One of my many eccentricities is my strange fascination for the now deceased former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I've been carrying around and re-reading the first volume of his autobiography, "Camino Recorrido: memorias de un soldado."
I'm hardly an apologist. He was a brutal dictator, and his actions on September 11, 1973, and subsequent misrule and corruption are indefensible. But several things stand out about this man, that make him different from most historical personages of the "evil dictator" stripe.
First, of course, is the very existence of a fairly well-written, reflective autobiography. And although some will disagree, I'm almost certain it was not ghost-written. Firstly, there's the fact that he was a published author (mostly in the area of social sciences and military history) prior to becoming dictator of Chile. Not very many evil dictators moved into that latter career from academia, but arguably, Gen. Pinochet did. Secondly, the book is too stylistically immature to be ghost-written. What I mean, is that its tone veers from petty-defensive to philosophical to nostalgic to sociological, without much logic or consistency, yet, for all that, it's got some very well-written passages.
Secondly, there is the fact that, unlike most evil dictators, Pinochet accepted the results of a plebescite and stood down, after 15 years in power, and willingly allowed the dismantling of the undemocratic 1980 constitution that he himself had created. Again, his late-career actions hardly excuse his behavior at the height of his rule, but… well, not all evil dictators are equally evil, perhaps.
Lastly, I for one am inclined to believe the speculation that he was not an entirely willing participant in the initial coup, despite his own efforts to rewrite history after the fact to make his role more prominent. In essence, I believe that he attached himself "at the last minute" to the CIA's plot, because he saw the writing on the wall, and that, as bad as things were, there were few leaders in the Chilean military who would've been "better," and many, many, who would have been much worse, and much scarier. In essence, I would argue that his role was, paradoxically, a moderating one vis-a-vis the ultraconservative establishment in Chile.
Again, it's not my intention to defend him – but having access to his autobiography, and to sit on the bus this morning reading his nostalgic prose about his high-school years in Valparaiso and his time as a cadet at the military school in Santiago in the 1930's… well, even evil dictators can be humanized. I've always thought that there were eerie and unintended similarites between his autobiography and, for example, Garcia Marquez's El otoño del patriarca.
And, how can I deny that I relish the sheer eccentricity of being an American on a commuter bus in Seoul reading Pinochet's autobiography – it's one of those moments when you get to think: "Wow, I bet no one has ever done this, before. Ever."