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.
On his first day out of prison Angel meets Victoria standing outside of the pornographic cinema that she's taken to haunting during the day. At 20 he's only three years older then she is, and they immediately form a bond. He encourages her to try and go back to school one more time and even more importantly to dare and believe in her dream of dancing. Angel was given the gift of the perfect crime by a fellow prisoner before he left, and if he can pull it off their future will be secure.
He has the plans for gaining access to a safe that is full of money that won't be reported as stolen, because it is the illicit profits of a protection racket. Even better it is run by people who used to work for Pinochet as torturers so if the robbery was carried off successfully it would be enacting a measure of revenge on some of those who managed to escape justice. The only problem is that he needs a safe cracker.
Angel sets out to woo Nicolas with the same amount of intensity and passion he brings to his campaign to make Victoria believe in herself. Gradually the three very different peoples' lives begin to intertwine as they each look to the other for salvation and support. In the end it's because of Victoria that Nicolas decides to go through with the plan. She had failed a vital school entrance exam and then degraded herself by selling oral sex to men in the pornographic theatre where Angel first met her, before falling deathly ill.
There are plenty of people in Santiago, Chile who don't think justice was ever done, and that compensation is owed to the victims of Pinochet's regime. In Victoria and the robbery they see their opportunities to do both. A police officer with a conscience, a teacher in Victoria's school, her dance teacher, Nicolas' wife and son, and a couple of others all come together to carry out a two-pronged plan.
Since Victoria's dream is to dance on a major stage, they take over Santiago's Metropolitan Theatre after it's closed for the night through the simple expedient of having the police officer telling the staff there is a bomb threat and they all must leave the building. The plotters take seats in the front row and Victoria dances for them. Like any other patron of the arts they also put up money to help stage the second act – the robbery, for which they are all repaid with interest.
What makes The Dancer And The Thief such a beautiful story to read, almost a fairy tale with its moments of sublime beauty, is Antonio Skarmeta's ability to create magic on the page with words. Somehow he is able to capture the beauty of life and love, to express — through the interaction of his characters — how caring and compassion are more beautiful than any treasure known to man.
He also knows that without sorrow, we would never be able to feel joy, and that real grief is as much a part of our lives as anything else. There is real heartbreak in this book, but that is part of the coming back to life that a country which dared not feel for so long needs to experience if they stand any chance of recovering from the deprivations of the past.
Dreams and hope are the fuel that drives people to keep trying in spite of the odds they face. Victoria, Nicolas, and Angel are hopes and dream personified. In a land where people hadn't known hope for so long, and dreams were only something that you had at night, seeing them walking and talking in that environment was magic at its finest.
I've always loved South American writers for their ability to depict reality with unflinching honesty, while simultaneously seeing all that's magical in the world and giving that life as well. Antonio Skarmeta's The Dancer And The Thief is a wonderful example of this. Like a great painting the book is simple to look at, but moves you beyond what words can describe. Read this book and know what it's like to be truly alive.