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Allegorical Fragments: The Legacy of Víctor Jara on James Dean Bradfield’s ‘Even in Exile’

ECOLOGIES | Culture Is Ordinary  }

Josh Weeks / October 16, 2021
James Dean Bradfield's embrace of allegory in 'Even in Exile' represents the violence of the destruction of Chilean socialism, whilst also fanning a spark of hope. 2918 words / 12 min read

Image: Victor Jara by Emir Uslu


Memory is greater than the sum of its fragments. This is especially true in the aftermath of defeat, when the embers of what once were – dancing and dying on the bonfire of history – haunt the present of a future that might have been otherwise. In his book The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin proposes a theory of allegory in which history becomes ‘present in reality in the form of the ruin’.1 The past, according to this theory, remains lodged within allegorical fragments that express both the violence of decay and the possibility of renewed, posterior significance. History (re)appears as a ‘petrified, primordial landscape’2 – a dumping ground for relics awaiting contemporary revival.

Brazilian literary critic Idelbar Avelar has argued for the importance of Benjaminian allegory in post-dictatorship contexts. Specifically, he delineates a mode of allegorical Latin American literature that challenges the historical erasure upon which neoliberalism (as the legacy of the dictatorships) depends:

[t]he literature produced in the aftermath of the recent Latin American dictatorships […] confronts not only the need to come to terms with the past but also to define its position in the new present ushered in by the military regimes: a global market in which every corner of social life has been commodified.3

The neoliberal regimes that have ravaged the subcontinent, Avelar suggests, are premised on the construction a ‘perpetual present’ that renders the past both unthinkable and irrelevant,4 thus foreclosing the work of generational mourning that would allow for a critical engagement with the left’s ‘epochal defeat’.5 Allegorical literature, he continues, offers an antidote to such erasure, providing glimpses of the forgotten in ‘anachronistic, obsolete’ artefacts.6 Of course, such artefacts come in a variety of forms, and afford a multitude of allegorical engagements and expressions. In what follows, I am concerned with a very specific kind of Latin American artefact: the musical legacy of Chilean protest singer and avowed socialist, Víctor Jara, which was recently allegorized by James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers on his recent solo album, Even in Exile .

Despite his influence on a number of Western musicians (most notably The Clash, U2, and Bruce Springsteen), Jara’s music remains peripheral beyond Latin America. His story, by contrast, is internationally well-known. Born to a farming family in 1932, Jara grew up to become a musical and socialist icon in Chile, combining folk compositions with political lyrics that served as anathema to the conservatives of the period. As well as being a hugely popular singer in his own right, he was a staunch supporter of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular, going on to write the theme song (an alternative version of Claudio Iturra and Sergio Ortega’s ‘Venceremos’) for the movement that culminated in Allende’s election victory in 1970. As the coup grew closer in 1973, however, it became clear that Jara’s life was in imminent danger. Following the bombing of the presidential palace on September 11th, Jara was rounded up with other suspected leftists and taken to Estadio Chile (since renamed Estadio Víctor Jara). Here he was tortured and killed by soldiers of the regime, who later put his body on display at the entrance to the stadium.

The allegorical afterlife of Jara’s music, I would suggest, is premised on the dialectic of celebration and defeat that his songs have come to embody. ‘Venceremos’ – which translates as ‘We Will Triumph’ – cannot fully sustain its spirit of defiance given our knowledge of what came after, but neither is it subsumed by this historical awareness, as if the memory of that defiance could ever be smothered out of existence (i.e. by the affective flows that derive from failure). As I have suggested above, one way of exploring this dialectic in more detail is to turn to the recent solo album by James Dean Bradfield, Even in Exile: a homage to Jara that feeds on the remainders of political utopianism. As with his band Manic Street Preachers, Bradfield works the tension between optimism and resignation, mining for political (im)possibilities beneath the weight of melancholia. To be sure, the record exudes purpose in the face of this task; the musical form operates between the reflective and anthemic, as if offering a future-facing counterpoint to Benjamin’s understanding of Angelus Novus (in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’). Whilst Benjamin envisaged an ‘angel of history’ endlessly reflecting upon the rubble of the past (thesis IX), Bradfield seems intent on re-building from these ruins, imagining a future that might emerge from the ashes of their destruction.

