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La Vida Doble

La Vida Doble

by Arturo Fontaine

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Set in the darkest years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Fontaine’s best-selling novel explores the dilemma of Lorena, a leftist militant confronted with impossible choices. The book is a tale of violence, lofty ideals, and moral ambiguity.


Set in the darkest years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Fontaine’s best-selling novel explores the dilemma of Lorena, a leftist militant confronted with impossible choices. The book is a tale of violence, lofty ideals, and moral ambiguity.

Editorial Reviews

World Literature Today
“How to represent evil and torture bearably, enhance or put into perspective a lasting and frequently trite and polemical literary topic, without the culture of complaint? Arturo Fontaine’s lucid and moving novel, whose original is a literary and critical best-seller amply praised by Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and writers of later generations, opts for a poetic coming to terms with a much-too-human predicament: Would you sell your soul to save yourself and yours? The novel’s nuanced discussion of moral dilemmas like shame and betrayal are stressed in the abundant reviews of the original, and in great measure translator Megan McDowell relays La vida doble’s brilliance in conveying those quandaries, ascertaining Fontaine’s penchant for avoiding formulas.” —World Literature Today
Bait for Bookworms
“I don't think I've seen such a complex psychological study of devotion and betrayal undertaken with such poetic beauty.”—Bait for Bookworms
Los Angeles Review of Books - Marguerite Feitlowitz
“A word about this fine translation. . . . In Spanish, Fontaine makes use of a host of verbal registers and levels of diction. One of the most poignant aspects of Irene-La Cubanita-Lorena is her exacting feel for the Chilean landscape, her knowledge of exotic trees, her sense memories of a particular beach, her native immersion in Santiago. Megan McDowell achieves the subtle shifts in this woman’s voice as she tries to order her account; she maintains tautness in an account that must never (but could easily) flag, and clarity in a realm of horror.. . . . A word about this fine translation. . . . In Spanish, Fontaine makes use of a host of verbal registers and levels of diction. One of the most poignant aspects of Irene-La Cubanita-Lorena is her exacting feel for the Chilean landscape, her knowledge of exotic trees, her sense memories of a particular beach, her native immersion in Santiago. Megan McDowell achieves the subtle shifts in this woman’s voice as she tries to order her account; she maintains tautness in an account that must never (but could easily) flag, and clarity in a realm of horror.”
—Marguerite Feitlowitz, Los Angeles Review of Books
New York Review of Books - David Gallagher
“[La Vida Doble is] a harrowing examination of political violence during the Pinochet period. . . a complex, open-minded investigation into the mentality of those involved on both sides.”—David Gallagher, New York Review of Books
Library Journal
Dying in a Swedish hospice, Irene relates her past first as an antigovernment and then pro-Pinochet revolutionary (the titular "double life").

Product Details

Yale University Press
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Margellos World Republic of Letters Series
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La Vida Doble

A Novel



Copyright © 2010 Arturo Fontaine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19514-9



Can I tell you the truth? That's a question for you. Are you going to believe me? That's a question only you can answer. All I can do is talk. It's up to you whether you believe me or not.

I left the currency exchange with all the money on me. Thirty thousand dollars in cash, and a little over four million pesos. Canelo was next to me, Kid Díaz or Kid of the Day, as we called him, was a bit behind us.

"Run, Irene!" Canelo shouted at me. "Run!" And doubling over just as we'd been trained to do, hunching down and moving sideways to minimize exposure to the enemy, he covered my retreat, scattering lead from his Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum revolver. But not me. I ran for a stretch and then walked a few yards. When I saw that none of the people fleeing in terror from the sound of the bullets took any notice of me, panic overcame me and I threw myself to the ground and hid under a parked truck. Inexplicable, in a trained combatant like me. I told myself: I'll wait for the bullets to stop and then I can get out and walk away naturally. But really, when the moment of truth came, I chickened out. And I had the money on me. Those are the facts. An instant before, anything had been possible; an instant later, destiny had me cornered, the bridge was cut off, I couldn't go back. Never again. I get dizzy thinking about it. But that instant existed, that free and open field was real, and a tenth of a second later it had disappeared forever: I was a prisoner.

The acid of fear dissolved my spirit. I wanted to survive. I wanted more time. I panicked at the thought of living through the duration of my death. Fear of the annihilating wounds, the agonizing and inexorable proximity of the void, and in the meantime the torturous bleeding out that slowly transforms living into dead. I think of Canelo: there was, of course, an instant when he could have escaped and survived the way I did. But he didn't do it. Did he think he could face battle and come out of it alive? Did he even ask himself that, or did he do his duty out of instinct?

As I look out the window at the Baltic Sea, hulking ships are coming into port. And I imagine my daughter, Ana, on a lonely fishing boat at dusk, tipping my ashes from their urn into the sea off the coast of El Quisco. From here in Stockholm, Chile seems like a slim cornice suspended between the Andes and the ocean. What I'm telling you now happened there, a long time ago. I have a good memory. Not as good as Gato's, of course. There's no one with a better memory than him. You know what? He could remember entire portions of a person's testimony during an interrogation and repeat them the next day to demonstrate a contradiction.

Hey, speak a little louder. Raise your voice, OK? I'm getting pretty deaf, let me tell you. I always thought deafness would be silence, darkness, an absence, the same way blindness is. But no. Deafness is a constant noise, a buzzing in your head that keeps voices and sounds from reaching you and forces you to hear only what's going on inside you. Deafness more than blindness, I think, leaves you alone, with no company except your own unceasing buzz.

And so, without dropping my leather purse that was bulging with bills, I crawled under that goddamn truck. Some people went running past, but there were no more shots fired. I peeked my head out from under the truck and saw a gun pointed at my head. It was a relief. The mission was over. The guy aiming the gun at me was a young kid, skinny, not very tall, blue jeans, green shirt. Was it fear that made him breathe so hard? No one would have guessed he was an agent. I never found out his name. Later, I would meet him again in the nightclub at that house in Malloco. But I don't want to tell that part yet, I want to go in order; it isn't easy, though, memory doesn't work that way.

I dropped the purse slowly so he wouldn't get frightened and shoot me. He kept repeating his order like a madman. I didn't feel guilty in the slightest. I was shaking, but inside, a delicious peace was overtaking me. I no longer had to choose. Everything had been consummated. Though of course, it hadn't. Another man came, very tall and agitated, with a thin moustache and salt-and-pepper hair. Someone else I couldn't see came up behind me and roughly twisted my right hand behind my back until it hurt; they ordered me to put my left hand on the nape of my neck. I felt a cuff closing around my left hand and a painful yank on the right, and my hands were immobilized behind my back. I saw the man's violent eyes and I heard a shout. They were waving the bills in front of my face and I was saying that yes, they were mine. I never found out who that tall man with salt-and-pepper hair was. They must have transferred him to a different unit soon after. And the kid with the green shirt held my own Beretta to my temple.

Just then, Macha appeared. They called his name and I turned to face him. As I recognized him, I thought: Canelo is dead. That's what I thought as my eyes suddenly met his and my body was petrified. He had killed, he had killed recently. I had no doubt. He was coming from killing Canelo. I didn't know it was possible for a person's gaze to be so intense and direct and simple. I didn't dare lower my eyes out of fear that the moment I did, he would kill me. But holding his gaze was insolent as well and he could kill me for it, so I slowly lowered my lashes.

Of course, we had been told about him; I had even seen a photo that someone managed to take of him from far away, but it was blurry and he was hard to make out. He had been shot in the leg once during a raid, and he limped a little. They never found out who fired the shot. It could have been friendly fire. Most likely. It was said that he handled us, he was the chief operative charged with wiping us out. That much we knew. And he knew that we knew. I don't think he ever found out who our source was, but he must have suspected it was someone close to him. Once, we managed to leave a warning message on the windshield of his white car, a .8 Corona, which was in the parking lot of the guarded building where he lived. He moved to a new apartment and traded his car for a Toyota 4×4, red. And in less than a month he found the same kind of warning on its windshield. I didn't participate in those missions. I never knew how they did it. But now I think I know who our contact inside Central was. Yes. Maybe.

And one day we threatened him by putting a false bomb in his son's preschool classroom. Four years old, the kid must have been then. It was my job to go to the "meet" and hand over the Vietnamese IED they used to a combatant from another cell. A cone made out of a simple cooking pot filled with screws and nails. But someone warned him. We never would have set it off. It didn't even have a detonator. Macha went to the kindergarten himself with three cars full of thugs from Central who went running in and disarmed the device. Macha came tearing out of the building clutching his little boy in his arms. He put him into a different preschool, enrolled under a false name. It was our third warning. So he would look the other way, to get rid of us.

