It’s hard to believe that half a century has passed since then Donald Duck reading (How to Read Donald Duck), a book I wrote with the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart, was published in November 1971 in Chile.
We never expected our essay to become an international bestseller translated into dozens of languages. It was modestly set up to participate in the unique Chilean experiment of building socialism for the first time in history through elections and nonviolent methods without knocking out our opponents. This meant that the government of Salvador Allende, who assumed the presidency in September 1970, had to win the battle for public opinion in a situation of significant inequality with most of the media in the hands of the enemies of the revolution.
In this struggle for Chile’s identity and to leave behind the obstacles and prejudices of the past, the Allende government had acquired an important asset: the country’s most important publisher. Renamed Quimantu (“Sun of Knowledge” in Mapuche) it gave our peaceful revolution the opportunity to bring out millions of books at low prices, as well as a range of magazines, including children’s and adult comics, that would have to compete for readers in a market saturated with foreign products. If we were to come up with advanced alternatives, it was imperative to study how these imported stories worked, so Armand and I set out to analyze the most popular comics in Chile – and around the world -: those drawn from Walt Disney’s founded giant corporation.
We chose the emblematic character of. decided Donald Duck, in the hope that the revelation of the secret messages hidden behind its innocent and supposedly apolitical facade would inventively expose the prevailing ideology in Chile. Examining how Disney views work, sex, family, success, individualism, and the relationship between poor and rich countries could help Chileans in everyday life to understand how insidious capitalism and the American lifelong dream are as the only viable avenues to development and prosperity were shown. And the book actually became a “handbook of decolonization”, as John Berger enthused years later.
The treatise – conceived in 10 feverish days – caused a sensation and anger when it was published. A second massive print was released soon the next year, and a third was ready for sale when General Augusto Pinochet Allende toppled in September 1973, and all of those copies were tossed into Valparaíso Bay. First water, then fire. Forty years after the Nazis burned so many “degenerate” volumes, it was Chile’s turn. Days after the coup, in a safe house where I was hiding, I saw no less on TV how a group of soldiers threw hundreds of subversive texts into a campfire. Underneath was Donald Duck reading.