The allegorical afterlife of Jara’s music is premised on the dialectic of celebration and defeat that his songs have come to embody.

Opening track ‘Recuerda’ is a case in point. Alternating between mournful contemplation and soaring vibrancy, the song revolves an around an imperative to remember (or ‘recuerda’, in Spanish) that juxtaposes the waning of past possibilities with their current-day latency:

Recuerda when they come to your door
With their laws and their guns […]
Recuerda Thatcher, Nixon, Pinochet,
How the land of the free
Disappeared those who would not obey
In the name of liberty.

This opening verse exhibits a sombre approach to memory that would appear to uphold Benjamin’s claim, ‘[a]llegory goes away empty-handed’.7 Bradfield foregrounds the devastating violence of the regime from the get-go, tracing the scars of the Latin American left’s subjugation, and thus acknowledging the ‘untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful’ historical unfolding that allegory expresses.8 With the arrival of the chorus, however, the song slips through the net of this melancholic pragmatism; dejection gives way to a spiralling guitar-line that ushers in the rallying cry ‘what was once lost will be found again/what is true will always transcend.’ The process of mourning for Chilean socialism is temporarily suspended, buoyed by the life that lays dormant in its allegorical wreckage. Bradfield’s practice here evokes the instability of allegory in Benjamin’s pre-Marxist works, in which it owes as much to the redemptive figure of the historian as it does the angel of history. As Benjamin notes in thesis VI, ‘[o]nly that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious’ (emphasis in original).

The song’s affective shift in gears, I think, is underpinned by the monadological character of allegory – the fact that ‘[a]ny person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else’.9 After all, it is not just Víctor Jara that the listener is implored to ‘Recuerda’, but the nexus of collective dreams and devastation that his memory evokes (and for which his musical influence, on this record, serve as an allegorical point of convergence). On the one hand, the consecration of Jara as a socialist martyr risks obscuring his position in the historical totality. How do the specifics of Jara’s life, death, and legacy fit with the broader socio-political context he has come to represent? The converse to this aporia is the transnationalism allegory facilitates, in which the singular fragment – in this instance Jara – can provide the binding for a more communal form of expression. It is significant, in this sense, that ‘Recuerda’ is replaced in the second verse by the Welsh denomination ‘Cofiwch’ (along with references to the flooding of Capel Celyn and the Aberfan disaster), before giving way to the English ‘Remember’ in the outro. Jara’s story is granted a unifying, transnational significance, as if indicative of both a specifically Chilean trauma and part of a broader historical paradigm relating to the subjugation (and projected empowerment) of political others.

Indeed, the formal collapse of lyricism into remembrance is a central feature of the record as a whole. The sepia tones of lead single ‘Boy From the Plantation’ may well evoke mourning, but they also suggest a futurity beyond death that erupts with the chorus hook, ‘Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez/ The boy from the plantation they could not repress.’ The Pink Floyd-inspired ‘The Last Song’ affirms a similar posterity in the face of political conquest: ‘They took your hands but they could not silence your tongue,’ sings Bradfield, centring a posthumous legacy that both challenges and renders visible the state-sanctioned murder concealed beneath the surface of the neoliberal present. These powerful vignettes – which imbue Jara’s voice with a commemorative echo that works against dominant narratives of the regime – come from the pen of Patrick Jones: the poet and playwright that Bradfield collaborated with on the record, who is also the elder brother of Manics’ bass player, Nicky Wire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are some striking crossovers between the siblings’ poetics. The namechecking refrain of ‘Boy From the Plantation,’ for example, is reminiscent of the lyrical encyclopaedism of mid-era Manics’ tracks ‘Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)’ and ‘Let Robeson Sing’ – a feature of Wire’s writing that was back to full swing on 2018’s Resistance is Futile, which featured tributes to David Bowie (‘In Eternity’), Dylan and Caitlin Thomas (‘Dylan and Caitlin’), French artist Yves Klein (‘International Blue’) and American street photographer Vivian Maier (‘Vivian’). And yet, there is a more restrained quality to Jones’ writing that differentiates it from the stridency of the Manics’ more recent output. Such restraint is most apparent on the plaintive ‘There’ll Come a War,’ which renders the act of celebration (of Jara’s life) affectively coextensive with an accounting for the forces that bring life to an end (and whose titular assertion might be considered in contrast to the resistive exuberance of Futurology’s ‘Let’s Go to War’.

