WHEN Tony Gould was at Cambridge in the early Sixties he met a young Chilean called Cristian Huneeus and his wife, Paz Errazuriz. He was rather enamoured of them both.

The relationship between the two men continued through to middle age, despite the fact that Huneeus returned to Chile and they barely communicated for years. Their lives ran along parallel lines: marriages, children, divorces, books published, fathers dying, doubts about the socialism of their youth - the usual stuff. The Chilean came back to London 20 years later, and the two of them took up where they had left off, for a short time, at least. Huneeus died of a brain tumour a year later.

Death in Chile is a hybrid. Even the 'Memoir and Journey' of the subtitle do not tell the whole story: besides incorporating a biographical essay on a friend and the story of a trip to Chile, the book is also an autobiography and a cultural study of a South American republic. Hybrids are not always popular with book-buyers, but I hope it will not put them off in this case: Death in Chile is very good.

The first third of the book is set in Britain and tells the story of the parallel lives. The rest takes place in Chile, where Gould goes to uncover his dead friend's past. He explores a country through a friend, and himself through both. He does not peddle a message; he makes suggestions, draws tentative conclusions and muses.

Huneeus, the ostensible subject of the book, was a writer, among other things. A brutal reader of Gould's book might say he was a failed writer, and a really brutal one would say he was a failed person. This is important: the clear-cut and the perfect have no part in Gould's vision of the world, and it is a joy to read what he has to say about internal malaise and the small, personal disappointments of his life and of Cristian's - of yours and mine, too, come to that.

He is very daring in the amount of detail he lavishes on his own life in the first section: a writer less in command of his theme would be too scared to tell us the distribution of his first wife's weight gain during pregnancy, in case we said we did not care. But he makes it work.

Gould returned to Chile in October 1989, during the long, tense year and a half between the plebiscite in which the Chileans voted Pinochet out, and the inauguration of Patricio Aylwin as President. That is not a typographical error: it really did take 17 months. Gould catches the mood well in an understated way and, like all good travel writers, he makes us feel that we are learning along with him.

It would be difficult to imagine a people more politically polarised than the Chileans, and almost everything available to the general reader on Chile in English reflects this by coming from one side or the other. That is why it was so important for the success of Gould's book that Cristian was neither an allendista nor a pinochetista, and it is one of the reasons why it is unusual and worth reading. It transcends the obvious conflict to cast its glance.

If it is a glance rather than a stare, this is not a fault. The author admits that he talked only to middle- and upper-class intellectuals. It is only through an accumulation of such glances that the foreign observer builds up a picture, for it is not possible to be reductive about Chile - nothing about the country is straightforward.

It might have a democratically elected government, but the 1980 constitution remains unamended, so Pinochet in effect still controls the upper house. Murderers enjoy a privileged life in the barrio alto, Knightsbridge west of the Andes, courtesy of the 1978 amnesty law. I spent a month in the slums of Santiago earlier this year and saw that democracy does not mean much amid the endemic social dysfunction caused by chronic poverty, unemployment and overcrowding.

Chile is a country so deeply divided that in many quarters 'human rights' still equals Marxism. This is not surprising: it takes a long time for a nation to recover from a trauma such as that which Chile experienced, especially when there are still people picking at the wounds. About the time of Gould's visit a journalist asked Pinochet's former intelligence chief, Colonel Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, if he had any regrets. 'Yes,' he said, 'I regret not having been tougher on the Marxists.'