CHILE: Death in the South By Jacobo Timerman Translated from the Spanish by Robert Cox Knopf. 134 pp. $15.95

MUCH HAS been written about the tragedy of Chile since its military stormed to power in a 1973 blitzkrieg. Few observers, though, bring to the task Jacobo Timerman's combination of warm affection for the country and stern criticism of its leaders, both the governing military and the opposition civilians. Fewer still carry the moral weight of this Argentine journalist and publisher, whose own ordeal of torture at the hands of his country's military authorities was told in an earlier book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.

With General Augusto Pinochet's regime now approaching its 15th year, Timerman ponders how Chile, with its proud democratic tradition, its dynamic and urbane people, could succumb for so long to a dictator who seems a caricature of the Latin American strongman? In a book that will be painful reading for Chileans and foreigners who care about the country, Timerman finds part of the answer in just those qualities that make Chile so beguiling.

He begins on a note of nostalgia, noticing how incessantly Chileans speak of Chile, and indulging in his own memories of Santiago. "No city in the world was like Santiago for walking and talking with friends and breathing its air," he recalls. And "Santiago could welcome you like a lover -- warm, silent, understanding." Chileans cling to images like this and are strengthened in their belief that the Chile they evoke will survive Pinochet. Timerman understands the nostalgia, even slips into it. But he is dubious as to what survives.

Pinochet's Chile is a country Timerman repeatedly compares to Germany under Hitler, Santiago a city that recalls occupied Paris. How do Chileans bear this? Part of the answer is that they have worked out what Timerman calls an "alternative life."

Some who have reason to fear the regime's goons study karate, hoping to break free from an attempted kidnapping on the street. A human rights lawyer reinforced his doors and windows with steel bars. When the secret police came for him in the night, he and his family turned on all the lights, blew whistles and clanged pots. Some neighbors, instructed beforehand, joined in the cacophony while others called embassies and foreign correspondents. Finally, the hooded besiegers abandoned their assault on the steel bars and slunk away.

There are alternative magazines, even radio stations. Their editors sometimes go to jail, or a press run is confiscated. But somehow they survive. Theater groups put on topical plays which test the boundaries of censorship and the often plodding intelligence of the censors. Researchers put enormous energy into gathering statistics, doing research, publishing books, all documenting the regime's failings and injustices. Political parties, even those officially banned, meet, debate, join in coalitions, issue detailed plans for election reform, for transition governments, for a return to democracy. Nothing changes.

IS THE alternative life a space won by courageous people constantly struggling against repression, or a safety valve permitted by a cunning dictator? Chileans themselves wonder. "The alternative life is full of creativity," Timerman notes, "because what is easy to do is prohibited. But it is a creativity that also generates the limitations that must be observed in order to survive." Not knowing exactly where the boundaries are, the magazines have to practice some sort of self-censorship. The theater groups put some limits on what they portray on their tiny stages. The politicians go so far, and no farther. The alternative life allows people to evade the total reality of their situation, and at the same time provides a source of income to those who have lost mainstream jobs in the universities, the arts and the professions.

Nowhere are the shortcomings of the alternative life more apparent than in the political realm. Chile has had, for most of the 20th century, a dynamic multi-party system reminiscent more of France or Italy than of its Latin American neighbors. Even under the dictatorship, the parties have proven remarkably resilient, perhaps too resilient. During the last few years, as the failures of Pinochet's economic policies brought on a crescendo of popular protest, the parties were unable to transcend their divergent interests and offer a clear political alternative that would unify the nation and convince the military to retire to the barracks. The politicians too cling to the dream of the past and refuse to let it go. Until they do, Timerman says, until they and other Chileans accept that the Chile of nostalgia has been utterly vanquished, they will not be able to bring a new Chile out of Pinochet's valley of death..

Timerman's book is not the definitive work on Chile today. It contains some errors of fact (the United States heavily supported rather than opposed the Frei government in the 1960s; the seminal folk singer Violeta Parra died a decade earlier than Timerman says she did) and some questionable interpretations, such as the role of the extreme left, which are closer to the mark for Timerman's Argentina than for Chile. But Timerman has the bluntness of an Old Testament prophet who cries out bitterly against Jerusalem, and the tenderness of one who all the while loves her shadowed streets. "There cannot be anything more joyous," Timerman concludes, "than to be reunited with old Chilean friends, to sing and to drink warm wine until dawn." :: Patrick Breslin is the author of "Interventions," a novel set in Chile.