Ariel Dorfman by Jenifer Berman

BOMB 50 Winter 1995
050 Wintter 1995
Dorfman 01 Body

Ariel Dorfman. Photo by Thomas Victor © 1994, courtesy of Viking.

Ariel Dorfman is obsessed with giving a voice to those who cannot speak: the dead, the missing, those whose lives are interrupted by history. Like many of his characters, Dorfman’s own life was interrupted when he was forced into exile from Chile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s coup ousted the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Grounded in Chile, but addressing all diasporic communities, Dorfman explores life on the frontier, a fluctuating space between past and present, the physical and the psychic. With an elegance and dignity that distinguish both his prose and his person, Dorfman is a shrewd storyteller whose bold forays into fantasy coexist with the gruesome realities of his country. His voice is prolific, fueled by an abounding energy that enables him to balance writing a novel, adapting a screenplay, travelling to Thailand, Scotland, Berlin and back researching his latest film project, and teaching. Well known for his cultural criticism, How to Read Donald Duck (1971), Dorfman has also written three novels, a collection of short stories, and a book of poems. His plays include Widows (co-adapted for the stage with Tony Kushner), Reader, and the much acclaimed Death and the Maiden which won the Olivier Award for Best Play in London and was adapted for film by the author and directed by Roman Polanski. In his soon-to-be-published novel Konfidenz he attacks an undulating current of truth and desire, deceit and self-propagation—almost entirely in dialogue.

Jenifer Berman You were forced to leave Chile in 1973, and most of your previous writing has dealt with Chile’s torturous political history. Now you say you are getting away from Chile. What do you mean by that?

Ariel Dorfman For many years I have been struggling with a problem that many exiles have: How are you faithful to your country while, in fact, you are writing for people who have not been your fellow countrymen for a long time? Chile has been and always will be a source of inspiration for me. It forms the backbone, the inspiration, and the challenge of everything I write. The experience of inventing that country—in a way that makes sense to myself in exile—has been very central to everything I’ve done. I do feel that one of the reasons one is in exile is to keep alive what the country is. A certain freedom of expression that is no longer allowed under the dictatorship back home. I’m obsessed with the country—writing it. The poems come out of that need, as well as the stories of My House Is on Fire. It’s only when I began Widowsthat I slowly drifted away from the sense that I have to write about the country. I start examining the deeper dilemmas of Chile, not in a realistic vein, but through an allegorical approach. So I took a step toward a certain universality of my experience and of Chile’s experience. In The Last Song of Manuel Sendero I took one further step and confronted exile as a real problem. But even in the first works, there is the sense that though it is Chile, it is not a local Chile, it’s a Chile of the imagination, a Chile of the mind.

JB The reception to your work in Chile, especially in response to Death and the Maiden, was mixed, if not very critical, whereas you were lauded with praise abroad. Are you writing for Chile?

AD In some way I am always writing for that imagined community of my fellow countrymen. I’m always asking questions about how the nation can be healed, retold, or modified—how it can be explored—as if this nation were incomplete until writers had found the way of best imagining it, of really challenging it with their literature. That never disappears entirely. At the same time, I’m constantly trying to go beyond the provincial interests of that community. And there’s a tradition for that in Latin America. When Pablo Neruda writes Residence on Earthand he writes it in Sri Lanka, he writes it in Thailand … He’s indicating that you can write about your land by exploring other places. This grows from the tension between what we could call the cosmopolitan and the local, the regional and the universal. Or in more contemporary terms, the global market and the local readers. All these tensions riddle my work. I’m constantly trying to figure out how you can be true to an experience which in fact very few people in the world would understand, such as having most of your friends disappear or be tortured, and at the same time finding a way of telling that story so other people in other places can read their own lives into that. Death and the Maiden is the first work of mine in which I finally manage to do that in a way which is entirely satisfying. That’s what may explain its enormous success around the world. In Chile, the people found it not to be allegorical at all, but realistic, and found themselves hurt or wounded by the brutality with which I show their lives. Not the brutality of the torture, it’s hardly mentioned, but what I show in Death and the Maiden is the stark, painful Chilean transition to democracy.

