Ariel Dorfman has spent his life fleeing tyrants. Here he tells Jennifer Wallace how the guilt of survival and his nomadic life have inspired his writing.
When Ariel Dorfman was nearly three he made a momentous decision. Finding himself alone in a Manhattan hospital, he decided to abandon the Spanish of his parents and his first three years in Argentina and to adopt the language which he heard spoken all around him. From now on he was determined he would speak and answer to English only, and when his parents came to collect him from the hospital a few weeks later he had already become a resolute New Yorker. "I disconcerted my parents", he remembers, "by refusing to answer their Spanish questions, by speaking only in English".
This act of youthful linguistic rebellion, recalled in his new memoir Heading South Looking North, is typical of Dorfman. All his life, he has wanted to belong, to feel part of the culture in which he lives. Even today, at Duke University, North Carolina, where he teaches in the center for international studies for half of each year, he sports all the trappings of a true stars-and-stripes academic. He wears the scruffy corduroys of the professor. He fills the shelves of the colonial, clapperboard international studies building with Death and the Maiden, Widows and some of his other plays and novels. And when we set out for lunch, he leaps into his jeep and drives through the luscious, golf-course green campus to our reservation at the big pull-in restaurant.
Yet despite appearances and his best efforts, Dorfman can never really feel at home anywhere. Born in Argentina in 1942, brought up until the age of 12 in New York, expelled during the McCarthy purges with his family to Chile and then sent into exile from Chile for his own safety after General Pinochet's coup in 1973, he is, as he admits, the "embodiment" of the hybrid. The latest interest in the academy, he says, is "border crossings, globalisation, hybridisation, the discovery of the places in between and the meeting places - and I like that a lot because I am one and I'm in fact probably the embodiment of all those things.'' Even before his frequent border crossings began, his parents had made global journeys of their own. His mother, originally Yiddish-speaking, fled aged three the threat of violent pogroms in what is now Moldova; his father emigrated to Argentina from the post-revolution civil war in Odessa, Ukraine, with his parents who spoke Russian, English, French and German. Their courtship was conducted in Spanish, and their life in Argentina lasted until his communist father fell foul of the new Peron-backed military regime in 1943 and they escaped to America.
Fashionably hybrid Dorfman may be, but he is unhappy about the unthinking celebration of globalisation. "Today we're all living in a double world. I like these developments but I find a tendency to be very intellectually abstract about them." The growth of post-colonial studies and the work of such influential writers as Homi Bhabha can become dangerously glib and insufficient. "You have to realise", Dorfman explains sorrowfully, "that these dislocations are very painful for some people and very destructive as well. There's no guarantee that to be a hybrid will make you happy. To float and to be dual is very interesting because it expands us but you have to ask yourself about the challenge of the concrete, the communal. You can't turn your back on that, on the challenge of that."
When Dorfman speaks of pain, the experience of the Pinochet coup and the harsh regime which followed is never far from his mind. Before the rightwing Pinochet seized power, aided by the CIA, Dorfman was involved in Salvador Allende's socialist regime. He worked as a cultural and media adviser to Fernando Flores, Allende's chief of staff, helping to promote the cultural renaissance which was one of the hallmarks of the regime and coming up with political slogans and cartoons to support the government as it began to flounder. Once the military had stormed the Moneda, the seat of government, and Allende had been forced to take his own life, Dorfman became a marked man. He spent some weeks hiding in safe houses and being passed from one member of the underground resistance movement to the next before finally taking refuge in the Argentine embassy and leaving for a life in exile.
Others were not so lucky. His colleague at the Moneda was killed; other workers under Flores were imprisoned. About 7,000 activists were herded into the notorious Estadio for interrogation. Radio Moscow reported - with how much exaggeration will never be known - that about 700,000 people had died within two days of the coup. It all makes Dorfman feel not a little guilty that he survived. "For me to be able to sit here and to speak to you in these two languages is only possible because Chile was violently taken, thrust into the world market against the democratic will of its own people and many people died.'' It also makes him determined to tell the story of what happened, to justify his survival by becoming the narrator of what would otherwise have been repressed, hidden and forgotten. Flores, it turned out, had crossed him off his list of key staff, which the military seized to round up Allende supporters, because "somebody had to live to tell the story".
