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Paul Grant

Opening the Memory Box

Chile After Pinochet.

Some memories are so horrible that, in the absence of realistic possibilities for healing, they are best shoved into what Steve Stern calls a "memory box" and consigned to oblivion. But sometimes, the contents of that memory box are too potent, too bitter, and too credible to remain confined. In one of Stern's visceral images from his book on the Chilean transition to democracy, these festering wounds have become "memory knots" on the political body, "screaming" when touched.

In Reckoning with Pinochet, Stern explores how the Chilean memory box was repeatedly opened and shut by politicians, judges, commissions, and the public in the years after Augusto Pinochet resigned from the presidency in 1990, and how memory knots continually pushed the process past apparent impasse for a slow, cumulative achievement of global import.

Memory knots appear in three forms: anniversaries which remind us, for example, of the disappearance of a husband; specific places, like mass graves, that trigger floods of public emotion; and, most important, people whose mere presence is enough to blow open the memory box, however adamantly we have insisted on the past being forgotten. Somewhere in this mix of conflicting memories lies the question of truth. And truth is much more than the facts. In the context of the outer limits of human depravity (torture, disappearances, and sexual humiliation, for starters), truth is intimate and physical. Truth can be deadly (hence the appeal of the tightly sealed memory box), but reckoning with it is perhaps the only way forward.

In one of his finest moments after being inaugurated as Chile's first civilian president in 17 years, Patricio Aylwin departed from his prepared speech at the state funeral of his predecessor, Salvador Allende. Allende's legacy had been a battleground since September 11, 1973, the day of his ouster by Augusto Pinochet's military junta, but on this day in April 1990, the new government gathered to honor him with a reburial. Chileans ...

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