A Chilean “anti-carol”


The cover of Coplas de Navidad, by Nicanor Parra.

The year 2013 will surely be one not to forget for many Chileans. Just last Sunday 15th December, two women were rivals in the race for the presidency, producing an unprecedented democratic contest. Michelle Bachelet ran against her childhood friend, Evelyn Matthei, and won the second round of the election with 62.16% of the vote. With her, two other young women (Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, from the student movement) are going to join the government and advocate a better and fairer educational system, which has been the subject of protests since 2011. Things have not always looked that promising in Chile.

On December 19th 1983, exactly 30 years ago, poet Nicanor Parra published Coplas de Navidad (Christmas ballads or verses), of which our Library holds one of only 1000 copies printed (classmark: S743:3.b.9.73). Written by the antipoet par excellence, this work stands out for its clear secular tone, protesting against the hardships the Chilean people had to go through during Pinochet’s dictatorship. The red cover depicts a wounded man making a victory-sign. When you open the book you come to see that, of course, it is not in traditional form. On the left book flap the subtitle tells the reader this is an antivillancico, an anti-carol, and provides a verse in tender and intimate religious tone:

San José mira a la Virgen

la Virgen a san José

el niño mira a los 2

y se sonríen los 3

[Saint Joseph looks at the Virgin / the Virgin at Saint Joseph / the child looks at the 2 / and the 3 smile at each other]

Both book flaps form pockets with two long sheets containing the anti-carol itself folded inside, somehow emphasising the clandestine nature of the publication. On each of the sheets the coplas are paired by bold monochrome square-framed illustrations made by Oscar Gacitúa, whom the colophon states was also in charge of the book’s graphic design. None of the illustrations, except for one, show religious images, but rather depict protest and oppression in ways that are striking in their simplicity and raw emotional content.

(Click on the images to see the gallery)

The content of the verses moves from religious devotion to political uprising, confirming the dual aspects of this “graphic ballad”. It begins by thanking the Virgin Mary, whose Child brought back daylight and poetry, and by asking Him for the return of democracy. But soon the tone changes. Before warning the Virgin of the dangers of censorship, torture and crucifixion for her Child, in a clear parallelism with the victims of the dictatorship, the poet laments that daylight and poetry in the country have now died, and invokes:

Ahora o nunca Señora

la cosa no tiene nombre

debemos cambiar al hombre

[Now or never my Lady / there is no name for this / we must change the man]

After 40 years of Chile’s coup-d’état, we cannot tell whether Nicanor Parra is completely satisfied with his country’s current situation, but he can surely say that what he asked for in his anti-carol has been granted. With the sacrifice of thousands of victims, he may say that laboriously and victoriously, democracy is back.

Clara Panozzo

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