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Issue 46, April 2000

An unfinished song

Victor - An unfinished song
By Joan Jara, 1998, Bloomsbury, £7-99
Reviewed by
Tony Saunois

PINOCHET HAS been sent home to Chile and paid up to half a million pounds in legal costs by the British government. The same generosity, however, was not shown to the thousands of victims of his military dictatorship, prominent amongst whom was the renowned musician, Victor Jara.

The moving story of Victor Jara, told by his British wife, Joan, was first published in 1983. It was republished in 1998 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1973 coup. This lively and honest biography succeeds in graphically tracing the emergence of Victor Jara's theatre, music and poems, and the crucial role they played in the Chilean workers' movement.

Victor Jara, born into a peasant background, was bought up amongst the urban poor in the cities and was self-educated. His songs are of the life and struggles of the down-trodden. Joan Jara's biography makes no apology for linking Victor's music to the political struggles of working people. For him, music was indeed a political weapon. In the 1960s, during a visit to Europe, he wrote: "The term 'protest song' is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term 'revolutionary song'." About his own work he argued: "An artist must be an authentic creator and in very essence a revolutionary... a man as dangerous as a guerrilla because of his great power of communication".

Victor became a committed communist during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1961, returning to a Chile that was experiencing a new wave of peasants' and workers' struggles. The 1964 presidential election saw the victory of the Christian Democratic candidate, Frei, a capitalist politician who had won on a populist programme. Illusions in the new government, however, rapidly gave way to anger and a new wave of radicalisation began. This was reflected in the growing popularity of a new type of music.


The 1960s had begun with a surge in the influence of Western rock music. This gave way, however, to music that reflected a growing radicalisation. A series of musical groups were formed, including Inti-Llimani and Quilapayun. They incorporated the musical instruments of 'the forgotten peoples of the altiplano', the indigenous Mapuche. Victor played a central part in these developments.

Inti-Llimani adopted the music and instruments of the indigenous peoples while Quilapayun developed its own style of powerful music, suited to marching songs and rhythms. Both became synonymous with the mass rallies of the left-wing Unidad Popular (UP). The force of the music reflected the revolutionary mood of the working class.

Unlike Victor, most of the musicians were students from a middle-class background. This became a source of friction between them as Victor proudly defended his poverty-stricken background. Joan Jara recounts: "Worse, (Victor) was made fun of for his constant awareness of the fact that had been born a peasant and brought up in an urban slum, and for insistence on acknowledging his family background, which was the cornerstone of everything he did".

In Britain he attended theatre rehearsals of the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of the actresses, meeting a Latin American for the first time, commented, 'Oh, how nice to see you, you look so civilised'. When Victor told her that Harold Pinter was well known in Chile and performed in Spanish, she replied, 'Oh, how priceless! Pinter in Spanish!'. 'No more priceless than Chekhov in English', he replied.


Victor's early songs reflected the life of workers expressed through compositions about individuals. Te Recuerdo Amanda was typical of this. It is a prophetic song, written when he was in Europe after learning that his daughter, Amanda, was diabetic. It tells of two young people, Amanda and Manuel, and their brief meetings during breaks outside a factory. Manuel joins the struggle, with tragic consequences. "And he took to the mountains to fight. He had never hurt a fly and in five minutes it was all wiped out. The siren is sounding, time to go back to work. Many will not go back... including Manuel".

As a conscript Victor was conscious of the class divisions within the army. He arranged for Quilapayun a song, El Soldado, which touches on this theme. "Soldier, don't shoot me, Don't shoot me soldier... I know your hand is trembling, don't kill me, I am your brother".

In 1967 he produced a record dedicated to the memory of Che Guevara, El aparecido (it could not directly name Che because of because of record company opposition). The song praised the heroism of Che Guevara but did not endorse his guerrilla tactics. These had inspired the left in Chile, but were not replicated. This reflected the powerful tradition of the Chilean workers' movement of mass struggle and the existence of strong Socialist and Communist Parties.

1969 was a turning point in opposition to the government. Edmundo Perez Zucovic, the right-wing interior minister, ordered hundreds of police to attack a group of peasant families who had occupied wasteland in Puerto Montt. Seven peasants were killed, including a nine-month old baby. It provoked an outcry. Victor wrote a powerful song, Preguntas por Puerto Montt (Questions about Puerto Montt), denouncing Zucovic as a murderer and warning that, "All the rains in the south (of Chile) will not be enough to wash your hands clean". The song became enormously popular and enraged the Chilean elite. Armed thugs of the right-wing Partido Nacional (PN) attacked Victor in the street - he was becoming a marked man, hated by the right-wing and loved by the workers' movement.


