Historias clandestinas quietly delivers a non-fictional tale of epic proportions. The subjective recollections contained in this graphic memoir, the collaborative product of siblings Sol Rojas Lizana (writer) and Ariel Rojas Lizana (illustrator), recount daily life under Pinochet’s repressive regime, describing rather unique circumstances from an unusual perspective. The story is focalized through two young children who grow up in a decidedly politicized household, one that in fact served as a safe house for influential members of MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria or the Movement of the Revolutionary Left) for over a decade. Featuring naïve protagonists, Historias clandestinas appropriately presents a relatively straightforward storyline relayed through the candid perceptions and deceptively simple language of children. Highly expressive visuals likewise offer an intimate portrayal of familial relationships, providing a personalized version of historical events of both national and international significance. In this way, Historias clandestinas successfully transmits a previously silenced story of opposition and resistance from Chile’s recent past.
The graphic novel, which consists of a prologue and three chapters, narrates a coming-of-age story while tracing, chronologically, key episodes from Chile’s turbulent recent history. The opening pages, set in 1970, feature images of euphoric crowds celebrating Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. Depictions of large crowds openly displaying a collective passion and a fervent, revolutionary spirit are abruptly supplanted by chilling scenes of violence and brutal repression with the establishment of Pinochet’s regime. A haunting and wordless sequence depicts the infamous bombing of La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, which took place on September 11, 1973. Triumphant shouts are replaced by a chilling silence. In tandem with these events taking place on a national scale, the coup d’état leads to another form of silencing, on an individual level: the children must quickly learn to conceal the family’s leftist leanings as well as their active participation in the underground resistance.
The remainder of the book interweaves the personal with the political. The second chapter turns from the nation’s unstable political background to introduce the reader to the “clan.” The children’s father, unwilling to fully engage political militancy, departs the household thus facilitating the creation of a new form of kinship, one forged through political bonds rather than bloodlines. Fittingly, this new set of close-nit relationships is represented through the visual trope of the family photo album. Historias clandestinas then details the dangers and risks as well as the joyful moments inherent in leading a clandestine life—from the physical hardships of digging underground hiding places to the intense fear experienced when passing through roadblocks and checkpoints; from the defiant elation of painting illicit graffiti on city walls and disseminating vital information to other members of the underground resistance via microfilm to the sense of pride and solidarity with the artistic accomplishment of collaboratively composing the renowned “Himno a la Resistencia.” In short, text and image capture the spirit of the resistance movement as felt and understood by two children entering adolescence during a time of extreme repression, censorship and political persecution.
The cover of Historias clandestinas artfully anticipates the thematic content, narrative perspective and intense drawing style that the reader will encounter throughout the graphic memoir. The cover page itself—by means of drawn line work that alternates dense, compact layering with a rather sparse, softer use of lines in order to create contrast and form images—is transformed into a heavy, industrialized door. Although this austere access point remains tightly secured with heavy bolts, a brightly illuminated child peers out from the shadows through the horizontal slats of window blinds, breaking free from the seemingly impenetrable framing device. This symbolic image becomes a vital motif throughout Historias clandestinas, undergoing a series of visual reprises. Various iterations of this door recur, primarily in the form of diverse jail cells, even as numerous illustrations depict the young protagonists quietly glancing into rooms, furtively looking through the slats of closed blinds or surreptitiously peering over walls. These images directly allude to the children’s role as innocent and vulnerable, albeit curious and actively involved, observers of historical events. In the words of the narrator-protagonists: “Fuimos testigos. Silenciados por el miedo” (We were witnesses. Silenced by fear.) (unpaginated).
Although autobiographical, Historias clandestinas is primarily related through a third person omniscient narrative voice-over, a seemingly objective, if not somewhat impassive perspective effectively punctuated by occasional use of the first person plural (nosotros, or we, as seen above). Few panels contain interactive dialogue. This compelling narrative strategy successfully conveys the covert, stifled and suppressed nature of the story being told. The work remains far from static, however. The dramatic drawings, in no way secondary to the verbal composition, do far more than merely illustrate the narrative tale. In part, the images serve to accurately portray background information relevant to the specific time period such as architectural details, clothing styles, automobiles, etc. Perhaps more importantly, the images effectively capture the emotional intensity of a secretive, clandestine childhood, especially by means of amplified facial expressions.
A heartwarming, informative and often humorous tale populated by child protagonists and written with accessible language, Historias clandestinas will certainly captivate a young audience. At the same time, with rich and emotionally intense drawings that eloquently convey the intensity of a childhood interrupted, this graphic memoir will likewise appeal to an adult readership. To be sure, while the text highlights iconic moments of Chile’s history the intimate story of siblings coming of age in a fearful time of brutal repression, maintains universal appeal.