Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review: The Southern Tiger by Ricardo Lagos

from here
I've been far too long in hitting publish on my review of Ricardo Lagos' Southern Tiger, because I've struggled to unify what I have to say about the book's three acts.

What do you know about Chile under and after the reign of Augusto Pinochet? Too much or too little.

I came to Lagos' book knowing these things:
1) Pinochet ruled Chile in the modern autocratic fashion, by pretending to have been elected;
2) He came to power in the '70s, backed by the US amid a string of disastrous Cold War medling with South American politics, and he ruled into the late '80s;
3) He died in 2006, having never been punished for the war crimes he committed against the people of Chile.

The first third of Lagos' book was exactly what I had hoped for from the former opposition leader and Chilean president- an insider's account of the movement to oust Pinochet, and pride for the peaceful and democratic process that followed that transition. Lagos presents himself as (and may feel himself to have been) a key leader in the opposition, but his positions in the first post-Pinochet coalitions make him look more an observe of history, rather than a shaper of history. Still, that transition seems so much more remarkable as I watch the violent aftermath of the Arab Spring, of the collapse (re-collapse?) of the Congo, of the drug lords turning Mexico into a failed state to expedite their with the United States. Souther Tiger may suffer, after all, from a politician's gloss on history, but that doesn't diminish, for the me, the importance of that history.

The final third of Southern Tiger was just as eloquent- an idealogical manifesto for the future of Chile and the world, with (of course) Lagos' socialist slant at its core.

The middle section, though... I just lost interest. My limitation are no small part of the problem- reviewing Lagos' time in government after Pinochet was just too much inside baseball. With no prior knowledge of Chile's domestic struggles or dreams, I have no way to contextualize, no way to appreciate Lagos' achievements, nor do I have any knowledge of his failings. But the story also lacked a grand vision, a unifying arc to make Chile's struggles compelling to a foreigner.

Ultimately, Southern Tiger was a political memoir, neither the best nor the worst I've read in that genre. A fine enough book, but the wrong book for me.

Book 42 of my book-a-week challenge.

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