Now that’s what I call a book launch.
The event was held in the basement of the Gabriela Mistral Center, or GAM. Named for one of Chile’s two Nobel Prize-winning poets, the center was opened during the tenure of Salvador Allende, and was the place where the ruling junta went after the Pinochet coup. The center was renamed the Diego Portales Building during the dictatorship, but resumed its art-oriented focus after Pinochet’s reign ended.
As opposed to similar events in the United States, where the author is introduced, speaks, reads a few sections of the book and answers some questions, author, UDP neighbor and friend Rafael Gumucio didn’t speak until an hour into the event, and ultimately did not read a single word from A Personal History of Chile, his latest work.
This was because he only spoke after Carlos Pena, the rector of our university and one of Chile’s top newspaper columnists, had read his remarks in which he discussed Rafael’s weaving of fantastic pairings of important figures in Chilean history as similar to legendary Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges’ “Ficciones.”
Rafael began to speak after eminent historian Gabriel Salazar, a long-haired, white-haired bearded man with a deep voice who speaks in paragraphs, not sentences, had discussed at length a 1998 United Nations human development report that spoke about the contrast between Chile’s economic success and “malestar interior,” or internal discomfort.
Salazar talked about the directions and reversals within the book, of his use of the Hegelian method of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, and of how, for Rafael, former President Ricardo Lagos was similar to Napoleon for Hegel.
Rafael offered his own comments after former student, humorist and writer Fabrizio Copano offered his assessment of the book as having a core of sadness yet also being an optimistic work.
He spoke after being invited into the conversation by broadcast journalist and longtime friend Consuelo Saavedra. Consuelo had said that they had known each other for about 20 years, and somehow the conversation always returned to him. But she added that the book helped her understand why he has always steered the discussion that way.
When he spoke, Rafael, who has wild black hair, a full beard that is flecked with grey near his chin and was wearing a blue jacket with a dark sweater, unleashed a torrent of words, ideas and jokes.
I don’t know Rafael real well and I have not yet read the book.
Our offices in the journalism department at the University of Diego Portales stand around the corner from each other.
I sat in on a panel he moderated about the role and limits of humor in Chilean society-he’s the head of the Institute of Humor Studies at UDP-and we both attended a lunch for author and futurist Nicco Mele that Alejandra Matus organized.
I did know that he had been exiled to France during the dictatorship.
But even these comparatively meager interactions were enough to help me understand that he combines the frenetic energy and wit of Robin Williams with the humor of Roberto Benigni.
As Rafael riffed about his pairing of epic Chilean figures like Pinochet and television host Don Francisco, about how he had thought Lagos would govern compared with what he actually did and about how Michelle Bachelet would like to be anti-colonial, but is in fact colonial, I turned around and looked at the room, which was filled with close to 100 people in seats and standing against the back wall.
They were listening and, in many cases, they were smiling a pleased, even indulgent, smile.
So, too, was Rafael’s father, whose name Rafael bears.
The elder Gumucio was sitting, along with his wife, daughter-in-law and other family members, in a section of chairs to his son’s right.
As he spoke, Rafael’s younger daughter, a binky in her mouth and pigtails on her head, moved back and forth from her grandfather to her father’s lap.
She stayed just long enough to crawl up, get a hug and then return to her grandfather.
Back and forth she went, sometimes crawling when her father was speaking, at other times when he was listening to the other panelists.
The conversation dipped and turned, ebbed and flowed back and forth among the panelists and the author and moderator, moving deep into the nature of history and social movements and the country’s real and imagined past.
Consuelo was just asking Rafael one of many questions she still had when the word came that the time for the program had ended.
No one had left.
We all repaired to the area outside the room, where Rafael signed books and talked with people as the rest of us dolloped corn kernels onto sopaipillas, picked up and munched on eggplants on crunchy bread, and, of course, drank some red wine.
After a while, I hugged and congratulated Rafael before walking out into the cool night to head onto the Metro and back to Dunreith.
As I walked, I realized anew that Chile is a still wounded country engaged in healing from the damage caused by the the physical pain and enforced silence of the dictatorship.
Humor is an important part of that process.
I thought about the gift that Rafael has given of of embracing and moving into the intersection of personal history with public experience, and of launching the book in the very building where those most responsible for that damage first announced their seizure of power.
And, once more, I appreciated my great fortune to be in Chile at this moment in its history, and to be a witness to an event where university presidents and scholars and humorists and friends and family can sit and talk and listen and laugh in a way that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago.