- The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics by Elizabeth Quay Hutchison, Thomas Miller Klubock, Nara B. Milanich, and Peter Winn
The Chile Reader is an outstanding introduction to a country that in the last four decades has experienced enormous transformations. This collection of reprinted documents takes readers even further back, through nearly 500 years, mostly explained by Chileans in their own words. The main theme is to explore and analyze what it calls “the narrative of Chilean exceptionalism”, or singular characteristics such as geographical isolation and national character that have made the country so distinct from other Latin American states.
The greatest and most unique value of this selection is that it offers numerous texts that likely even most Chileans have never read. Although some of them, like the featured poems by Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral or the translation of Salvador Allende’s last speech, have been widely translated, the vast majority of the documents will be a novelty to most readers and scholars. While some of the translations are stronger than others, the book is full of hidden gems that are not usually part of the literature most Chileans read when taught about their own history.
In eight chapters, the book traces Chilean history from the days of the Conquistadores, through the birth of an independent nation and consolidation of the young republic, ending with the challenges of a modern country in the new millennium. The editors’ comprehensive introductions in each chapter provide an appropriate contextualization about the leading issues and conflicts of each period.
Chapter 1 examines how Chile’s “crazy geography” defined the nation’s history and character. It includes a famous letter by the founder of Santiago Pedro de Valdivia to the Emperor Charles V describing the riches of the newly settled territory; and essays on Chile’s natural diversity by Mistral and Benjamín Subercaseaux, who coined the concept of a crazy geography. The section also explains how natural disasters such as frequent and devastating earthquakes and man-made catastrophes like mining accidents, in this case described by a Neruda poem, shaped the nation’s identity.
The second chapter gives an overview of pre-Columbian cultures in Chile and of the bellicose relationship between the fledgling Spanish colony and the Mapuche Indians. Particularly clarifying are two rare colonial documents that explain and debate the enslavement of indigenous people, relevant to explain the country’s racial composition. [End Page 235]
Chapter 3 looks into Chilean exceptionalism, tracing the colony’s path into independence. The documents discuss many factors that gave the young republic greater stability than its neighbors. A letter by minister Diego Portales, an essential figure in 1830s Chile, is a significant addition for students of Latin American political thought. Portales’ is considered the architect of the conservative democratic system that ruled Chile through most of the 19th century. His influence was felt deep into the 20th century, corroborated by the admiration the Pinochet regime displayed for his authoritarian policies. Another worthy document is an obscure manual on how to run a hacienda, written by a landowner whose son would become an iconic future president. His 19th century handbook details the rural social stratification that would endure until the 1960s. Chapter 4 covers the War of The Pacific and the 1891 revolution that established a parliamentary republic until 1925. The chapter also details the military subjugation of the Mapuche and the deepening labor conflicts that helped create the Chilean Left. The only weakness of the chapter is that it devotes only one document to the War of The Pacific. The enormous economic benefits and geopolitical expansion that resulted from the victory in that conflict are too deep and lasting for such a quick overview. Even today the war defines relations with Peru and Bolivia, with border conflicts and resentments that are yet to be fully resolved.