JB It’s been said that through your writing you attempt to give a voice to the dead. Can you discuss this?

AD First of all, to go into exile is to go into the country of the dead. It is to lose everything that made your life meaningful. It is to be cut off. And in fact there are many tribes that consider when a person is banished from a tribe, that they die in some way, and to return is a resurrection. I believe that I have had that experience of death, I lost those things that gave meaning to my life. You’re outside a culture, outside a place where everyday things are at your fingertips. You have to reinvent yourself.

But I’ve always been obsessed with having the dead speak, and that’s something that comes from before the coup. You do not need to have people murdered to want to make them speak. If you can’t make the dead speak, then how do you speak to the future when you will be dead? So I have an intimation that somebody in the future is listening to me as I speak right now, especially as I write. I’m trying to listen to the voices of those who were not able to accede, who went through life without leaving traces, especially in the written language, of who they were, what they tried to be, what their dreams were.

JB What sparked that obsession?

AD I don’t know. It’s a feeling of transience on my part. I have a sense of unreality constantly around me. I’m a very sensual person, very optimistic, very vital. And yet, at the same time, I have the very strange certainty of not being quite here. Of being already dead. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be dead. And in the course of Chile’s history, it turned out that death was not a common experience that happened to everybody, but to certain people prematurely, selectively, unfairly, as terror, as punishment for having transgressed, dared to find a voice. We had dared to think of a world that was free, that was equal, a world that did not have the terrible injustices that characterize most of humanity. Because of that, we were condemned either to death or to flee in order to stay alive, but to die in the sense of having our country killed for us. That, of course, has enhanced my sense of death. It was a very anguishing question that I continued to ask in all my work, including Death and the Maiden. Paulina’s problem is, how does she tell her story when everyone thinks she’s dead, and she thinks she’s dead, too? Then she understands at one moment she is not dead, she is alive, she’s only being treated as if she were dead.

JB Certainly in Death and the Maiden, and very often in your work, you address the issue of reconciliation, of the conflicts between personal justice and national reconciliation. Can you grapple with this reconciliation unless you’re willing to forget?

AD From my point of view and my sense of what literature and living are about, my general tendency is toward peace and reconciliation, living harmoniously with one another. However, you cannot do this based upon lies, based upon the suppression of feelings, the suppression of experiences of a part of the population, or a part of your personality. In other words, you cannot reconcile with someone who has done you a terrible damage unless you both begin to live in the same country, in the same territory. You can’t reconcile if you belong to two separate and warring nations. When one part of the nation, or one part of your being achieves victory over the other, in those circumstances, reconciliation becomes a very difficult process. So before we focus on reconciliation we need to face the issue of truth. The problem is, there is precious little justice in the world, and therefore you are stuck with a very complicated situation: how to keep on living as a survivor, how to keep on living in a world where there is not that justice. There are damages done to people and to countries that can never be dealt with totally. When you’ve been through traumatic experiences like the one I’m talking about in Chile, there’s a part of us that cannot entirely heal. There is a zone, a forbidden zone, where it is better not to venture. “An overdose of the truth,” as Gerardo says in Death and the Maiden, “can kill you.” On the other hand, the struggle for that truth, to go as far as one can go in searching for this truth, should never be abandoned.

JB Your work, especially your new novel Konfidenz, is steeped in ambiguity. Both the narrator and Leon are unreliable. To what effect do you play with this ambiguity?

AD I’m torn between two sentiments here and in my work as well. On the one hand, there’s a deep longing for stability, for what I call the anchor, for a country, for wholeness, a desire for integrity. In the characters and in the language there’s a desire for integrity. On the other hand, there is this ghost sense of the world, which has to do with the fluctuation of the personality, of the stories. It’s as if we are inhabited by a narrative voice that we don’t find entirely reliable. In all my work there is a certain masculine figure who manipulates the characters, who tries to tell their story in his words, who tries to possess them, to appropriate them. And the characters themselves are always fighting to tell their own stories. This sensibility antecedes the coup, but it must have been incredibly accentuated by the feeling that all of a sudden these all too real paternal figures have the ultimate power to decide our world.