The compulsion to narrate or name the horrors of the totalitarian regime dominates Dorfman's two best-known works, Death and the Maiden and Widows. In Death and the Maiden, the heroine is convinced that her husband's guest is the man who tortured and interrogated her during the Pinochet years. Unable to brush those memories aside, she turns the tables and inflicts the same torture upon the guest, hysterically inviting him to confront his shameful past. Widows dramatises the grief and grim determination of a group of women whose husbands, sons and fathers have been arrested and incarcerated without word. An unidentifiable body is found floating in the river and one of the women announces that it is her father. Gradually more and more bodies float downstream and though decomposed, they are identified by the women and claimed for burial. The women's action is subversive, for to name the bodies is to refuse to ignore the evil of the torturers, to refuse to keep quiet about the "disappearances".
Dorfman finds himself confronted with a paradox in his work. He is driven by the need to tell stories and fascinated by language and yet the pain of the body and the experience of torture and imprisonment - which he admits somewhat cynically are his "speciality" as a writer - are as inexpressible and beyond language as the floating bodies in the river. He concedes that the tension is present in his work, but argues that this is very often the most interesting aspect of the text. "In the glimmers between the words, I catch glimpses of what is not expressible", he says. "Unless you use language to pursue the Moby Dick of the world, you never even have the experience of knowing you haven't captured it. You have to pursue it in order to lose it. And in the loss, you may be able to understand it better."
The elusive quality of painful experience is suggested in the complicated narrative structure of Widows. Although the novel was provoked by the oppression in Chile, the story is supposedly written by a Danish narrator, set in Greece and then translated back into Spanish and English. The purpose was partly to thwart the censorship in Chile. A translated "Danish" work about an unrelated political system would seem less harmful than an excoriating fable from the well-known dissident Ariel Dorfman. But it was also intended to raise questions about the translatability of intense suffering and the degree to which the experience of one community as it is torn apart can be understood by another. As Dorfman writes in Simultaneous Translation, one of his Poems of Exile and Disappearance which consider these issues: "I'm not so different from the interpreters / in their glass booths / at endless international conferences... / and the incredible thing is that in spite of us / in spite of my river of interpretations and turns of phrase / something is communicated / a part of the howl / a thicket of blood / some impossible tears / the human race has heard something / and is moved."
The complexity and experimentation of his writing is typically Latin American. Dorfman admires Gabriel Garc!a M rquez, and shares with M rquez an interest in crossing genres and in an alternative, imaginative universe. But he himself rather cites Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje as fellow travellers. "We are part of a world phenomenon, of people coming into the mainstream of English from some other place." And the Czech exiled writer Milan Kundera? "I like a lot of his stuff but I find myself rather far from his scepticism about hope, about the capacity for change."
The irony is that while Dorfman might imagine hopeful futures for South America and write hard-hitting books which encourage political change, nobody actually reads him in Chile. He is feted at Duke but in the country for which his political writing is most intended, there is little enthusiasm. He reminds the people too much of a time that they wish to forget. It is one reason why, even now that democracy has been restored in Chile, he will not return there for good. Told by a friend that there would only be a space for him there if he actively made it for himself amid the indifferent crowd, he confessed wrily: "I don't have the time or the elbows."
The lack of audience used to worry him. Now he is philosophical. He vows to keep on trying to put the body back into globalisation, to work perhaps with Latinos in the US, but to resign himself to writing not in Chile but from a distance. "I don't want to spend my life recreating a mythical community'', he says. "I'd rather face the fact that this is the story of the contemporary world. Globalisation is the destruction of local communities. I'm going to look it in the face and I'm going to live that world and I'm going to write about that world. I'm going to try to keep as close to what is left of that community, or reconstituted community, in Chile as I can."
Jennifer Wallace is fellow in English and director of studies, Peterhouse, Cambridge.