Fate blessed me by letting me arrive in London yesterday, just in time to stand outside the House of Lords to hear the good news that Augusto Pinochet Ugarte does not enjoy immunity for having been head of state when he ordered people to be killed and tortured. I was able to hear from the mouths of the English judges that the Chilean dictator could not hide behind the spurious mantle of sovereignty to escape justice. I know a rocky road lies ahead, and that the process promises to last for years, embroiled in appeals and pressures, but our impossible dream in all these years - that the General would have to sit in the same place as his victims - appears ever nearer.
I recognise that this process creates a dilemma, at least for Chileans. The fact that Pinochet will be judged far from his home absolves Chileans from having to do so themselves. The same distance that has enabled him to be imprisoned may serve as a cushion and a screen to prevent us confronting our past.
If Pinochet is imprisoned today in England and perhaps one day in Spain, the General has us Chileans imprisoned in turn, arguing ad infinitum over his image.
What I need to know more than Pinochet's future is Chile's future: how can we go beyond his figure, beyond his legacy? What will happen, now that his trial in Europe will go ahead?
There are so many factors and so many actors that it would be stupid and foolhardy to prophesy the future. Will the armed forces react, as they have threatened, with some action that expresses their "state of tension", pressurising the government even more than they are already doing? Will the right wing now see the chance to rid themselves of the burden of the ex-dictator that brands them as supporters of a man who has crushed human rights and is the pariah of the planet? And, the crucial question: how will the legal proceedings affect the forthcoming presidential elections?
The challenge that faces us can be summed up in a scene I witnessed a few months ago, on my last visit to Chile. It was one of those typical scenes of Chilean daily life that contain more insights than all the political analyses.
We had gone out, Angelica and I, to walk through downtown Santiago. Suddenly I heard a roll of drums and saw in the distance red flags that fluttered in the warm summer breeze of the Paseo Ahumada. I thought it must be another march to demand that the General be extradited to Spain. But it was about 100 university students dressed like medieval fools, their faces painted with many colours, some advancing on stilts, others jumping about in a happy caravan that daringly invited the public to a theatre festival. It was a carnival celebration of arts, full of tricks and good humour.
However, hardly had this band of youngsters passed by than another group appeared, marching slowly and solemnly on the same street: the mothers and sisters and wives of the "disappeared", the association of relatives of those murdered for politics, members of a movement against torture. Here were the women who - for more than 25 years - had fed the fire of memory, refusing to forget their loved ones who had succumbed in some dark and sordid cellar in this very city. They had been waiting for this day when the man who had scorned them could no longer ignore them, when this man had to take responsibility for his violations of human rights.
While I watched these mothers of the Chilean dead pass by, I heard a female voice: "Shitty communists! Liars! We should have killed all of you." I turned and saw a slender woman, fashionably dressed, elegant, fifty-ish. Reactionary, bitter, she spat the words as if to herself, but making sure that everyone heard her clearly.
Watching this woman, who looked with fury at the same march that filled me with so much emotion, seeing her rigid body, her stony inability to understand another's pain, I felt a return to the worst moments - not of the dictatorship, but of the Fascist protests against the Allende government, and I felt my stomach knot with an irrational fear.
I knew to what this hatred could lead; I knew what happens when a woman like her rises up with all the power in her hands and does what she likes and thinks that no one will ever ask her to account for herself. She spoke those words so that people like me would never forget who had won that war.
And I learnt something else on that street corner: General Pinochet is the anchor of the identity of that woman and she wasn't going to let anything in the world bring him to justice. This woman represents a third of the country. A third that has ruled for decades, perhaps centuries in Chile, but has discovered that it doesn't rule abroad. The future of the country cannot be built with this woman. But we cannot imagine and form the future without her. Can we advance beyond Pinochet?
The author will be reading from his latest novel, `The Nanny and the Iceberg', in London this week as part of the Word festivalReuse content