Epic Novel Set Amidst War’s Brutality

About a third into The Rhythm of Memory (Berkeley) Alyson Richman brings together two principals from separate worlds, both with tragic back-stories. Such is Richman’s skill that she keeps the two—Salomé Herrera, the beautiful wife of a Chilean movie star Octavio Ribeiro, and Dr. Samuel Rudin, a French born psychiatrist, a Jew who specializes in trying to heal survivors of wartime atrocities—at the center of a narrative that swirls around and beyond them over the span of some 30 years. Linking all the characters in the book is the theme of the promise of love to triumph over the horrendous facts of forced exile and torture.

Richman, who lives on Long Island, creates a rich, multicultural landscape that will particularly fascinate and inform readers unfamiliar with or forgetful of the brutalities of the Pinochet regime, its horrific 17-year rule of Chile and its sickening legacy of The Disappeared. At the heart of the narrative is a love story. Octavio and Salomé meet when they are both young, innocent and idealistic—he’s a student of poetry at the university; she is from an upper class family and living in a convent.  He secretly woos her with poetry that he copies out— mainly of Pablo Neruda—and inserts in oranges in a grove she goes to every day. They marry, though her parents are not pleased by Octavio’s lack of career prospects, but she’s pregnant and they are deeply in love. By chance, one day, the handsome and photogenic Octavio is spotted by a talent scout, and, Lo! He becomes a much admired and wealthy film star. They have a beautiful home and three lovely children. He’s bored, however, feeling he’s not using his full talents or intelligence.

And then one morning in February 1970, Pablo Neruda, “the great poet himself,” arrives at Octavio’s door, “a long black cape shrouding his massive form, a fedora casting a slight shadow over his heavy-hooded eyes.” He explains to the shocked, adulatory but apolitical Octavio that his services are desired as a speech coach for Salvador Allende who once more is running for president. Allende, a doctor and lawyer by training, is no intuitive politician, Neruda points out, but does recognize the importance of image, the power of television and the need for someone to help him conduct an effective campaign. Who better than Chile’s famous movie star? Reluctant at first, Octavio is eventually won over—in more senses than one: Allende and socialist democracy will become his calling, his passion. The training takes, and Allende wins the election.

Salomé, who shares Octavio’s sentiments, is nonetheless fearful that rising opposition, culminating in the 1973 coup led by Commander of the Army, General Augusto Pinochet, will mean trouble for their family because of her husband’s dedication to Allende. “Nothing can change what we already have,” Octavio tells her.  Is he ever wrong! What ensues is savage. For her, for him, for the country.

The novel begins with a prologue, set in Santiago in 1974: “She awakened to the sound of birds singing, the morning mist rising above the tall grasses from where she now lay.” It’s not an idyllic scene, however, she’s lying where “they” tossed her after two months of  imprisonment. Chapter One then starts, 23 years later, in Vesteras, Sweden, but memories will guide the narrative back and forth in time and in different countries. Events hew closely to real life, including Allende’s death at La Mondea Palace, September 1973. Did the president sacrifice himself at the end or was he assassinated (debate continues to this day).  The answer doesn’t matter to the tale— Allende is dead, Pinochet is in power, and woe to those who supported the former leader and won’t recant. (Pincohet died in 2006 at the age of 91 “from natural causes,” too ill to come before a war crimes tribunal.)

Among the questions this absorbing novel prompts is this: How does one go on after the Holocaust (Dr. Rudin’s mother could not) or after disfiguring torture? Another question is explicit: “Should a man make love differently to a woman after she has been abused? Should he hold her differently—more gently—to keep her from breaking?” And what of that often-repeated comment of Theodore Adorno who said that after Auschwitz, poetry could no longer be written and to do so would be barbaric? Readers may recall Adorno when they get to the end of The Rhythm of Memory and reflect on Octavio’s heartbreaking question to himself in regard to the woman he still deeply loves: do people reach a place in their lives “that was now beyond poetry, beyond art and beauty?”

The Rhythm of Memory will surely compel sustained reading, though I’m not sure that the title is an improvement on “Swedish Tango” which is what the book was called when it appeared in hardcover.

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