ON DECEMBER 3, a shipment of 2,000 books was turned away from Santiago's Pudahuel Airport by the Chilean Department of Customs. The title in question was the third edition of Persona Non Grata by the Chilean novelist, Jorge Edwards, which had been published by Seix Barral in Barcelona in November. In banning the book, the Department of Customs wrote that it "includes aspects that are inconvenient for the public order."

Persona Non Grata is a memoir about the four months Edwards spent as the Chilean charge d'affaires in Cuba in 1970 and 1971. A number of Cuban writers had asked Edwards for his help in their fight against censorship and discrimination. His efforts on their behalf resulted in Edwards being expelled from Cuba. When the book was first published in December 1973, it became a European best seller. Translations appeared in England and the United States.

The military government of Chile objects not to the body of the book itself but to an epilogue which Edwards added a month after the coup d',etat that overthrew Salvador Allende in September 1973. In the epilogue, Edwards wrote that while censorship and repression were occurring in Cuba, an even worse repression and censorship had begun to take place in Chile.

"The military wants people to forget about the brutality of the coup," Edwards told me recently. "They want to make it seem as if it never happened. What they hate about my epilogue is that it reminds people of the truth.

"Someone came to me and said that if I changed only one sentence, then my book would be admitted into the country. I said to myself, that's not so bad, I can do that. So I changed the sentence. Then they came up with one more sentence and I changed that too. Then they told me to change a part about the young bourgeois toasting the coup with champagne in the wealthy suburbs as bodies floated down the Mapocho River in Santiago. They called it too 'truculent.' I realized there would be no end to what they wanted changed. So I said, 'No, I will change nothing.' "

All Chilean publications have to be authorized by the Ministry of the Interior, but until several years ago books could be imported into the country without fear of interference. Now any imported book which makes reference to Chile is sent to the Ministry of the Interior for approval. Even if the book is allowed into the country, it can be held up for two or three months. Edwards cited one book which had been delayed 18 months.

"My Spanish publisher," said Edwards, "used to ask me to recommend Chilean writers to them since they could count on a certain sale in Chile. Now they can't count on that sale and so they don't ask. Soon the Chilean public will be the last to learn about the new work of their Chilean authors."

Along with writing novels, Edwards is owner of the Altamira bookstore in downtown Santiago. He also writes a weekly column in the country's major newspaper, El Mercurio, and teaches, translates and writes for the Spanish paper, El Pais.

"This has always been a country of readers," Edwards told me. "In the past we imported more books per capita than any other Latin American country. Now it trails 10-to-1 in comparison with Mexico and Venezuela. This is the only country in the world where imported whiskey and imported books have exactly the same tax.

"Fifteen years ago a best seller in Chile meant 80,000 or 120,000 copies. Now it means 6,000. We are publishing one fifth or one sixth of what we did 15 years ago."

The two biggest Chilean publishers are Editorial Andres Bello and Editorial Universitaria. The first is partly supported by a state tax and the second is part of the University of Chile whose head is a paratrooper general who once parachuted onto the campus. Both are under state control and rarely publish new fiction. Andres Bello publishes mostly reprints.

"You're not going to get in trouble publishing translations of Dickens," said Edwards.

The censorship of Persona Non Grata was also disturbing to the Camera Chilena del Libro, the official organization of Chilean publishers, book sellers and book distributors who view the banning as a sign of worsening repression. In order to show its disapproval and fight against the increasing censorship, the Camera named Edwards as its president on December 6.

"The Camera is part of the establishment," said Edwards, "but at the same time censorship and repression are bad for business. We will advertise and make our complaints known in newspapers. We will see the minister of education. Wherever we can, we will exert a little pressure. Certainly this entails risk but what else can we do?"

Another Chilean novelist, Jose Donoso, author of The Obscene Bird of Night and Coronation, is equally concerned about censorship in Chile. In a November interview in the Chilean magazine Cosas, he said, "We are in a world where we don't know where the rules that govern us come from. It is not known where the orders that govern us come from. It's a hooded censorship, without face, without name, without people to take responsibility. In Spain one knew who the censors were. It was known what boundaries you had to abide by. Here nobody knows what rules you have to abide by when you want to publish something. Nobody knows who you have to talk to. That makes you angry. You don't even know how to please them."

