Monday, July 11, 2011

A coincidental desert

About a month ago, a friend and I watched "Nostalgia for the Light," a documentary on Chile's Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth and, in this film, a poignant metaphor for the ways in which we locate ourselves in the universe.

Director Patrizio Guzman uses the spare facts of the Atacama--it is home to a group of observatories that collectively make up the Very Large Telescope and to a handful of abandoned mining towns that were converted into concentration camps during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet--to create a heart-wrenching portrait of longing and the varying ways we locate ourselves in the universe.

The film has two poles: one terrestrial, in which Guzman chronicles the attempts of a handful of widows, sisters and mothers as they sweep the desert for the remains of their loved ones executed (now almost 30 years ago) as dissidents and political prisoners; the other astronomical, as we follow the discoveries of scientists taking advantage of the lack of humidity in the desert to chart depths of space heretofore undiscovered. The juxtaposition evokes an almost unbearable pathos, but is beautiful on both the human and the universal scale.

The Horsehead Nebula

Coincidentally, a few days after seeing the film and learning of the history of the Atacama I received a call at the store from Bruce McPherson, founder of McPherson & Company, who wanted to inform me of the latest book he's published, Carlos Franz's The Absent Sea.

Franz, a Chilean whose novel arrives draped in praise by Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa and the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, focuses his plot on one of Pinochet's concentration camps in that desert and traces the repercussions felt twenty years later in the lives of a newly returned exile and her daughter. One early reviewer compared The Absent Sea favorably to wunderkind Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife and another at Words Without Borders concludes her review by writing that The Absent Sea "is about human nature in its most vast, arid, and uncharted reaches."

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