Another time, we undertook an operation to assassinate him as he was leaving his lover's house. But the man who came out of the house that morning at daybreak, the man who died riddled with bullets from our AK-47, wasn't him but another agent. Failed operation.

When I raised my eyes again, Macha was speaking quickly and sharply to the tall man with the moustache. He checked the time on his Rolex metal-band wristwatch. He put on a pair of Ray-Bans with metal frames. His back was upright, broad and straight as if there were an iron bar going through him from one shoulder to the other. When he put away the lens case, his dark suit jacket fell open and I saw the shoulder holster for his gun. I heard movement, a slight whisper behind me, just before a blindfold covered my eyes. When everything went black I died, though I didn't know it yet. Not, of course, the way Canelo died, Canelo, who was now firmly fixed in the eternity of heroes. But I knew that sister Irene had also fallen that day on Calle Moneda, and I was the one who had killed her.


Days are no different from nights, and everything unfolds within a gaseous atmosphere shot through with terror. If only there was some way to describe what happens to you while you're in there. What are you? An animal driven mad by the horror? Where are you? What do you hope for? From the moment they put the blindfold on, you are no longer you, and you enter into a nightmare filled with indefinite shapes, in which the stupor of fear, the sudden blows and startling pain gradually bewilder you and break you down. A cry to summon all this and a tongue to hang myself from it. Then you tell yourself: this was the truth always, the one my professors taught me, and in the university quads no one no talked about anything else. We are this impalpable flux; I never used to believe in intangible substances, in sacrosanct identities or timeless essences. Then I remember and repeat the lessons I learned in university: I am a slave because I chose to keep my life in exchange for my freedom, et cetera, et cetera. There were brothers and sisters who didn't let themselves get captured, and they sacrificed their lives. Not me. They were unbound, they ascended and stayed free, suspended above life and death. They are our heroes. The others, the agents who martyred them, admire them. If we are respected, it's because of them. If we are feared, it's because of them. I was trained to be like them, but I couldn't do it. Canelo did.

And so the master will rule over sister Irene, and little by little I will be worn away, I will become a thing to him, I will be his slave. Not Canelo, who went free. He put his dignity and freedom above his life. Excessively grand words? Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. Not me. The master would slowly bend me to his will as though I were an animal that belonged to him. The face you cannot see becomes all-powerful, my terrifying deus absconditus, my hidden god. That was what was happening to me. But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now that moment of surrender builds in me though I do not know it. No one commits suicide alone. I am growing ever more exhausted, I do know that. We were trained to endure this. But I never imagined how the simple physical exhaustion chips away at you from inside. A person can die in that place from sheer tiredness, sheer discouragement, sheer solitude. It's a moribund life I'm living. You don't need them to kill you in order to die. You move steadily away from yourself until you leave yourself behind, and that's what dying is. There is an imperceptible surrender; it's this exhaustion that weighs on you and bends you that finally forces you to succumb.

The pain is forging my being although I don't know it yet. It always does. The flame that softens and shapes the metal. It's a matter of reaching the right temperature for each person. And they wanted more from me, always more. You have no idea what that is like. You can't imagine. You become a cockroach that everyone has the right to trample and crush. They tell you this. You know it's the truth. You can disappear forever at any moment. You live on borrowed time; you live as long as they want you to.

One of the thugs spit on me, just because. "Rat," they called him, Rat Osorio: an insignificant being, short and vulgar, with red hair full of dandruff and plastered to his skull, and elongated ears. They called him in to work the crank. I started to cry. Rat became furious, called me hysterical, and slapped me with his open palm. He kicked me to the ground. That was all, but it wasn't all. "Hysterical bitch," Rat said to me, looking at me with a mocking smile. "Bitch," he repeated slowly. "Adiós, bitch," and when he was leaving he turned around, wearing the same mocking smile; he said it again, just because. Do you understand? That was horrible. Worse than many other things.

Death will start to seem benevolent and good. Death is now the only hope. In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death will flee from them. Because—you know?—there is always hope. We are always waiting for Godot. It's just that at a given moment, Godot becomes death and death doesn't scare you anymore. As long as the agonies it brings are not too painful. What frightens you is the physical pain you must endure in order for death's door to open. Your minimal future as you wait for the void also leaves minimum room for your past. I never knew that before: the past is yours only if there is something ahead of you, memory only exists and makes sense if there is a future. Otherwise, your memory stops working, it seizes up and forsakes you. That is what kills you. Time has run out and you are almost nothing, almost a thing, and in any case, not you. They have emptied you. And still you survive, with the useless tenacity of a crushed insect still waving its legs.