Donoso returned to Santiago in 1982 after living in Europe for 20 years. He had hoped he could make his life in Santiago, but now he is uncertain. "There is not only censorship of the books written inside Chile," he told Cosas, "there is something even worse. They are inventing a nationalism that is cutting off our bindings with the rest of the world. At this point weeare completely isolated. But it is not a cultural blackout, it is a cultural isolation. And that isolation is also a form of censorship.

"To all that you have to add that there are no books and what few books there are are too expensive--another censorship. The economic censorship of the book."

Books in Chile cost three or four times what they do in the United States. To keep from going bankrupt, many bookstores in Santiago also sell toys and office supplies.

Despite the expense, despite censorship, despite the state of the economy, there have still been attempts to introduce new books into Chile. For instance, there is the poet David Turkeltaub who began Ediciones Ganymedes in 1978 in an attempt to introduce Chileans to the best of their own poets.

"When I began, there was no poetry being published in Chile," he told me. "The only books of poems were those paid for by the poets themselves. One day I was complaining about this to the poet Nicanor Parra and he told me that I should begin my own press. He even offered me a new manuscript of his own to get me started."

Although Turkeltaub knew nothing about publishing, he decided he could find out. "I had to learn everything from printing to binding to bookselling to advertising. I started with my own money, then the sales from the first books supported the rest."

The first title, Parra's Sermones y Predicas Del Cristo de Elqui, appeared in January 1979. There followed a second book by Parra, then books by Jorge Edwards, Donoso, the poet Enrique Lihn, Turkeltaub himself and an anthology of contemporary Chilean poetry. Both the books by Nicanor Parra had printings of 5,000, a huge number in a country of only 11 million.

"Everyone was very sympathetic," said Turkeltaub. "The critics wrote favorable reviews and the bookstores displayed my books in their windows or at the front of their stores."

Trouble came, however, with the publication of the eighth book, Mal de Amor, by the Chilean poet Oscar Hahn, who teaches at the University of Iowa. One of the poems had one line which the government decided was disrespectful to the Virgin Mary and Turkeltaub was told that he could not market the book.

"At first I felt very brave," said Turkeltaub. "The book was published in October 1981, and right after the prohibition I received a number of midnight phone calls from people who called me a Communist. But then I realized how banal it all was. I kept going to the ministry to find out who had made the decision, but no one would tell me anything. I only knew that I couldn't sell the book. It consumed all my energy."

The prohibition against Mal de Amor ended up hurting all of the Ganymede books. "With Oscar Hahn's book everything stopped," said Turkeltaub. "The booksellers kidnapped my books into the dark interiors of their shops. They stopped being mentioned in the newspapers. The critics pretended they didn't exist. Everybody was afraid of upsetting some unknown person in the government."

Ganymede's ninth and 10th books were already in production at the time of the prohibition. After they were released, Turkeltaub decided to give up publishing. "We had been successful partly because we had the support of the book stores and the critics. Without that support it would be too difficult. The 10th and last book was a collection of poems by Gonzalo Rojas, one of Chile's greatest living poets. The book was practically ignored. We tried to have a dinner to celebrate the publication but we couldn't find a place to have it. People kept saying, 'Why should we let those Communists come here.' Finally Nicanor Parra offered us the use of his house."

The end of Ganymede last April meant there was no longer a publisher of new poetry in Chile. The effect of this was to make the poets feel even more isolated and out of touch with their readers.

One of the best Chilean poets is Enrique Lihn, who since 1949 has published 20 volumes of poetry and fiction, including The Dark Room and Other Poems published by New Directions in 1978.

"I keep writing almost out of habit," Lihn told me. "I publish in Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Spain, even the United States, but my work doesn't appear in Chile. My poems are for my own people and I can't reach them."

During the 1960s, Lihn spent some time in Cuba, and he feels that part of his isolation may be because people think he is a leftist. "I stay entirely out of politics but it doesn't matter," he said. "No one has accused me of anything but the critics and newspapers are afraid of making someone in the government angry. Therefore they think it safer just to ignore me."

In an attempt to break through this barrier, Lihn had begun writing a series of erotic letters to famous women, living and dead, which he hopes to publish in the popular women's magazines. "A writer needs readers. You want someone to listen to you. I hope with these letters to get a kind of immediate response. It's not so bad for the novelists. They can publish their books in Spain. But when I publish a book of poems in Spain, I hear nothing. Then, after several months, I receive a couple of reviews. South American poetry is very different from Spanish poetry. I want to know right away what people are thinking and feeling."

