WHEN GEN. Augusto Pinochet breathed his last on Dec. 10, this much seemed clear to everybody in Chile: The man who had lived his whole life and never paid for even one of his crimes had done it again. Once more — one final time — everybody in Chile thought that Pinochet had escaped judgment. Everybody, that is, except for a young man named Francisco Cuadrado Prats, who decided that some sort of punishment, no matter how symbolic, was merited. So he walked up to Pinochet's coffin and deliberately, calmly spat on the dictator's face as he lay there in full regalia.

The story of that young man is also, of course, the story of Chile. Though it culminates at Pinochet's funeral, it started 33 years ago, in late August 1973, when the grandfather of the young man, Gen. Carlos Prats, was commander in chief of the Chilean army. Feeling he could no longer stop the impending military coup against President Salvador Allende, Prats resigned his post and recommended that his replacement be the most loyal of his generals, a man he had befriended and protected his whole life — Augusto Pinochet.

I was working at the presidential palace and can remember how glad, almost giddy, we were when Allende followed Prats' advice. At a farewell gathering honoring Prats, the name Pinochet was on all our lips. He was someone we could trust, someone who would save democracy and avoid the violence descending upon us. Among those present at the party were Allende's last two ministers of defense, Jose Toha and Orlando Letelier. They relied on their "friend" Augusto, "good old Pinochet," to rescue the republic from disaster.

One week later, Sept. 11, 1973, Allende was dead, Toha and Letelier were prisoners of a military junta and Prats had been banished to Argentina. Good old Pinochet had betrayed his president, his friends and his country.

But that was not enough. The new ruler had to be rid of the men who had believed in him, who had seen him obsequiously swearing allegiance to the president, who had witnessed his duplicity. Toha was murdered in a Chilean dungeon a few months after the coup. Letelier was assassinated in Washington in 1976. As to Carlos Prats, he and his wife were blown up on a Buenos Aires street on Sept. 30, 1974, by agents of Pinochet's secret police.

Francisco Cuadrado Prats was 6 when he heard the news that his grandparents had been killed. In the years that followed, many more Chileans would disappear, be tortured or murdered by the man who had been his grandfather's best friend.

But not all was despair. The grandson would also watch and participate in the Chileans' movement to defeat the dictator and recover their lost democracy. By 1990, Pinochet no longer ruled the country. But for the next eight years, he thwarted the emergence of a full democracy by using various authoritarian features of the system and his role as commander in chief of the army. He threatened rebellion at whim, publicly warning Chile's elected leaders, for instance, that if they dared touch, let alone prosecute, one of the men under his command, he would rise up again. There appeared to be virtually no chance that justice would be done.

Then, almost miraculously, Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 after Spanish authorities charged him with murder, torture, illegal detention and disappearances. He escaped extradition to Spain by feigning dementia, but upon his return to Chile, he found that the country had changed. Some of the fear he had inspired was gone. The judiciary and politicians, shamed before the world by the charges issued in Spain, were ready to indict him for all manner of human rights violations. Among the cases was the murder of Carlos Prats and his wife, Sophia.

But Pinochet's lawyers, often with the connivance of sluggish judges and a wary political class, successfully delayed the numerous proceedings against the dictator, and he never was convicted of anything. (Chilean judges denied on a technicality an Argentine magistrate's demand that the general be extradited for trial in Prats' murder.)

Then, just when death seemed to protect Pinochet from punishment, insult was added to injury when the former dictator was rewarded with funeral rites he didn't deserve. Although President Michelle Bachelet (herself a torture victim whose father died of maltreatment in Pinochet's prisons) refused to give the dead dictator a state funeral, she could not stop the army from burying him with full honors.

It was too much for Prats' grandson.

Let me confess that spitting on a dead man — even if he is responsible for the deaths of so many of my friends, the devastation of my life and the agony of my country — makes me feel queasy and uncomfortable. There is something sacred about the dead, about their sad vulnerability, about the rules and protocols that we need to honor when a life, no matter how miserable, has ended.

Yet, who can blame Francisco Cuadrado Prats? His was the tiniest of revolts, barely two or three seconds long (after which he was beaten and kicked by rabid Pinochet supporters before being rescued by a group of military policemen), but it spoke for his murdered grandparents and for all the mutilated and missing bodies of his land. It expressed what millions of Chileans had long dreamed of doing and what only one of us finally dared to do.

I wish this were the end of the story.

But there is a bizarre epilogue. Pinochet also has a grandson, an officer in the Chilean army. He also wanted to vindicate his grandfather's honor, also felt that justice had not been done. In an unscheduled appearance at the funeral, Capt. Augusto Pinochet Molina, flouting all military regulations, stood up and delivered an impassioned defense of the dictator's life and work, denouncing all who had persecuted him. The next day, he was expelled from the army.

Yet his was the most applauded speech at the funeral. This grandson of Pinochet expressed what many followers of the dead general, inside and outside the armed forces, feel but do not dare articulate: that Pinochet is the greatest man in the history of Chile and one of the towering figures of the 20th century, a man who saved his country from communism and opened it up to free-market economics. The suffering, the presumed suffering, of a few does not matter because it was the birth pang of a new world.

There is the true story of Chile, told by two grandsons of generals. For reconciliation to occur in Chile, the grandson of Carlos Prats would have to forget the death of his grandfather, renounce all desire for justice, betray the deepest sources of his wounded identity. Or the grandson of Augusto Pinochet would have to accept that his grandfather was a murderer and ask forgiveness for the dead man's actions.

Neither of these grandsons will ever be able to do this. Francisco will not take back the moment when he spat on the body of his grandfather's enemy. Augusto will not take back the moment when he spoke out as the victor of history, spoke out in the name of his family.

And the heartbreaking story of Chile is that there was a time many years ago — so remote it almost seems mythical — when their grandfathers dreamed that these boys might visit each other and play with each other and might have been, perhaps, who knows, the best of friends.