It is not just the album’s lyrics, however, which harbour an allegorical quality. Bradfield’s guitar-playing is as technically astounding as always, but even more impressive is the sheer range of his compositions – the way he mixes genres, tones, and time-signatures to sonically illuminate the complexities of Jara’s story. Such musical choices are certainly indicative of artistic ambition. But they also bespeak a temporal openness that serves as the distinguishing factor between allegory and symbolism. In Benjamin’s estimation,

[w]e can be perfectly satisfied with the explanation that takes the one [the symbol] as a sign for ideas, which is self-contained, concentrated, and which steadfastly remains itself, while recognizing the other [allegory] as a successively progressing, dramatically mobile, dynamic representation of ideas which has acquired the very fluidity of time.10

The symbol – according to this definition – exhibits a stable, trans-historical meaning that is unaffected by the context within which it is experienced. It is a vehicle for metaphysical transcendence; a momentary (re)union of the material with the eternal that finds a common archetype in the form of the Catholic eucharist (with the latter being crucial to the naturalization of suffering as part of a theodicy). Allegory, on other hand, belies this temporal cleansing; it introduces the passage of time as a key shaping factor through which cultural objects “speak” to the observer-listener. As the title of the documentary The Resurrection of Víctor Jara (2015) demonstrates, there is a temptation to frame Jara as a Christ-like figure whose commemoration doubles up as a mode of resurrection. But given that allegory is constructed through violence, and that it thus expresses the suppression and bloodshed that made the present possible, it is a fallacy to conflate the allegorical tending of wounds with historical recovery. This is what Horkheimer appeared to have in mind when he wrote – in a letter to Benjamin included in the Arcades Project (1982) – ‘[t]he determination of incompleteness is idealistic if completeness is not comprised within it. Past injustice has occurred and is completed. The slain are really slain. […] If one takes the lack of closure entirely seriously, one must believe in the Last Judgement’.11 Rather than taking refuge in the symbolic, which would mean assigning Jara’s story a politico-aesthetic timelessness immune from the historical violence of the regime, Bradfield invokes a melancholic transience that is firmly rooted in the past’s irretrievability. At the same time, however, it is precisely his engagement with the past’s irretrievably that allows Bradfield (i.e. the allegorist) to dialectisise the present with the ruins produced in its wake, arriving at a mode of musical expression that operates within the interstices between life and death, efficacy and obsolesce. His cover of Jara’s ‘La Partida’ – the only non-original track on the album – is emblematic of this synthesis, embracing as it does the Benjaminian tension between ‘cold, facile technique and the eruptive expression of allegorical interpretation’.12

Rather than taking refuge in the symbolic, which would mean assigning Jara’s story a politico-aesthetic timelessness immune from the historical violence of the regime, Bradfield invokes a melancholic transience.

