Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter – Review

In Carmen Aguirre’s striking memoir the story begins when she is just six years old.  Her family fled from their native Chile to live in Vancouver as refugees; narrowly avoiding the violence of General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup.  Only five years later her revolutionary mother would return to South America, taking her two daughters along with her to join the growing Chilean resistance.  Raised longing for a homeland she barely knew, Aguirre willingly joined the fight to free Chile from its military dictatorship and in doing so undertook a journey to womanhood burdened by the pressures and pitfalls of living as a secret dissident.  These remarkable ten years, taking her from the age of eleven to twenty one, are the core of ‘Something Fierce: Memories of a Revolutionary Daughter’.

The twenty seven chapters that comprise ‘Something Fierce’ move through the various events of Aguirre’s youth.  The story follows her mother and stepfather’s efforts to work against the Chilean government from its neighboring countries and touches upon the political unrest in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina along with the struggles of Chile.  Reared by her hippy, communist mother, the author’s sympathies are clear and in each step her journey is punctuated with her encounters of the horrible inequities created by the neoliberal policies transforming South America in the 80s, mostly supported through the military intervention of the United States.

‘Something Fierce’ is a study of multiple juxtapositions; Aguirre’s life in South and North America, her coming of age and the political struggles of the countries around her, the harsh realities of the rule of the far right and the dreams of a better, equal tomorrow from the socialists.  The world of Aguirre’s youth is steeped in tragedy with racism and classicism; death and oppression that surround her as she struggles to maintain her secret life as a revolutionary while dealing with the not insignificant struggles of puberty, young love and teenage rebellion.  Aguirre has led a remarkable life and the strength required to endure those trials resonates through her story and lends to it a vitality that pulls you and demands that you continue reading.

Aguirre has worked extensively as a playwright, and that background is evident in her straightforward, minimalist prose.  Information is plainly stated, be it the day to day lives of the new people constantly swirling through the author’s life, the thrill of her sexual awakening or the dread and terror living with the fear of being apprehended by members of the secret police.  This bluntness hits the reader forcefully at its best moments, shocking the system with a palpable thud.  In a world still overtaken with the struggles between the right and left and in which South America remains embroiled in the snares of military coups and brutal dictatorships, the cautionary tales and maddening injustices of Aguirre’s past land uncomfortably close to home in the present.

This direct approach is not without its flaws and occasionally leaves the reader wanting for more details and context.  As the story quickly moves from event to event, it rarely dwells on the internal struggles taking place and only lightly discusses the background to the political turmoil surrounding much of the action.  The task of condensing the political struggles of four nations along with the highlights of an eventful decade of life may be too much to ask for in a simple memoir.

Yet, this may not be unintentional. If readers are unfamiliar with the politics of South America and choose to discover more of that sordid history, Aguirre may have accomplished an unstated goal in the writing of her book.  While that information would be useful to have its lack thereof does not diminish the strength of her work.  The same cannot be said for the missed occasions to understand more of her own thoughts and feelings, particularly as the narrative covers her teenage and young adult years.  The straight forward approach that powerfully conveys the feelings of a child seems inadequate to carry the full experience of an adult’s life as a revolutionary.  By the time Aguirre arrives at her epilogue, she quickly fills in the two decades since the dissolution of the Chilean resistance and this surge of speed feels almost incomplete, like an ending arrived at unintentionally.

Perhaps that is how Aguirre intended it to be, a quick resolution that mirrors in some ways the fading of the resistance in Chile.  The hopes and dreams of this struggle remain alive in the chapters of memoirs yet to be written. This is an important book, which despite its flaws reveals an underrepresented history that should not be forgotten, and holds up a bright mirror through which we should not avoid peering.

Edited by. Laura Necochea