By Danny Postel on Jun 22, 2012
The arrest of Augusto Pinochet in London this October signaled the possibility, however fleeting, that justice, on hold for a quarter century since the dictator's brutal 1973 seizure of power in Chile, might finally be realized. It provided a source of hope for those who survived that cataclysm and for the many Chileans who were forced to flee their country in its aftermath. Among the most prominent of those driven into exile is playwright, poet, novelist, cartoonist, essayist, and memoirist Ariel Dorfman.
Born in Argentina and raised in both the United States and Chile, Dorfman threw himself into the momentous democratic movement that brought Salvador Allende to power in Chile in 1970. Dorfman eventually took a position as cultural adviser to the president's chief of staff. In 1971, he co-authored a book, How to Read Donald Duck, that comically but trenchantly attempted to decode the cartoon as a tool of imperialist domination. Then came the nightmarish conclusion to Chile's popular revolution--and quite nearly to Dorfman's life. That dark day, September 11, 1973, ushered in a reign of dictatorial terror that would last more than a decade. It became the defining experience for the young political writer. He was supposed to have been summoned to the national palace in the event of precisely such an emergency, but mysteriously wasn't. Many of his closest friends and political fellow travelers were tortured and killed during the coup.
Dorfman deals with the haunting memory of the coup in most of his works. His numerous books include The Empire's Old Clothes (Pantheon, 1983), Widows (Pantheon, 1983), The Last Song of Manuel Sendero (Viking, 1987), Mascara (Viking, 1988), Last Waltz in Santiago and Other Poems of Exile and Disappearance (Viking, 1988), My House Is on Fire (Viking, 1990), and Konfidenz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995). His 1992 play, Death and the Maiden, was turned into a movie; it was directed by Roman Polanski and starred Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Dorfman's most recent book is a memoir, Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).
This interview was conducted in Chicago shortly before General Pinochet's arrest in London.
Question: It's been almost exactly twenty-five years now since the coup that toppled the government of Salvador Allende. You call it the moment when history turned you, against your will, into the person you would become.
Ariel Dorfman: It was the moment in my life when everything changed, the moment of conception of the person I now am, how I became this person who's bilingual, who's multicultural, who's hybrid. I now have the perspective of twenty-five years of looking back on that. Why am I in exile? Why am I far away? Why do I speak English when I swore I wouldn't? It all has to do with the fact of the coup, and the fact that I was spared. Life pardoned me. History pardoned me. Violence passed me by. Death decided not to take me. I should have been at La Moneda Palace with Allende; I had become a collaborator of one of his chiefs of staff. My life has consisted of a series of encounters with death and is fundamentally about how I've escaped death. But in escaping death, I also had to escape my country. So I went into exile and became the person I now am.
Q: Why weren't you at La Moneda?
Dorfman: There were a series of interconnected miracles behind my not being at La Moneda that fateful day. I should have been at the palace, but I switched places with one of my good friends. He died instead of me. It was just a total coincidence. I was scheduled not to go to the palace that morning because I had invented a cartoon character who I was trying to get on national television. Later, I discovered something else: Somebody should have called me. There was a list of people who were supposed to be called in the event of an emergency. But nobody called me. They let me sleep that morning. I was never able to understand this. Then, three years later, I met the man who was in charge of the list, Fernando Flores. By then, I had essentially figured out myself why I had been spared. He told me he had crossed my name off the list when the time came. I asked him why he did this. He then looked inside himself at the person he had once been, as if consulting that past self, and said, "Well, someone had to live to tell the story."
There's nothing religious about this to me. I don't believe there was a God who spared me. I'm agnostic. But I do believe in something like destiny, or that you turn the accidents that happen to you in life into something necessary and inevitable. What I think I did is I turned myself into the storyteller. I've spent the last twenty-five years telling the story, in many different ways, of Chile. Much of my work is about being haunted by the fact that you're living like a ghost. And that everything is a bit unreal. You have to make amends to the dead. There are people who died so that you could be alive. How do you do that? How do you speak to the dead, for the dead, in spite of the dead? But mine is not only a narrative of death; it's a narrative of life and of celebration, as well.
Q: You've written about being haunted by a vision involving the man you switched places with the day of the coup. What is that vision?
Dorfman: It's possible that writing this book has exorcised it. But I kept thinking of my friend Claudio Gimeno, the man with whom I switched places. I imagine how he must have been tortured. The vision is of his body in that chair, naked, but it's my face. It's a very strange vision. It happens in particular when I'm at the dentist. I sit down in that dentist's chair, and when he tells me to open my mouth and then injects me with anesthesia, all of a sudden I realize that there are people whose teeth are being torn out without anesthesia of any sort. They're put in that position in relation to somebody in white coming towards them. It's this sort of thing, over and over again, that I see.
