CLANDESTINE IN CHILE The Adventures of Miguel Litti'n By Gabriel Garci'a Ma'rquez Translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz. Henry Holt. 116 pp. $13.95.
TO ITS SORROW, Chile finally has become the kind of country Gabriel Garci'a Ma'rquez writes about. Until Gen. Augusto Pinochet led its armed forces in a violent overthrow of President Salvador Allende 14 years ago, Chile was one of the most democratic countries in Latin America. Chileans proudly contrasted their political traditions with those of "tropical countries" where Somozas and Trujillos, Duvaliers and Stroesners were thought to flourish. Given Chile's deeply-rooted democracy, few believed Pinochet would last five years. Certainly not 10. Yet now he seems to be rolling irresistibly towards a controlled election in 1989, in which he would be the only candidate, and which would confirm him in power for another eight years.
In Autumn of the Patriarch, Garci'a Ma'rquez, Colombia's Nobel laureate for literature, created a monstrous dictator who stays in power interminably through an adroit mixture of murder, repression and a political genius for survival. The longer he survives, the more his country deteriorates. In one of the book's great images, having already sold off everything else, he lets foreigners cart away numbered slices of the Caribbean sea.
Pinochet seems to step from those pages. His secret police have tortured political opponents at home and assassinated them abroad. Pinochet himself seems miraculously to escape ambushes. Protests against him are invariably suppressed with violence. Prating about nationalism all the while, he has piled up one of the highest per capita debts in the world. Now he is selling off the debt to foreign investors who in turn buy up the country. Meanwhile, the opposition has been kept off balance and divided, in part at least because of Pinochet's political cunning. And frustrated opponents as a result are often reduced to gestures.
In the fall of 1985, Miguel Litti'n, one of Chile's best known film directors and an exile since 1973, planned his gesture. Disguised, he would slip back home to direct several camera crews in the filming of a documentary about Chile today. Then they would slip out again, "thumbing our noses" at Pinochet. With support from the Chilean resistance, Litti'n pulled off his stunt. Three European crews and local film makers shot more than 20,000 feet of film, later edited to four hours for television and a two-hour movie which is beginning to be shown in this country.
Hearing about the adventure, Garci'a Ma'rquez determined to write a book about it. He interviewed Litti'n for 18 hours, and then started to tell the story in the fluid and full-of-surprises style which has made him the most famous and widely-read Latin American writer. This is how he begins, with Litti'n's arrival in Chile: "The plane dipped its left wing with terrifying grace, leveled off with a lugubrious creaking of metal, and landed prematurely in three kangaroo hops."
Unfortunately, once Garci'a Ma'rquez has Litti'n on the ground, the story never takes flight again. There's too much baggage in the form of preconceived ideas, and not enough adventure, beyond what takes place in Litti'n's sometimes fevered imagination. He is quite expertly disguised, with an elaborate cover, and works with film crews who previously managed to get official permission for their work. The only times Litti'n was in any danger were the results of his own absurd mistakes. He's constantly presenting customs officials with the wrong documents, jumping into the wrong car, forgetting to maintain the Uruguayan accent which was part of his cover.
Litti'n is always at the center of the book. There are suggestions, in the scant information about the film itself, that he may be at the center of that as well. Seldom are we told what scenes his far-flung crews are shooting, except that there is frequent attention paid to filming Litti'n himself against unmistakably Chilean backdrops, as if proving that he was in the country is the main point of the film. Most of the shooting seems to have been done on a prearranged schedule with Litti'n occasionally directing by remote control. It suggests that rather than exploring today's Chile, Litti'n arrived with already-formed ideas and only needed footage to illustrate them.
LITTI'N is not alone in having preconceived ideas about Chile. Garci'a Ma'rquez tells Litti'n's story as if Chile were a country where there are only extremes. Whenever Litti'n encounters a woman, for example, she must be beautiful. If Litti'n ventures a few hundred miles south of Santiago, he must be in Antarctica. Thus, when he slips back into Chile, after an exit staged to throw any police who might be after him off the trail, he enters through the southern lake country, a place of rare natural beauty, but not of the polar landscapes and howling seas Garci'a Ma'rquez conjures up.
This kind of slip is compounded by occasional mistakes in the translation. When Litti'n, posing as a rich Uruguayan businessman, assures a policeman he has no intention of filming the poor in a coal-mining town, the policeman responds, "Todos somos pobres aqui" -- we are all poor around here -- a phrase which includes himself. Yet the translation renders his words as the more aloof "Everyone around here is poor." The clandestine Manuel Rodri'guez Patriotic Front is described as a group that has "unified the democratic opposition." Would that someone could do that. All that Garci'a Ma'rquez claimed for it was that it had urged opposition unity. Since the Front has been a leading proponent of armed struggle, and since the attitude toward armed struggle is one of the issues that divides the opposition, the difference is significant.
Mistakes extend even to the book jacket, where lines from Allende's dramatic final speech inside the besieged presidential palace are wrongly attributed to the poet Pablo Neruda.
Perhaps the film is better than the book. But if it's as self-centered, as satisfied with pulling a prank on Pinochet rather than letting the people of today's Chile speak for themselves, then a lot of effort and risk will have gone into an inconsequential project.
Patrick Breslin is the author of "Interventions," a novel set in Chile.