Books: Thou shalt not write?

The book business in Chile is booming, and the latest bestseller is by a woman. By Hugh O'Shaughnessy
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The Independent Culture
As we took off from Chile for Europe, the tears were rolling down my face. I was in the middle of Chile's current bestseller, Elizabeth Subercaseaux's book whose title translates as The Ten Things a Woman in Chile Must Never Do, and I couldn't stop laughing.

The author, a Chilean journalist now living in the US, uses the humour of the late lamented George Burns, the social observation of an Anthony Sampson and the command of language of a Jonathan Swift to provide an amazingly comic but accurate investigation of the sexual politics of the Chilean middle class. Now in its fifth impression since last October, its sales, edging towards 20,000, are a tribute to the vitality of the Chilean publishing scene.

Elizabeth herself says that to publish a book in Chile is the quickest way to be regarded as a delinquent, especially if you are a woman. "The critics are a bunch of assassins," she says, singling out the principal daily El Mercurio. (This newspaper, an inveterate supporter of General Pinochet, it should be pointed out here, has the same degree of commitment to democracy as the New York Times has to the cause of a Palestinian state.)

Despite her complaints, women writers have been doing very well recently in a market which produces a little more than 1,000 new titles a year. Chilean publishing is righting itself after the years of military dictatorship when, legend has it, General Pinochet's soldiers burned your books and arrested you if they found you had something on Cubism, because that proved you were a follower of Fidel Castro. In 1990, when Pinochet finally gave up the presidency, more than 2,800 titles appeared as the pent-up creativity of two decades under the jackboot broke forth.

According to Pepe Cayuela, an expert on local publishing, that wave has spent itself and sales have fallen back, not least because a locally printed book will cost you roughly a third of the minimum weekly wage of about pounds 20 a week. Some fancy title imported from Spain will cost you the whole pounds 20. The trouble is that there are no more than 100 real bookshops in the country, and vast stretches of Chile can't boast even one.

Nevertheless, Chile is booming, and imports of books have risen by more than 150 per cent since 1990 to pounds 16m in 1994, and Chilean book exporters are doing well, too, not least because Argentine publishers in the big market next door find Chilean production costs are lower.

Meanwhile there are some very good ideas coming out of Chile. For instance, Cayuela, who was exiled to Britain and once taught at the University of Hull, is planning a Latin American Review of Books, on the lines of the successful ones in London and New York. He is confident it would attract enough advertisements to survive long enough to build up circulation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. "Spanish-language publishers haven't got many places to advertise in," he says.

I won't give away any of Elizabeth Subercaseaux's Ten Commandments, but she has dedicated her book, published by Planeta and carrying one of Botero's delicious pictures on its jacket, to all those women who on their wedding night or in other circumstances have had to beat a quick retreat through the bathroom window. It is comic perfection.