Victor Jara’s revolutionary life, poetry and politics

Book review – Victor: An Unfinished Song

Victor Jara’s revolutionary life, poetry and politics

Pete McNally

A friend died recently and I was encouraged to take some of his many political books. One I found was Victor: An Unfinished Song by Joan Jara, published by Jonathan Cape in 1983. It tells the story of the years before General Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973.

Joan, a British ballet dancer, first married another Chilean, then divorced and came to know the songwriter and poet Victor Jara. In Chile in the 1960s and early 1970s they live the political struggle to change society.

Victor is now internationally known. He has travelled throughout Latin America collecting folk sounds and musical instruments which would otherwise have been lost.

In these travels he mixes mostly with his own kind: the poorest, those with least. He is a poet, musician, actor, theatre director and Communist Party member. When possible, both he and Joan supported trade union struggles.

Victor had been to the Soviet Union. He had dedicated an album of songs to the people of Vietnam who were fighting US imperialism. And he had met with Che Guevara in Cuba after the revolution there.

In September 1970, Salvador Allende is the presidential candidate for the left-wing electoral alliance Popular Unity. He wins 36.3% of the vote, against 34.9% for the right-wing candidate and 27.4% for the Christian Democrat. Despite the right’s attempts to prevent it, Chile’s congress confirms Allende as president.


In the next few years, Allende introduces major reforms in favour of the working class. More than half of the economy, however, remains owned by the capitalist class, with US imperialism behind it. Also, the state machine – the unelected heads of the civil service and judiciary, and the armed bodies of men who defend them – is left untouched.

The signs that there can be no “co-habitation” between left and right are all there. Bosses organise informal sabotage of Allende’s economy. There is a failed military coup attempt; secret stockpiling of weapons; demands for new powers for the military to search workplaces.

Just three years of Popular Unity proved too much for the capitalists.

Joan admits that “everyone understands that we are fighting for our lives, but we don’t seem to know by what means, with what weapons.” She recalls “the sense of a terrible threat hanging over us for which we were completely unprepared especially as it never seemed clear what form the danger would take.”

The Communist Party, despite widespread support, had failed to understand and prepare for the coming, inevitable showdown.

The coup of 11 September 1973 was planned in detail and carried out without pity. Thousands died. Victor is recognised, arrested, tortured and killed.

Her British passport allows Joan to escape; thousands of other leftists flee to Europe. The UK government, far from being “against fascism” recognises the new military dictatorship at the earliest opportunity.

Before he died, in captivity, already injured, Victor Jara wrote a last poem, his unfinished song. When the workers of Chile and the world put an end to poverty, hunger and inequality, they will finish that song.