In 1973 the CIA orchestrated a military coup in Chile and replaced the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The first thing that General Augusta Pinochet did once the army had secured power was to order the rounding up of all potential dissidents. Ten thousand writers, poets, teachers, trade unionists, and former members of parliament were rounded up and taken to Santiago Soccer Stadium where they were executed. They were probably the lucky ones.
Countless thousands were arrested and tortured by Pinochet's secret police and prison administrators. If it was even suspected that you might know somebody who knew something you could vanish without warning and be lost for years without your family knowing whether you were dead or alive. These disappearances continued throughout Pinochet's rule and the majority of those who vanished were never seen again.
When Pinochet was finally removed from office and a democratically elected government was again in power it didn't change the fact that people had died and been tortured at the hands of the police and the prison system. I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to have lost a family member, or have survived an extended stay in Pinochet's prisons, and know that the people responsible are still walking around free without having to suffer any reprisals.
This is the Chile in which Antonio Skarmeta's novel The Dancer And The Thief takes place. A country where resentments, bitterness, and sadness are nestled just below the surface of so many people's skin. It's also a poor country where unemployment is high and even the criminals are struggling to make ends meet. It's against this backdrop that we meet our three major characters — Angel Santiago, Nicolas Vergara Gray, and Victoria Ponce — and watch as they come to grips with the world around them.
Nicolas and Angel have both just been released from prison as part of an amnesty program for non-violent offenders. While Nicolas had served five years of a ten year sentence for robbery, and keeping his mouth shut, he is coming out relatively unscathed. Angel, on the other hand, was sent to jail because the brother of the man whose horse he borrowed for an afternoon's ride was his judge and agreed that five years was a reasonable sentence. On his first night in prison, the warden of his jail had him stripped naked and thrown in a cell with five other men where he was viciously gang raped.
Victoria was still in her mother's womb when Pinochet's police shot her father on the steps of the school where he taught. Her mother has been sunk into a deep depression for all of Victoria's 17 years, and is barely aware of her daughter's existence. Victoria has dreams of being a ballet dancer, and studies privately, but by the time we meet her she is close to giving up on everything. Her school, the same one her father taught at, has finally given up on her and expelled her for the third and final time, and she's taken to hanging out at pornographic cinemas during the day during the hours her mother thinks she is in school.
Nicolas has been anticipating there would be a small fortune awaiting him when he is released from jail, his share of the loot from the job that sent him inside and his payment for keeping silent so his partner could stay free. His plan is to retire quietly with the money and do his best to make it up to his wife and son for abandoning them. Unfortunately he finds there is no money left, and his former partner is verging on bankruptcy. As little as wants to, he may just have to break into one more safe if he wants to retire.