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The Composition

by Antonio Skarmeta

Antonio Skármeta's The Composition sketches, through third person narrative, a vignette in the life of a boy, Pedro Malbrán.  Pedro's mother and father spend each evening huddling around a radio listening to news about their country; sometimes friends join them.  One day while Pedro and his friends are playing soccer, a not-so-unusual sight interrupts their game.  Down the street, the father of Pedro's friend is being dragged away by soldiers who are carrying machine guns.  The father has barely an opportunity to give the keys to his shop to his son, Daniel, and no time at all to hug him farewell.  Pedro learns that Daniel's father has been arrested because he is "against the dictatorship," wants the country to be free, and for "the army not to be the government."
At home that night, Pedro's mother cries.  His parents sit together, hugging each other and listening to the radio, which is "turned down very low."  Pedro asks, "Father, are you against the dictatorship?"  Father nods.  Pedro wonders, "Will they take you to jail, too?"  Father says "No," adding that Pedro brings him luck.
The following day at school, a soldier, Captain Romo, visits Pedro's class.  He is there "on behalf of the government, that is to say, General Perdomo, to invite the children in [the] school to write a composition."  The title of the composition is, "What my family does at night."  The prize is a gold medal, a sash with their flag's colors, and the opportunity to carry the flag in the Patriot's Week parade.  Pedro writes, hoping to win the prizes.
Pedro's parents do not learn about the composition until Pedro brings the graded paper home.  His parents are understandably dismayed when they hear the topic - and relieved when they hear what Pedro - who also is "against the dictatorship" - has written:  "After supper every night my father and mother sit on the sofa and play chess and I do my homework.   And they go on playing chess until it's time to go to bed."
The Composition shows how a young boy tries to make sense of the tragic and dangerous realities of his life.  Although the text of The Composition never uses words like danger or fear, the book exudes an atmosphere of tension.  The hint of danger begins on the first page:  "For the past month, the streets had been filed with soldiers."
When Pedro learns that Daniel's father has been taken away for being "against the dictatorship," and that Pedro's own father also opposes the dictatorship, Pedro gains an understanding of the danger his family faces.  He acts courageously by writing a fictitious account of his family's evening activities.  In his own way and at a young age, Pedro chooses to become part of the resistance against the dictatorship.
Skármeta's native Chile went through a short period of Marxist rule under Salvador Allende during the 1970s.  When a coup d'état led by Augusto Pinochet unseated Allende, Chile suffered under Pinochet's military dictatorship for more than 15 years.[i]  Skármeta had been active politically, and when Pinochet gained power, he escaped to Germany with his wife and family.[ii]  Skármeta returned to Chile in 19882, a few years before a "freely elected president"1 was installed in 1990.  These facts are presumably what make one reviewer assert that the tale is "about the dangers of daily life to people of all sorts under Pinochet [italics added]." 2
However, Skármeta does not specifically state a location for the tale.  In addition, there are few cultural markers in this tale.  The drama could be played out in many countries, since a dictatorship form of government is unfortunately familiar in many parts of the world.  This cultural neutrality broadens the book's appeal.  The few cultural markers are: Spanish names; the word "resistencia" spray-painted on a brick wall in one picture; and a mention of Brazilian soccer great Pelé.
Alfonso Ruano's illustrations effectively mirror the emotions, tension, and courage in the characters.  For example, Don Daniel appears to have lost hope as he is being taken away.  His eyes are downcast, shoulders low.  The stark white of his coat and apron convey a sense of Don Daniel's innocence.  Through a vertical space between the backs of two soldiers (with their guns and ammunition in the foreground), the viewer catches a glimpse of son Daniel.  His face is nearly as white as his shirt; one can see his terror.  At home, Pedro's mother tries to hide her tears, forehead to wrist.  Nearby, the bright yellow and green colors of the radio contrast with the harsh white of the tablecloth on which the radio sits, emphasizing the danger associated with listening to the radio.  At school, one can see Pedro's discomfort and indecision as he listens to Captain Romo.  An eraser that has been shredded with Pedro's pencil mirrors Pedro's fretfulness.
Skármeta's tale instills compassion in the reader and raises in them a desire to resist dictatorships.  He accurately describes the difficulties and dangers of life under a dictatorship.  Beram[iii] put it thus:
The Composition's beauty and effectiveness lie in its unflagging loyalty to its young protagonist's point of view, its quiet, artfully realistic illustrations, and its deft use of understatement: Pedro's father's quip, "Well, we'd better buy a chess set," is the story's sublime last line.
[i] CIA World Fact Book, s.v. "Chile,"
[ii] Shaw, D. L. 1994. Antonio Skármeta. Dictionary of literary biography 145: Modern Latin-American fiction writers. 2nd series. Ed. William Luis and Ann Gonzalez. [Detroit]: Gale Group.
[iii] Beram, Nell D. 2000. Review of The Composition. Horn Book 76 (5). 
Skármeta, Antonio. 2000. The composition. Trans. Elisa Amado. Illus. Alfonso Ruano. Berkeley, CA: Groundwood Books; Caracas, Venezuela: Ediciones Ekaré. ISBN 0-88899-550-4.
This review was written for a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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