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Dictators, Skyscrapers and Not-So-Nice Genes

Despite the old adage, history provides precious few examples of what’s gone around coming around again. Distressed by the manifest lack of divine justice here on Earth, creative thinkers of yore came up with the handy notion of a hereafter in which just deserts might be invisibly delivered. For those among the living still unconvinced, memory does matter. Only a proper reckoning of the past, and the courage to face it, can provide any hope of a future not founded in hypocrisy. Such a hope may seem slender, but it is this slim chance that keeps writers committed to truth-telling at their desks, pens atremble with responsibility.

It is with this burden in mind that Marc Cooper wrote Pinochet and Me, the journalist and longtime Pacifica Radio host’s “anti-memoir” of a 30-year relationship with Chile, so-called because “a memoir attempts to reassemble parts of a forgotten or fading past . . . [M]y task is not nostalgic. In Chile the past has not been forgotten. In Chile the past has never been recognized.” Instead, it has been “systematically denied” and “brutally repressed” in the years since Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, which, with the help of the United States government, overthrew the democratically elected socialist presidency of Salvador Allende and signaled the start of “a 17-year-long night of dictatorship, death and terror.”

Tragic, suspenseful and filled with the tiny personal details that bring history to life, Pinochet and Me begins in 1971, when the 20-year-old Cooper, inspired by Allende’s revolutionary promise, arrived in Santiago. Within months, he was working for Allende as a translator, and had an inside view on both the radical hopes of the administration, which took form in a flurry of street rallies, land appropriations and factory takeovers, and the powerful forces working against it, from internal partisan squabbles, to a U.S.-sponsored destabilization campaign, to Allende’s paradoxical reliance on the same military that would eventually topple him. Eight days after Pinochet’s coup, during which Allende “committed suicide” and activists and foreigners were rounded up and killed, Cooper fled the country.

Two years later, traveling on a fake passport, he slipped back in to “a Chile still in the grip of a homicidal spasm,” his old friends disappeared or broken by torture, the economy in shambles thanks to Pinochet’s willingness to use the country as a laboratory for “that fiscal Frankenstein,” the neoliberal economic policies of Milton Friedman, which would eventually take over the entire continent and much of the world. Union leaders were murdered, wages kept down, markets opened to foreign capital, the “free market” left to regulate itself.

Cooper went back in 1983 to find a nation reasserting itself, the slums of Santiago a-riot with resistance, and again in 1998 to find that the dreams of social justice so alive under Allende, and that had been stirring again 10 years after his death, had “vanished into collective amnesia.” He describes a nation — once unique for its sense of collective destiny — disfigured by consumerism and the vast individualism of the market, a commercial culture “grafted onto a body politic charred to the bone.” And he returned last year, after Pinochet’s arrest in England had “highlighted the stomach-turning cowardice of Chile’s nominally center-left civilian government, which sprang to Pinochet’s defense.” Stripped of his immunity, Pinochet now faces charges at home, but socialist President Ricardo Lagos avoids mention of the case. Cooper, fortunately, does not, maintaining faith that the “struggle for Chile’s future resides in interpreting its past.”

Forgetting is not the only possible crime against history. Kitsch can do just as much damage, far more perniciously. And there are few genres more vulnerable to kitsch than the epic novel, particularly the romantic sort, in which Love traverses decades and continents unmolested; in which the riot and tumble of the times provide background and color for the workings of unconquerable Destiny; in which no character is introduced for even a moment who will not reappear years later by some wild coincidence (or is it Fate?) to save the day or ruin it. Just such a novel is Richard Rayner’s The Cloud Sketcher, in which one-eyed Finnish architect Esko Vaananen pursues the mysterious Russian beauty Katerina Malysheva from childhood on into the “nervous, boundless, brilliant, top-speed days of the late 1920s” (lest we forget, Rayner reminds us, more than once, that “these were giddy, dangerous, perhaps heroic times”). The tale of their doomed and destined love, and of Esko’s dream of building a skyscraper, describes the rise of modernity with all the gritty veracity of a 30-minute History Channel docudrama.