An instrumental cut from 1971’s El derecho de vivir en paz, ‘La Partida’ combines arpeggio finger-picking, soft percussion, and an evocative guitar melody that is later intersected by a quena (an Andean flute). The tone is fairly consistent throughout, arousing a mixture of foreboding, stoicism, and modest hope, and apart from some chord scratches in the final third of the song, there is a cyclicality to its progression that suggests natural evolution. In Bradfield’s version, by contrast, cyclicality gives way to intermittent irruption; the central guitar line mutates into a vocal refrain that pulls at the fibres of the melody, before exploding out of the arrangement. It is my sense that this vocal refrain signals ‘the basis for a re-birth’ that lies latent in the song – a transmutation that can only be effected by embracing (as opposed to ignoring or denying) the ‘decrease in effectiveness’ that Jara’s death produced.13 This is in no way to suggest that ‘La Partida’ as an artistic creation lacks contemporary significance. On the contrary, the capacity for a meaningful reworking that a cover version should assume would suggest an affective excess – an overflow of significance – that cannot be contained by the original alone. Rather, what I am proposing is that Bradfield’s adaptation of ‘La Partida’ (which tellingly translates as ‘exit’ or ‘departure’) elucidates a paradox at the heart of memory as a process: that to remember the past is to imprint upon the present a trace of its (non)existence; that to mourn is to summon the potential for a living-on that smoulders and dissipates – means both nothing and absolutely everything – in the light of its foreclosure.

the present might have been otherwise. It is by remembering the contingency of neoliberal “democracy” – by tracing the ever-present imprint of its violent origins – that alternative political projects can begin to be (re)imagined.

It is worth reiterating that Even in Exile exhibits a refusal to forget with broader geopolitical implications. The atrocities committed under the Pinochet regime were driven by a neoliberal fervency that quickly proliferated throughout the continent, prefiguring a global culture of socio-political violence discursively rooted in the naturalization of the “free” market (and for which Chile was merely the preliminary testing ground). In this sense, the allegorical preservation of Jara’s legacy that the record enacts provides an aesthetic stimulus – a theoretical point of departure – for thinking and developing the resistive power of memory in relation to neoliberal hegemony more generally. To repeat what I said at the outset, the present might have been otherwise; the socialist movement of the late twentieth century could have succeeded in Chile and beyond. It is only by remembering the contingency of neoliberal “democracy” – by tracing the ever-present imprint of its violent origins – that alternative political projects can begin to be (re)imagined. Of course, given the highly subjective nature of memory, its efficacy as a socio-political concept is fraught with difficulties: the question of whose memories are granted allegorical value (at the expense of others) is especially complex; as is the process of unveiling the power structures underlying such inequality. One thing that remains absolutely clear, however, is that the very attempt to work through these difficulties will be a thorn in the side of neoliberal thinking – particularly as it pertains to the suffocating contemporaneousness that the market seeks to enforce. As Avelar puts it in relation to Latin American fiction, ‘in the very market that submits the past to the immediacy of the present, mournful literature will search for those fragments and ruins […] that can trigger an untimely eruption of the past’.14 Even in Exile, I feel, adheres closely to this principle; it pieces the fragments of Jara’s legacy into an allegorical monument whose beauty is matched by its untimely political potential. It is our job to reflect on such relics of the past, with an eye to the future that their engagement may render thinkable.


  1. Walter Benjamin. [1928]. 2003. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne. London: Verso. p. 177. 

  2. Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. p. 166. 

  3. Idelbar Avelar. 1999. The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 1. 

  4. Avelar. The Untimely Present. p. 2. 

  5. Avelar. The Untimely Present. p. 20. 

  6. Avelar. The Untimely Present. pp. 2-3. 

  7. Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. p. 233. 

  8. Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. p. 166. 

  9. Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. p. 175. 

  10. Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. p. 165. 

  11. Cited in Walter Benjamin. [1927-40]. 1999. The Arcades Project. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press. p. 471. 

  12. Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. p. 175. 

  13. Benjamin. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. p. 178. 

  14. Avelar. The Untimely Present. pp. 2-3. 


Author:

Josh Weeks (@localboy5)

Josh Weeks is a writer and researcher from South Wales, based in Madrid. His work has been included in Review 31, PopMatters, and the anthology of marginalised voices, Just So You Know (Parthian, 2020). He is working towards a PhD on the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño.’