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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Namesake

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

That is a quote from “Ecclesiastes” in the Old Testament. It was a comment about the monotony of life, but it could well also be a description of the challenge facing fiction writers. There are no original ideas. The best you can hope for is to make an idea feel original.

Never mind a novel’s plot, sometimes it seems I can’t even get the details to seem original.

I finally got around to seeing a film I had been meaning to see for eight years—Pablo Larraín’s No, which is a fictionalized chronicle of the 1988 referendum campaign in Chile. I was keen to see the movie because of my attachment to that South American nation. I lived and studied in Chile for a year in the 1970s and still have friends there. That should be no surprise to my readers. Chile plays a significant part in my trio of Dallas Green novels.

In the movie, Gael García Bernal plays a seemingly apolitical advertising executive who decides to become a consultant for the No campaign, whose aim is to end the rule of General Augusto Pinochet. While the young hotshot’s motivation isn’t precisely spelled out, it seems pretty clear that his turning point comes upon seeing a political activist—she happens to be the wife from whom he is separated and the mother of his child—being treated roughly by the police. And what is her name? It just so happens that she is called Vero.

If you have read Searching for Cunégonde, then you will be aware that book has a character who is a political activist in Chile during the Pinochet regime and who also is called Vero. What are the odds? How could anyone who had watched No during the past eight years possibly read my book and not conclude that I stole—or, more charitably, borrowed—the name from the film? Come to think of it, it is kind of a nice homage to Larraín’s movie, but I swear I only got around to seeing the film a few days ago. I didn’t know that Vero character existed, but why should you believe me? In the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like you can patent or trademark a fictional character’s name, and there is nothing unethical or immoral about giving a character the same name used by another writer. Well, maybe if you call your detective Sherlock Holmes, there might be.

Is there a particular reason that I called my character Vero? Yes, there is, but to discuss it here would be spoilery, and I’m not yet prepared to discuss spoilers in this space so early in the novel’s shelf life. It is safe to say, however, it is pretty certain that Larraín’s (or Antonio Skármeta’s; he wrote the play on which the film was based) reason for choosing that name was not the same as mine.

Where did my Vero character come from, you may ask. Well, the bald truth is that she’s one of the characters who mainly exists as a device to advance the plot. Still, I did my best to infuse her with her own life. I drew on various women I have known in my time, but I was also partly inspired by a real-life person.

From 2010 to 2011 the president of the University of Chile Student Federation was a magnetic Communist by the name of Camila Vallejo. She became something of a fascination for (mostly male) international journalists. In particular, novelist Francisco Goldman wrote a fawning profile in The New York Times Magazine (titled “Camila Vallejo, the World’s Most Glamorous Revolutionary”) which was borderline creepy in his admiration of her. (He described her as “a Botticelli beauty who wears a silver nose ring and studies geography.”) Desaparecidos, the punk band from Omaha whose frontman Conor Oberst is better known for being the lead singer of Bright Eyes, wrote and sang a song for her called “Te Amo Camila Vallejo.” A sample of the lyrics:

When tear gas falls and bullets fly
I’m going to stay right by your side
The police push and you just smile
They could never match your style


Now 32, Vallejo’s university days are well behind her, and since 2014 she has been a legislator in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies.

Needless to say, my Vero is not nearly as famous or consequential as Deputy Vallejo, but she has at least enough politically infused charisma of her own to attract at least one wayward gringo who crosses her path.