"Democracy carries within its breast the seed of its own destruction." In an interview with Time magazine in 1973, Chile's military dictator Augusto Pinochet tries to justify the actions of his regime. He goes on to say, in a line that is often misquoted, that democracy has to be "bathed occasionally in blood" to ensure it will continue. "Fortunately," he says, "this is not our case. There have been only a few drops."
It frequently falls to writers within authoritarian states to document the truth of those "few drops". Chilean authors such as Isabel Allende, José Donoso and Pedro Lemebel have written acclaimed novels depicting life under a regime that only ended in 1990 after nearly two decades of military rule.
Their contemporary, Alia Trabucco Zerán, chooses to focus instead on the next generation in her debut novel The Remainder – the repercussions of history for the children of those who fought against the dictatorship.
Second-generation guilt and trauma is a subject most associated with German literature. Bernard Schlink's novel The Reader went on to become an international bestseller (and movie) for its compelling treatment of how the country's Nazi past affected the present. Zerán's book doesn't have quite the same impact. The political fades in favour of exploring the troubled interiors of two characters, Iquela and Felipe. A third – a German girl called Paloma – briefly comes to life from the perspective of the narrators but her more interesting story is sidelined for lengthy stream-of-consciousness passages that veer from virtuosic to mundane.
In a notable translation by Sophie Hughes, Zerán's lyricism and eye for detail shine on the page. The opening chapters are particularly gripping, documenting Iquela's coming-of-age at a time when the regime is ending. One memorable evening plays out against the vote that saw Pinochet ousted. As the adults celebrate in the background, Iquela tries to overcome her nerves, "the shyness that had left me with next to no fingernails", to impress the more worldly Paloma. The girls knock back the adults' wine, moving on to the medicine cabinet in Iquela's mother's bathroom.
It is a clever scene that sets up the novel’s troubled relationship between Iquela and her mother Consuela, known as Claudia in her activist past. Years later, the woman is still far more Claudia than Consuela, a fact that her daughter relates with a bitter acuity: “My routine visits to my mother’s house were always brief, as if we’d just bumped into each other on the corner and I had something terribly important to do a few blocks away.”
The mother lays the burden of the past on her daughter – “I want you to know that I do all this for you” – and is painted as the kind of woman uninterested in anything but her past glories and the sound of her own voice. Desperate to escape from a never-ending dinner one evening, Iquela explains, “Each of my mother’s words was worth a hundred, a thousand regular ones, and killed me quicker. Perhaps that’s why I’d learnt another language: to buy myself more time.”
A preoccupation with language and translation, the way in which we interpret things, saturates the novel. It manifests in the arrival of Paloma, who has decided to fly from Germany to bury her recently deceased mother, Ingrid, back in Chile. Both Paloma and Iquela's parents were revolutionaries in the Pinochet era, though their fascinating history remains frustratingly opaque.
Instead Zerán focuses on the present in a storyline that is original and macabre but ultimately underdeveloped. Paloma lands in Chile as an ash cloud covers its capital city, a fitting metaphor for the country's past: "Outside it was raining ash. Once again, Santiago had been stained grey." Ingrid's body is diverted to Argentina. What ensues is a road trip of sorts, as the two girls, accompanied by Iquela's adopted brother Felipe, make the journey in a hearse.
The book's problem lies with Felipe, whose story is told in alternating chapters and never reveals itself. Initially intriguing, and stylistically impressive as it spins a single sentence into a chapter, the character's obsession with death and gore becomes repetitive in later sections. Far more interesting is the dynamic between Iquela and Paloma, recalling the disturbed female relationships in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye. Their story gets lost amid Felipe's rantings and his "work" subtracting the dead he sees all over the country.
Zerán was born in Chile in 1983. She was a Fulbright scholar and recently completed her PhD at UCL. The Remainder was chosen by El País as one of its top 10 debut novels of 2015. There is plenty to commend in the book's intentions, and in its elegiac ambitions. Fusing the personal and the political, Zerán aims to capture the legacy of Chile's bloodshed. Plot issues aside, the fallacy of the "few drops", even decades later, is certainly clear.