Chile’s Captive Audience

In Chile we live too far away from everything, separated from the world by what our poet Pablo Neruda has called “a sundering geography.” He was alluding to the mighty Andes, of course, but also to the Pacific Ocean. If we were to throw ourselves into the sea and head west, the nearest country would be New Zealand.

This isolation means we all feel intimately implicated in our country’s virtues and defects. Having endured earthquakes, dictatorships and tidal waves, we think of ourselves as a kind of survivors’ club. Normally every catastrophe is followed by a great show of our effusive feelings for the victims but little in the way of effective assistance for their problems. The many thousands of victims of the terrifying 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck in February — one of the largest ever measured — continue to live in emergency shelters.

After we learned in August that the earth had swallowed up 33 miners in the north of our country, weeks of anguish ensued: we knew the miners’ names and circulated their photos. Minute by minute, on the radio or the TV, we followed the progress of the probes that were searching for them. At a camp set up near the entombed men, many prayed, wept, shouted out their pain. But others, with cooler heads, designed devices to search for signs of life.

When word finally came — the impeccable, terse, beautiful phrase, “All 33 of us are alive,” written on a slip of paper — we were deeply shaken. It turned out to be the first line of a script that would be filmed before the entire world.

These men, buried almost half a mile beneath the earth, were immediately called “heroes.” No expense was spared to rescue them, and this time Chile demonstrated not only its emotions but its effectiveness. The world joined in with a generous heart, speaking volumes about the reserves of goodness and solidarity that exist on this planet.

Along with the first bottle of water lowered into the ground after contact was established went a camera. The rescue was a triumph for the engineers and their assistants, but the worldwide novelization of the story was a triumph for journalists and the news media.

Today, the surviving miners are stars, traveling the globe, the protagonists of a story as close to a fairy tale as a story can be. Apparently their travels will soon culminate with a visit to Disney World.

The miners, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

Antonio Skármeta, the author of the novel The Postman. This article was translated by Esther Allen from the Spanish.

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