Joan Jara takes the reader through the stormy events that followed. Politics featured in everything at that time and split along left-right lines. She recounts the clashes over production techniques and performances in theatre, ballet and all the other professions. Then, in 1970, Allende was elected president. Victor Jara performed at the election rallies and composed Venceremos, the hymn of the UP. Allende's victory opened up a revolutionary process that engulfed all classes. The working class was the driving force, demanding and pushing the government to go further.

It was not only economic questions that affected the masses. Joan Jara illustrates how the workers and peasants were affected in other ways. An explosion in art and culture took place. Amongst musicians and artists new initiatives were undertaken. 1970 saw the first performance of a compilation of songs and music, La Matanza de Santa Maria. It was a bold musical initiative that drew together Quilapayun and classical musicians. It told a story of workers' struggle, when 3,000 striking nitrate miners and their families were slaughtered in Iquique in 1907 at a school, Santa Maria. It was performed to mass audiences all over the country.

Victor Jara did not 'take music down to the people'. In 1971 he wrote, "In every place where we perform we should organise, and if possible leave functioning, a creative workshop. We should ascend to the people, not feel that we are lowering ourselves to them. Our job is to give them what belongs to them - their cultural roots - and the means of satisfying the hunger for cultural expression that we saw during the election campaign".


Theatre, music and poetry groups were formed in the workers' districts. Ballet and dance was taken into the shanty towns and local groups established. Organisations like Ballet Popular and the New Chilean Song Movement (in which Victor played a leading role) were formed. Joan Jara recalls that nationalisation of one of the largest publishing houses resulted in "dozens of paperback editions of world literature at prices that everyone could afford... distributed to the newspaper kiosks where they competed with the US comic strips. Editions were sold out almost immediately and you could see ordinary working people on the buses reading Jack London, DH Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky, Mark Twain; young Chilean poets and novelists were given their first chance of being published".

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean writer and poet, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for literature in 1972. A spectacular celebration was organised in the National Stadium for him. "For this event, working people came in delegations representing every imaginable skill and trade from every province in the country: there were nitrate workers from the desert of Tarapaca, copper miners from Antofagasta, piquineros or quarrymen from Coquimbo, merchant seamen from Valpariso, railway workers from Aconagua, building workers from Santiago, wine-makers from Curio, textile workers from Concepcion, fishermen from the island of Chileo, dairymen from Osorno, sheep-farmers from Asyen and oil-workers from Magalles in the extreme south". Each delegation gave a performance, prepared by Victor Jara and other artists.


The heated debates that took place amongst the left during the UP are also reflected in the book as Victor and Joan, like thousands of others, tried to find a way forward. The Communist Party was urging a halt to the revolutionary process, and negotiations with the Christian Democrats (DC). Joan and Victor wanted the revolution to proceed - they knew that a coup was being planned. She wrongly argued, however, that if the workers were armed it would provoke reaction. The government should negotiate with the DC but the DC would not talk. The account of these debates, and their lack of a political alternative, leaves the reader feeling the sense of powerlessness that they must have felt at the time, because they lacked a revolutionary socialist alternative to the leadership. As a result they accept the 'party line'. When the moment of the coup arrived it was a 'one-sided civil war', a massacre.

Joan's description of Victor's death is haunting. Committed to the end, on the day of the coup he went to work at the technical university, as instructed to by the trade union leaders, knowing that he would probably be killed. He had expected his death for some time. A few days prior to the coup he composed his 'Manifiesto', proclaiming the reasons why he sung and played his guitar. "My guitar is not for the rich no, nothing like that. My song is of the ladder we are building to reach the stars".

Bit by bit his wife managed to piece together the last brutal days of his life. Learning of his arrest she went to the British embassy for help, which was unforthcoming. The British embassy, alone amongst those of the Western European powers, kept its doors firmly closed to the thousands who fled the bloodbath, left helpless by the programme of the leaders.


Tanks had bombarded the technical university as they did the factories. Victor was arrested and taken to the National Stadium to be beaten and tortured to death - the same venue where, only months earlier, he had performed at the celebration for Neruda.

Victor was 'reserved' for special treatment. He raised the spirits of other prisoners by singing. Having been brutally beaten and his fingers broken the officer in charge then demanded, 'sing now, you bastard', in an attempt to humiliate Victor in front of other prisoners. In defiance he sang Venceremos.

The military intended to dump Victor's body in an unmarked grave. Joan Jara movingly describes how this was avoided by the heroism of a young worker at the morgue who, recognising Victor's corpse, risked his life to find Joan and allow her to reclaim his body and bury him.

The timely republishing of this book provides a service in putting Victor Jara's music and poetry in its political context. Joan Jara concludes with an appeal for the new generation to learn the lessons of this defeat. The weakness of her biography, unfortunately, is that she does not attempt to point out what those lessons are.

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