“It was a whim”: The story of the 15,000 books that Pinochet burned Gabriel García Márquez

In November 1986, the dictatorship ordered the seizure of the clandestine Miguel Littin book in Chile of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature when he was on his way to Santiago.

On October 28, 1986, after several days of travel, the Peban, a Panamanian-flagged steamer, finally docked in the Chilean port of Valparaíso. While preparing to fill out the customs papers, the crew received the news that part of the cargo would be seized.

The captain, who was sure that everything he was carrying on his ship was in order, asked what merchandise they were going to retain.

The official response was the one he least expected: “The books”, specifically, 15,000 copies of “The clandestine adventure of Miguel Littín in Chile”, written by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Gabriel García Márquez that had been sent from the port of Bonaventure, in Colombia.

And that they should reach the hands of Arturo Navarro, the representative of the Oveja Negra publishing house – which published the Nobel books in those years – in Chile.

The book narrated the adventures that Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littín had had to overcome, who had lived in exile since the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973.

Littín had returned to Chile for two weeks in 1985 to secretly film a documentary about what was happening in the country 12 years after the military irruption.


Then he would premiere the documentary “Acta Central de Chile” at the 1986 Venice Film Festival.

But García Márquez’s book went further: it recounted above all details that did not appear on the tape, such as the meeting of Littín, who had posed as a Uruguayan businessman, with Pinochet himself in the corridors of the Palacio de la Moneda , where the de facto president did not recognize him.

“I found out about the seizure of the books two weeks later because I was out of the country,” recalls Arturo Navarro having a coffee under the central nave of the National Museum of Memory in the heart of Santiago.

Navarro had returned from a trip to the US to visit his family when he found an alert message on his home answering machine. It was from his customs agent and described a critical situation: “Arturo, they tell me that the books were burned.”

It was a whim The story of the 15000 books

For Navarro, the shipment was essential: it was the main product he hoped to exhibit during the Santiago book fair, which was to be held a few weeks after the incident.

He, who had been an employee of the Editorial Nacional Quimantú (widely persecuted by the regime) and had seen the military exercise the destruction of books in the first row, also knew that the Pinochet regime had relaxed its censorship policies.

In this context, he believed that the seizure must have been more of a misunderstanding than an act of repression and decided to travel to Valparaíso to solve the problem personally.

“The book had already been published in chapters in Chile by a magazine (Análisis) months before,” says Navarro. “However, what worried me is that according to the press, the seizure of the books was due to the poor condition of the containers, which seemed to me an unusual apology.”

The specimens had remained under the control of the head of the Zone in a State of Emergency, in charge of the military.

When Navarro approached the military building where he could try to rescue the books, he immediately perceived the tension felt within the government during those days: a month and a half earlier, on September 7, militants from the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front had been very close. of ending the life of Augusto Pinochet, in a ferocious attack when he was returning to Santiago from his residence in Cajón del Maipó, some 50 kilometers from the capital.

The assault had left five bodyguards dead and several wounded.

“In the building I was able to talk to a mid-ranking military man who I asked to at least allow me to return the books to Lima,” he says. “But after making a couple of calls, he finally told me, ‘Navarro, don’t worry, we’ve already burned the books.'”

The version in the media was maintained: containers in poor condition, which could explain the seizure, but never the incineration.

For Navarro it was clear that the order had come from above and, even if he had no proof, he was not going to sit still until people knew that the Pinochet regime had ordered the burning of 15,000 volumes of no less than a Nobel Prize winner.

“I still maintain that this was a whim of Pinochet: he did not want to see a book, much less after the attack, in which he basically describes how they had put their fingers in his mouth,” says Navarro.

The news left him despondent and without copies for the fair.

Then he called press conferences to make known what had happened, he made the pertinent complaint before the Chilean Book Chamber and although there was not much echo within the country, in the world they did publish the news.

Navarro saves press clippings from the media in Greece, Holland and the United States that speak of the burned specimens.

But it remained to be seen what really had happened. “I really didn’t believe anything they had told me. Not even that they had been burned.”

One of his colleagues recommended that the best way to obtain a response from the regime was through diplomatic channels, so he decided to go to the Colombian embassy, ​​the country where the books had originally come from.

“There I met Libardo Buitrago, the Colombian consul, who offered to help me.”

Shortly after, thanks to pressure from a foreign country, a very revealing piece of paper reached the consul, a letter dated January 9, 1987, signed by Vice Admiral John Howard Balaresque, which not only confirmed the cremation of the books but also the reasons: the copies of “The clandestine adventure of Miguel Littín in Chile” were imposed “a measure of prior censorship” on the grounds that the content “openly transgressed the constitutional provisions”.

“That paper is the only official document that exists in which the Pinochet regime accepts that it burned books and that it was done through censorship. Something impossible to obtain in those times,” says Navarro.

“And now it is here, in the Museum of Memory.”

The document, with an official signature, served the Oveja publishing house to be able to collect the insurance for the loss, but it also implanted in Navarro’s head a certainty that never left him: culture would be key to the end of the regime.

“This repression of books, of culture, would turn around and end up being one of the main reasons why Pinochet would leave power. Because it was the singers, the artists, the writers who would be fundamental in the campaign to vote No in the 1988 plebiscite that would put an end to the dictatorship,” he concludes.

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“It was a whim”: The story of the 15,000 books that Pinochet burned Gabriel García Márquez