In short: Dreamy disfigured Finnish boy becomes obsessed with the idea of the elevator (“What does it mean?” he asks), meets a beautiful young Russian aristocrat for just a moment, falls in love forever, learns the meaning of elevators (skyscrapers!), becomes an architect, meets the Russian beauty again (now married to his best friend), is moved by her tales of horror at the hands of “the Red butchers” to join up with the Whites in the Finnish Civil War, experiences the horror of war, survives (though the best friend is killed and Katerina believed to be dead), marries a kind and sturdy nurse who happens to be an architect too. Esko no sooner ties the knot than he sees Katerina’s name in an American magazine, sails for New York (a city “unkempt and unshorn, ecstatic, material, jazzy, pleasure driven”), saves the life of a fiery young Italian riveter, finds Katerina — married to a friend, yet again — redesigns her apartment, sleeps with her at last but immediately loses her, builds speakeasies for his Italian friend (now a gangster), is reunited with Katerina at last, but is forced by their tragic love to enter into a Faustian bargain with said gangster that will be his downfall, though his long-dreamed-of skyscraper will stand as a monument to that love, to his buoyant modernist faith.

With plot hooks aplenty, Rayner’s novel is an engrossing read. Its pleasures, though, are guilty ones. History is reduced to cliché, love inflated beyond anyone’s wildest supermarket fantasies. Milan Kundera famously defined kitsch as the denial of excrement. You’ll find no shit in The Cloud Sketcher, though in the non-epic world, which is plenty romantic enough, it’s shit that gives substance to both history and love. â

In this brief catalog of sins against history, we might also include determinism, which, under Darwinian guise, has reared its head repeatedly for the last century or so, declaring contemporary social phenomena to be inexorably set in genetic stone, more often than not thereby justifying, and eternalizing, the injustices of the status quo. It took its ugliest and crudest form at the beginning of the last century in the eugenics movement, but has cropped up with newfound vigor over the last decade in a burst stretching from Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which explained low minority test scores by declaring blacks genetically inferior, to last year’s A Natural History of Rape, by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, which pronounced rape to be a natural, genetically programmed impulse.

A far friendlier ancestor of this genre (in a Barney sort of way) is Mean Genes, by Harvard’s Terry Burnham and UCLA’s Jay Phelan. Burnham and Phelan — or Terry and Jay, as they chirpily call themselves — have penned an “owner’s manual for your brain” that imports insights from evolutionary genetics to explain such modern ills as overeating, infidelity and compulsive day-trading. Mean Genes, they write, “is not some stuffy academic tome.” Indeed, brimming with easy-to-read examples from ethnobiology, neurology (something about “special cells called neurons”) and animal behavior (“let’s check in with our animal friends . . .”), personal anecdotes and quotes from the likes of Goldie Hawn, it is maddeningly, pedantically accessible — written, apparently, for the 48-year-old business traveler with a third-grade education.

Though Burnham and Phelan have a far more balanced understanding of cultural influences than many pop geneticists — particularly when it comes to race, which they all but dismiss as a genetic category — they nonetheless engage in the time-honored tradition of finding ancient evolutionary underpinnings for historically contingent outlooks, in this case for the consumerist, worker-bee ethos of their own caste, the white-collar suburban middle class. Thus we read that “Our emotional systems are designed to encourage us to work,” and that we have trouble putting money away because “we evolved to consume everything in sight,” as if our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ need to be on the move and store up food reserves in times of plenty explains the odd compulsion to spend 10 hours a day in fluorescent-lit cubicles in order to hungrily amass PlayStations and SUVs.

Explaining infidelity as an attempt by males to spread their seed as broadly as possible, and by women to secure more resources for their offspring, they offer this astonishing bit of 1950s marriage counseling: “A husband who provides a constant flow of gifts cements the marriage vow . . . Women should also give gifts to men, but remember, the best gift may be unrestricted and enthusiastic sexual access.” Burnham and Phelan offer lots more practical advice, from saving money (leave your credit card at home when you go to a casino), to avoiding binge eating (throw out half the bag of chips before you begin snacking), to finding a mate (“anyone can become significantly more attractive by being considerate, staying physically fit and being fiscally responsible”). Let’s optimistically take Mean Genes, in all its harmless banality, as a sign that America’s most recent outbreak of genetic determinism has at last run its course.

PINOCHET AND ME: A CHILEAN ANTI-MEMOIR | By MARC COOPER Verso | 141 pages | $22 hardcover

THE CLOUD SKETCHER | By RICHARD RAYNER | HarperCollins 434 pages | $25 hardcover

MEAN GENES | By TERRY BURNHAM and JAY PHELAN | Perseus | 280 pages | $24 hardcover

BRUCE ERIC KAPLAN

“I just feel as women we should scratch and bite one another.”