In the book, I narrate these experiences as if I were a character in my own novel, in a way. I try to put the reader in the position of what it means to be chased by death, hunted by death. In the course of this, I begin to meditate on things like courage, on chance, on memory, on solidarity, on escape, on disguising yourself. All of these things weave their way into the narrative.
Q: Your exile from Chile sent you to the United States. But before that, it was exile that landed your family in South America in the first place. You then spent a good deal of your childhood bouncing like a pinball from country to country, switching back and forth between languages. Can you talk about that?
Dorfman: The trajectory of my life is one of exiles. Every time I've gone into exile, or my parents have gone into exile, there's a change in language. The story begins at the opening of the twentieth century, when my parents had to flee Europe. My father left Odessa (now in Ukraine, then part of Greater Russia), my mother Kishinev (the capital of Moldova, once part of Romania, later of the Soviet Union). They each ended up in Argentina, where they met--in Spanish. They were both bilingual--my mother in Yiddish and Spanish, my father in Russian and Spanish. They made me in Spanish, you could say. So that was the language that caught me at birth.
Then, when I was about two, my father had to flee Argentina because of fascism. He went to the States, where I followed him and had a traumatic experience in a hospital upon arriving, which led me to renounce the Spanish language. I didn't speak it for ten years. I became an English speaker, an American kid. This is why I speak English as I do today, even though I'm Chilean. When I was twelve my father had to flee the U.S. because of McCarthyism. This time he went to Chile, and I once again followed him, to a country I detested, a Latin America I did not like, and a Spanish I did not speak.
But eventually I came to fall in love with the language, with the landscape of Chile, and with the movement that would become the Chilean revolution. I then went back to Berkeley in 1968-'69. A bit like Zelig, I was everywhere something was happening [laughter]. I finally came to renounce the English language--forever, I swore--because it was the language of the gringos who were oppressing Latin America. I then went back to Chile and participated in the democratic revolution of Salvador Allende, who was elected president through the ballot and not the bullet, and who was overthrown with American money--with the money, ironically for me, of my adopted country. I still felt myself in some sense American, culturally, if not a citizen.
There are two sequences alternating throughout this story of my life. One is how death is stalking me, moving me towards exile, and towards becoming the man who is now sitting here with you, uttering these words. Then there's the other sequence in which the little boy, the adolescent, the young man moves towards that encounter with death without knowing it. The book is really about being fractured and about becoming whole. It has something of a cinematic structure to it, going back and forth in time, which I use to narrate a fractured life. Both sequences end up in the same place: I'm confronted with the need to leave the country, to seek asylum, and English then comes back into my life, in spite of everything I've tried to do to stop it.
Q: Your play, Death and the Maiden, deals with the aftermath of terror and torture, with memories that won't go away. It was made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, and was directed by Roman Polanski. I read an article about Polanski when the film came out that talked about his deep identification with each of the three characters in the story. His empathy for your characters, it turns out, stemmed from his own experiences, from various nightmarish episodes in his life. The two of you worked closely together on the making of the film. What was that like?
Dorfman: Most authors aren't allowed on the set, but Roman had no problem with my presence whatsoever. I was very quiet. I watched him work. He would look at me. It wasn't that he was looking for approval. He was simply looking at me. I would look back at him, without saying a word.
I selected Polanski. There were six or seven directors who wanted to make the film, but I felt Roman was the right person. He identified, as you say, with all three characters for his own biographical reasons; he has lived these situations of repression over and over again in his life. And therefore I had nothing to explain to him. I knew that in Polanski I had a director who would understand what the story was about without me having to explain it. He would understand, for instance, why a person could spend seventeen years without telling her husband about something horrible that had happened to her. Whereas many others would think this is crazy. I didn't want a director who would ask me why the police hadn't come to help her. I needed a director who would understand, and interpret, from the very depths of his own experience, what Death and the Maiden was about.
Q: What are your thoughts about the political road Chile has been on since the coup, today, a quarter century later?
Dorfman: What's happened is that we spent nearly twenty years fighting General Pinochet and trying to get rid of him. A great deal of my work has been to figure out what the consequences of the dictatorship have been. We're still living, during the transition, with those consequences, which are profound. The fear in Chile runs very deep. Death and the Maiden was an attempt to deal with that. My novel Konfidenz is also about this fear. It's about that sense of the private not existing. Everything is public; somebody's watching you all the time. It's about the sexuality of that paranoia: There's always somebody who knows more about you than you do.