The interrogator's pleasure diminishes as I am slowly reduced to be merely his object. He builds himself up as my conqueror as he stamps out my freedom little by little. I must be subjugated and enslaved, but I must not become a broken-down machine. And so he likes it when I scream, when I refuse, when I resist.

I repeat to myself the lessons I learned in my university days: he recognizes his dominion over me in my shudders, my uncontrollable howls, my humiliating pleas, my unconditional subjection, my fear; my fear that penetrates my body like a tattoo. But the truth is that none of this is any good to me, these reflections do not save me, and the only thing I want is for the fear to stop.

None of what I learned sounds real, now. Even thinking as I'm doing now, from a distance and after so many years, is a form of running away. I think because I couldn't break my chains. I think and think about why I let them imprison me. Because when Canelo shouted at me: "Run!" And I heard him and saw him get in position to fire defensively: "Run!" And I ran, I ran zigzagging among the people, just as we'd been taught, I ran some fifty yards to Calle Moneda, I hurled myself into the street to cross it, as we had been taught, but when I saw that parked truck I threw myself to the ground. I want you to picture it clearly. The sky was gray that fall morning in Santiago, but everything was clear. The street was well lit; there were distinct shades and contours. And there was an instant that existed, there was a precise tenth, an exact hundredth of a second when, instead of going on, I threw myself to the ground and slid beneath the truck. And that infinitesimal moment froze my biography.

I chose to survive. Did I choose? Can we choose? Something perhaps chose for me, my fear, my survival instinct, who knows? I didn't lie to myself: I knew they would find me, I knew I was turning myself over to them. Although I didn't consciously think of it that way. No. I told myself the trick was smart in its naïveté, it was something that any pedestrian might have done out of pure fear. The sound of bullets, the bursts of rapid fire and the pauses between them, the running footsteps and the shouts, and those long, frightening silences. First came the Smith and Wesson .44, then the agents' CZs. Because, just as we'd been taught they would, they drew those 9mm CZ 75 Lugers made in socialist Czechoslovakia and sold to a dictatorship that would use them to kill socialists. And more and more shots were fired; and surely the other three brothers were also fighting. The strange thing was that our AK was silent. I knew that weapon well, I could assemble and disassemble it blindfolded. Though even dirty and caked with mud they would still shoot straight, we always had to keep them like new. I was sure I didn't hear our AK.

Nothing I think gets me out of here. This stubbornness is a form of subsistence, a way of continuing to be me thanks to the guilt that is my past, the only bit of it that's still alive. That day, all my hopes were emptied out and turned into regrets.

And the burn never stops stinging. Could things have happened some other way? Was it mere chance? But isn't chance just the name we give to the reason we do not know? Were there, then, objective reasons? Then I return to how the events took place; I return, then, to the pain that exists within a time that expands and defers, that doesn't pass and won't allow me to forget for one minute the density of its presence. Pain is jealous like no other.

Once it has stopped, it's hard to understand what happened. It's a vertigo you cannot re-create. There is an impassable abyss between who you are under that pain and who you are one second later. There is no bridge between the two points. You ask why they are doing this to you. Images go by, they turn on and off, and you try to put them in order: my fingertips covered in layers of hardened glue, my awareness of Canelo behind me, the woman with glasses and the black Bic pen who passes me the receipt through the teller window—she is "fixed," we'd been informed, she will collaborate—the sketch I drew spread out on the dining room table in the safe house—it's the night before, we're going over the plan in detail—my drawing of the bars that protect the safes, the lying silence that follows Canelo's shouted order, the sound of the dial on the door of the Bash safe, the used bills encircled with elastic, my spacious black leather purse open, the sound of the purse's clasp closing. All of this is clear and makes sense. You knew it would be like this.

Excerpted from La Vida Doble by ARTURO FONTAINE. Copyright © 2010 by Arturo Fontaine. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Arturo Fontaine is professor of philosophy at the Universidad de Chile. He is the author of four volumes of poetry and three novels, and he regularly publishes essays on cultural topics. Megan McDowell is a translator specializing in Chilean and Latin American literature.

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