This disinclination to make someone in the government angry has created another form of censorship in Chile, a sort of voluntary censorship.

"The Ministry of the Interior likes to pretend there is no censorship in Chile," Edwards told me. "They refuse to put down guidelines. All books have to be sent to the ministry before they are published. If they don't like a book, they don't say one way or the other. They simply don't answer. After a while, you get the idea. The result is that writers begin to censor themselves in order not to upset anyone.

"At least the Department of Customs must give a reason when they refuse to let a book into the country. But what does it mean that my book 'includes aspects that are inconvenient for the public order?'

"Things are getting much worse in Chile. Many military dictatorships, like Brazil, get softer. But here it is more like Stalin. The dictatorship isr getting tougher and more isolated. We are going into an underground culture. A period of samizdat is beginning."

In December there were more demonstrations against the government. Both a labor leader and the leader of a group of southern farmers have been put across the border into Brazil. Other protesters have been sent into the north of Chile. There are persistent rumors that two generals have been jailed for plotting against the government. In response to rising criticism, General Pinochet told a large audience at the beginning of the month that he holds power by "divine right."

"It scandalizes people when he says things like that," said Edwards. "This has always been a civilized country."

For Edwards the increased censorship makes him wonder if he can remain in Chile. His newest novel El Musio de la Cera (The Wax Museum) was published in Spain in 1981 and he is now busy on another. But he said it is difficult to write when there is the chance of censorship. Consequently, he has considered moving to Spain or the United States.

Donoso, on the other hand, has temporarily turned to the theater. His play, Suenos de Mala Muerte (Dreams of a Bad Death), has been playing in Santiago all fall. The play was adapted from a short story which will soon be published in Spain in a collection of his stories called Quatro por la Fina. The "Fina" of the title is the well-known Chilean actress Fina Guzman.

The poets also have often had recourse to a kind of theater in order to overcome their isolation. For instance, the young poet Raul Zurita has created a reputation for outrageous behavior by whipping himself and burning his face in public.

"Pain is the true experience," he has said, "because through pain you can build paradise."

Last summer Zurita spent $15,000 hiring five World War II fighter planes to write 15 Spanish phrases in the sky over Manhattan. They included, in translation, "My god is hunger," "My god is cancer," "My god is empty," "My god is ghetto," and "My god is snow."

In November he told the Chilean newspaper Segunda, "My work in poetry consists of taking the poetry, the writing, to such a limit that it will be dissolved as a genre and life itself will be a work of art."

He has described his two books, Purgatory and Anteparaiso, as metaphors for the fight of thousands of human beings during the past 10 years in Chile to remain human.

"I would prefer that we were all poor if there was justice in it," he has said.

The older poets have also tried to startle the public into an awareness of their work. Enrique Lihn has presented theatrical evenings in which his students carried him onto the stage in a coffin, and last fall Nicanor Parra gave a reading where he hired two women to sit at his feet and peel potatoes. At other times Parra has read his poems to the accompaniment of a banjo.

One of the reasons for these bits of theater is to break through the isolation caused by censorhip, the small amount of publishing and the general timorousness of the public.

Even the novelists will introduce their work by staging special events. At the beginning of December, Enrique Lafourcade celebrated the release of his new novel Adios al Fuhrer with a Dixieland band, speeches, skits and a short film. The novel, published in Argentina, concerns a Chilean writer in the 1950s with Nazi sympathies. But even though 300 people attended, including reporters and critics, no mention of it was made in the newpapers.

"It's not a political novel," said Edwards, "but everyone automatically assumes that the title is a reference to Pinochet. Therefore the critics were afraid to mention it. They were afraid of making someone in the government angry.

"There will have to be some kind of change. There will come a moment when people won't want to continue like this."

Hostility toward General Pinochet and his government is increasing. Recently, in a headline in one Santiago paper, Pinochet responded to his critics by saying, "Just let them try their own coup d',etat and they'll see how tough I am."

Many Chileans are embarrassed by such acts of bravado and one often hears in Santiago that Pinochet must go. The Chilean writers share this dissatisfaction and feel that a change in the government is inevitable. But what that change will be, they have no idea.

"Possibly it will be a violent change," said Edwards, "or a general strike like the one that toppled our last military dictatorship in the 1930s. Whatever it is, it will have to come from within."

"It is a bad time for reading," David Turkeltaub told me, "and it's a bad time for publishing, but it's not a bad time for writing. Good writing can be done in any condition. For the moment, that must be enough."