Downstairs from her glittering Chilean salon, there was a torture chamber

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 3, 2008 

WORLD NEWS WORKSHOP 1 MCT

Writer Pia Barros tells about the literary meetings in the home of U.S. citizen Michael Townley and his Chilean wife Mariana Callejas who was indicted recently by a Chilean court in the death by car bombing of General Carlos Prats and Mrs. Prats in Buenos Aires in 1974.

HELEN HUGHES — Helen Hughes / MCT

SANTIAGO, Chile — During the darkest years of this country's military dictatorship, Mariana Callejas was an up-and-coming writer and the hostess of the era's most glamorous literary salon.

Chile's leading authors trekked up to Callejas' hillside mansion every Thursday night to talk literature, have a few drinks and sometimes dance until the next morning. The salon offered a respite from the fear and violence of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's Chile, in which nearly 3,200 dissidents died or disappeared at the hands of government agents.

Writer Carlos Iturra, who attended the meetings, said in an e-mail that he'd always remember those nights for "the good writers who were formed there" amid the "dances, drinks, laughs and debates."

Horror lay just below the glittering surface, however, as it often did during the 1973-90 military dictatorship.

Callejas was more than just a writer; she was an agent of the DINA, Chile's dreaded National Intelligence Directorate. Her then-husband, U.S. citizen Michael Townley, one of the U.S.-backed Pinochet regime's chief assassins, later was convicted of setting off the 1976 car bomb that killed former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his American colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington.

As the literati danced and debated upstairs, Chilean intelligence officers were downstairs torturing dissidents and manufacturing the toxic nerve agent sarin in a secret laboratory.

That hidden history was exposed June 30 when a Chilean judge sentenced Callejas to two 10-year prison sentences for her role in one of Townley's most notorious crimes, a 1974 car bomb attack that killed former Chilean army chief Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, Sophie Cuthbert, in Argentina. The same judge sentenced Chile's former intelligence chief, retired Gen. Manuel Contreras, to two life sentences for masterminding the attack.

That landmark sentence, the harshest ever meted out to former officials of the Pinochet regime, has spurred writers in Chile to recall the surreal history of the era and Callejas' famous Thursday soirees.

"The story of Mariana Callejas is a novel, or at least a long story," said Enrique Lafourcade, one of Chile's best-known writers and a frequent guest at the salons, which ran from 1974 to 1978. Like the other writers, Lafourcade said he knew nothing about Callejas' secret life.

"Mariana was involved in many things," he said. "She wanted to help writers, but she was also involved in the anti-communist fight because of her love for Michael."

Callejas and Townley eventually divorced.

She's out on bail while she appeals her conviction.

She testified to court officials that she'd played no part in the Prats and Cuthbert murders. Townley has said, however, that Callejas joined him on the mission and even tried unsuccessfully to detonate the radio-controlled explosives that killed the couple.

Under U.S. pressure, the Pinochet regime expelled Townley to the United States in 1978. He served five years in prison for the Letelier murders, participated in a witness protection program and recently was released, said journalist John Dinges, who's written extensively about the history of the Pinochet regime.

"I definitely think Callejas was excited by all this, and it was a big adventure for her," Dinges said. "She was entirely without scruples. She didn't seem to do it for ideological reasons."

Callejas appears to have drawn inspiration from her dark history for her 1981 short story collection, "The Long Night," which is filled with tales of assassination missions, political prisoners languishing in jails and a bomb attack that bears a striking resemblance to the Prats murder.

In an interview last month with the Chilean magazine Ercilla, Callejas remembered those years as "marvelous, intense, a lot of passion for literature," but she refused to comment on the charges against her. She continued to write well after her marriage with Townley ended, and she published a book of short stories last year.

"Although for years, people have woven many myths about the supposed sinister aspect of the salon and the house, the myths come from those who know neither one nor the other," Callejas said to Ercilla. "Worse still, they don't know anything about me."

Chilean writer Pia Barros, however, said that before one salon meeting she bumped into evidence that something more than short stories was being created at the Callejas mansion.

Walking up to the house one night, Barros said, she mistakenly opened an outside door and found a hidden room filled with cots, laboratory equipment and camouflage fabric.

"I went up to the salon and didn't say a word," Barros said. "We left after half an hour and we never went back. We also never told anybody what we had seen."

Callejas' salon has lived on in Chilean literature. Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolano ended his celebrated novel "By Night in Chile" with an account of the salon and the story of Callejas and Townley.

Bolano imagined the Callejas character, years later, wandering around the empty mansion, shunned by her friends and abandoned by her American husband.

"The house already didn't seem the same: All its splendor, a nocturnal and unpunished splendor, had disappeared," Bolano wrote. "Now there was only a house that was too big."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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