I think this is what's happening in my country. It's having a difficult and troubling moral transition. We have had some degree of success in eradicating some of the residue of Pinochet. But his body is probably going to rot long before his ideas do.
Danny Postel hosts Free Associations, a radio show in Chicago. He is a contributing editor to Lip magazine. PHOTOGRAPH ©1998 MIRIAM BERKLEY
A Truly Open Letter to General Pinochet
Trust me, General: This is the best thing that could have happened to you.
I understand that it is not pleasant to be arrested without warning, not to be allowed to go out and stroll through the streets of Chelsea at your leisure, not to know what future awaits you. Without going any further, you could ask the many Chileans whom you yourself deprived of their liberty, under far less pleasant conditions than those provided at a five-star London clinic.
But if you are afraid and feel lonely, and if you feel knifed in the back, General, consider that destiny has furnished you in this final chapter of your life, a providential opportunity to save your soul. Since the 1973 coup, you have been living a lie, a meticulous self-aggrandizement, an evasion of your conduct that you built precisely as a result of the outrageous and intolerable murder of Salvador Allende, the man who appointed you to your post and whom you betrayed. That first betrayal was followed by an inevitable avalanche of others, as the original crime must always be covered with more crimes; dictators aspire to absolute power to flee the demons that they have unchained. In hopes of silencing their ghosts, they insist on being surrounded by a flattering wall of mirrors and yes-men who assure you that yes, you are the best and most beautiful, you are the wisest.
And you ended up believing it, General.
You defended what you had done, what you were doing, behind a wall of invincibility, which no one would ever call you on. There was one law for you and another for your fellow citizens. When the Chilean people rejected you in 1988 and forced you to give up the presidency in 1990, you were able to bind, with incredible astuteness, the entire country in a transition in which you would never have to answer for anything you said or did, a transition in which you were the only one truly free to say and do as you pleased, afforded reckless abandon, as you yourself reiterated craftily, while your countrymen always had to watch their tongues and the words that flowed from them. We couldn't, under that necessary transition--the pact--allow ourselves to be taken with emotion for fear that you would throw a fit because you didn't like our latest move: a checkmate to which we had no right. In fact, General, you thought that you could continue to enjoy the impunity of a dictator amidst an otherwise democratic process.
And you confused your country with the world. You thought you could travel to England, a nation you proclaimed to be the quintessence of civilization; you thought you could stroll by the Thames as if it were the Mapocho; you thought that the English had to respect and observe the rules and accords and laws of Chile as if they were their own.
It is doubly sweet to think that you netted yourself, General: that it was the same arrogance with which you ruled that ultimately blinded and lost you, the fantasy that you would always be able to impose your will upon others, guaranteeing that in your isolation you would never have to see, either close up or from afar, the pain that you have inflicted upon your equals.
This is why your arrest is so healthy for you.
I want you to know, General, that I do not believe in capital punishment. What I do believe in is human redemption. Even in yours, General. For this reason, what I have wanted to see for twenty-five years now--and I still have a hard time believing that it might be about to happen--is that before your death you will be forced to look with your blue eyes into the dark and light eyes of the women whose sons and husbands and fathers and brothers you made disappear, one woman after another. I want for them to have the chance to tell you how their lives were fractured and torn apart by an order that you gave, or by the "action" of the secret police that you chose not to stop. I have asked myself what would happen to you if you were forced to hear day after day the multiple stories of your victims and to acknowledge their existence.
You who believe in God, General: Consider the blessing that your wise, compassionate, and severe God has sent you in these, your final days--the possibility of your repentance. That you might pierce this terrible circle of your crimes and ask forgiveness and tell us where our dead are. You know something, don Augusto? To me personally, that would be enough. It would be sufficient punishment. Consider what a great contribution it would be to the country you love so much: You could help our common nation take another step on this difficult road to reconciliation, which is only possible if the terrible truth of what has happened to us is accepted, if you participate in this painful search for the truth and lie neither to yourself nor to us.
I believe you will neither read nor pay attention to these words. I don't think you will voluntarily give up an immunity that you do not have nor an impunity which you always believed you had. I doubt that even with your body held captive you can find the spiritual bearing to act like a truly free man, to overcome your fear and understand the enigma of your life, that you might see yourself as the vast majority of humanity does, and understand why we want to exorcise you--you and so many other tyrants of this century now approaching its end. It is never too late, General.
Translated by Gregori Dolz Kerrigan and Danny Postel. A longer version was first published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais (October 26, 1998).