Violeta Parra By The Whim Of The Wind by Karen Kerschen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For all of us who saw her country's struggle as part of our own for personal and social liberation, Violeta Parra was the raw, honest voice of Chile's poor. Her collections of songs from the remote hills and woods of Chile and especially her own compositions — Volver a los 17, Gracias a la vida and others — became anthems for activists around the world in the late 1960s and 1970s.
But from what human depths sprang these strange songs, at once laments and celebrations? And why did this brilliant, much loved artist take her life in 1967, at age 50? Karen Kerschen's vivid and well-paced biography goes far to explaining these things, and also tells us much about the social conflicts in Chile that led to that country's tragic experiment with socialism. And it also gives us glimpses of her admirers Pablo Neruda and Pablo de la Rokha, the "Nueva Canción" artist Víctor Jara, and Violeta Parra's most famous relatives, her musician children Ángel and Isabel and her elder brother, the equally famous mathematician and poet Nicanor Parra.
Violeta was one of 9 children of a poor peasant couple with a strong love of music. Though she would later prosper both as a performer and a visual artist, she always identified herself with the poor, playing their homemade instruments, composing songs of their pain and joys, depicting what she thought were their lives and their dreams in her colorful arpilleras of yarn woven into rough jute backing. (To see examples, search for "violeta parra arpillera".) This choice of thematic material made it very difficult for her to break through as a performer in urban Chile, where "top 40" type tunes, mostly foreign had begun to dominate commercial radio and the clubs, but when people had a chance to hear her many of them became entranced by the uniqueness of her style and the directness of her language. In 1954, when she was 37, she seized the opportunity to perform in Europe at a folklore jamboree sponsored by the Polish government, and in Europe — especially and for the longest period in France — she found an audience fascinated by her delivery and also by her arpilleras.
Though she considered herself ugly because of her pockmarked face, she attracted many men, including one tyrannically jealous husband (he stopped her from publicly performing for years), another husband who was more tolerant and forgiving of her impetuous and unpredictable behavior, and many other lovers, all of them younger than she. She blamed herself for the death of a baby daughter she left behind when she had the chance to go to Poland, grieving to the point of desperation, but always — with her children as with her lovers — her artistic expression and desire for attention to her art took precedence over any other obligation. Her love for her surviving children and perhaps her fear that something terrible might befall them (as it had to the baby she had left behind) caused her to interfere in their lives in ways that must have been intolerable, including her loud and vehement condemnations of Ángel and Isabel's performance of "Nueva Canción" protest music that was less "folkloric" (rural-based and traditional) than her own. The poverty of her childhood had so marked her that when she did begin to make money, she regarded it as extraordinary and ephemeral, either to be spent quickly before it disappeared or hoarded for her children. Her last big investment after her return to Chile, "La Carpa de la Reina", a huge tent on the outskirts of Santiago where she hoped to attract audiences for her music who would also dine on her (equally folkloric) empanadas and sopaipillas was a disaster. She had violent mood swings, from exuberance to blind rage that could be provoked by the slightest contretemps.
It was after she realized that her last long-time lover, Swiss-born musician Gilbert Favre, was not going to return to her, that at 50 she was not going to maintain the kind of idyll she had imagined (and that she was not going to "return to being 17," as one of her songs puts it), that she wrote her most famous song, "Gracias a la vida," one of the saddest, most poignant celebrations ever written. And it was not long after that that, after two previous suicide attempts, she stuck the barrel of a pistol into her mouth and pulled the trigger.
Karen Kerschen has done an enormous job of interviews and documentary research, and treats this much-loved figure with great affection but also with the distance to recognize the pain she caused herself and many of those around her. Her short, vivid chapters are enlived by the author's pen-and-ink illustrations.
View all my reviews