensitivity. She is a firm, grave, likeable young woman; we grow anxious, ourselves, for her situation.
Then Allende falls, and almost immediately Eva is arrested. She is to be, it turns out, one of the hundreds who were imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured in the Chile Stadium for several days in September, 1973.
It seems fairly common knowledge, by now, that the events surrounding Allende's downfall were appalling, and that the American CIA was involved. Certainly everyone agrees it was a deplorable situation. But a mere "Tsk-tsk" is not going to seem adequate, after you've read Sweet Country . Eva is someone we know too well, and her matter-of-fact response to life is one we can too easily recognize. "I hate to leave you with such a mess to clean up," she tells her sister, as she is being led away after soldiers have ransacked their apartment. Her fellow prisoners are all so ordinary -- just the people you see every day on the street. (One woman arrives with the bag of groceries she'd been carrying when arrested.) Their stoicism and their concern for each other, in the face of nearly unbearable hardships, seem all the more heroic because these people are not the stuff heroes are usually made of. Nor does Sweet Country attempt to glorify them. The scene in the stadium is written with the kind of understatement, the attention to humdrum details, that makes it utterly believable -- not some distant political legend but an occurrence as real as hanging out the laundry. It is absolutely shattering.
The book has some weaknesses. No novel, however much it involves politics, should contain dialogue consisting of long, chunky paragraphs of political exegesis. The readers' eyes tend to glaze over. And the plot would have been better focused if it had dealt only with Eva's story in a straightforward linear progression, instead of leaping sideways to include the stories of various American and Canadian activities. But the style is superb -- confident, controlled, granting a full measure of respect to the most incidental character.
Obviously, Sweet Country is not pleasant to read, and there were times when I longed to slam it shut and go hunt up a Doris Day movie. The book gave me nightmares. For several days after finishing it, I traveled in a kind of swamp of despair; and I don't think I will ever again hear mention of Chile (let alone the CIA) without becoming faintly ill. But that was the whole purpose -- all the more valuable when you think of other situations, in other places, where similar events are occurring today. Without overstating its case, and without that note of zealous earnestness that one would find in a purely political tract, Sweet Country sways us. It is an unforgettable book.