I believe that as human beings we have certain zones that are not touched by this manipulation. There is a spark of rebellion, the possibility of an alternative future, an alternative vision of the narrative, which is what I explore. You have narrators telling a version of reality, and you’re not quite certain if that version is correct or not. Ambivalence is the major instrument the writer has to destabilize the readers’ conventional views of the world. I love challenging the readers, I love their being unsure. Because I do think we live in a time of surfaces, collages, pastiches. Literature can make ambiguous what seem to be dangerously clear truths.

JB You’ve said that in politics the best way is often indirection. Do you believe that the best way in art is also indirection?

AD Well, I don’t make much of a distinction between real politics and art. I’ve always thought that one’s writing is deeply political. Not in the sense that it’s partisan or that you’re trying to convince somebody of something, but much of the most interesting writing engages the major dilemmas, certainly the moral ones, of the community. And language contains and very often hides the solution to those dilemmas. Indirection for me was a way of dealing with the fracture of my world, of Chile. This also predates the coup because even during the revolution in Chile, it did not seem as if the clash of the old and the new could be narrated frontally. Hard Rain, which I had already begun work on before the coup, addresses this ambiguity. If you try to speak directly about what is happening to you, you may fail. The way is to circle the object, circle the experience so the experience speaks through the residue, through the cracks. In Konfidenz I come to that as a full narrative method.

JB In Konfidenz Leon doesn’t really have a voice, and in the end he’s silenced. Silence and longing show up in many of your works: silence in captivity, silence in exile, silence in death, longing for what cannot be or for whom one cannot have.

AD I do feel my life has been filled with a sense of loss. Konfidenz could also be seen as a very strong critique of political utopias in our time, their failure, the need to dream something to replace them and keep hope alive. It’s deepest desire is a call for somebody to tell Leon’s story. Probably a woman to complete that story. Leon, at the end of his life comes to the conclusion that only if the woman takes over and possesses a voice of her own will she be able to tell his story. You said Leon doesn’t have a voice of his own? You think he’s a chameleon?

JB Leon gives up his voice to Suzanna at a very early age, at 12 to be precise, and then he gives his voice to the resistance, and then he gives it to Barbara. He never keeps it for himself. He’s given up a sense of personal direction.

AD How interesting. I never saw it like that, but I think you may be right. You know, I’ve hardly spoken about this novel. The others I have given a great deal of meditation to. Perhaps my “hero” has given up. But let’s remember he’s given his voice up to structures he has built in his head. He’s not giving it to things outside him, but to entities like the resistance or Suzanna, a woman he has built from inside his dreams. The reason for this crisis—a story, tension—is because both the resistance and the real incarnation of the woman of his dreams, Barbara, refuse to cooperate, they belie what his construction of them has been.

JB But Barbara does teeter on giving herself up to this construct of Leon’s mind.

AD She does. And we’re not sure if she does or she doesn’t at the end. All of this is also constructed by a narrator who is himself in a situation which is the worst condition any narrator can find themself in: he really doesn’t know how to save these people. In a way, he doesn’t know how to narrate them. He’s just a camera, testifying about them. He’s an almost mute witness to what is happening.

Dorfman 02 Body

Stills from Death and the Maiden, © Fine Line. Photos: F. Duhamel.

JB Konfidenz is a much more personal work. First of all, 70 percent of it is written in dialogue. But it seemed a far more intimate work than what you’ve done in the past. Was that intentional?

AD I think it deals with inter-personal relationships in a much more anguished and mature level than previous work. I do believe I’m touching on an intimacy between those characters, in those characters and with those characters which is different from a distance I’ve kept with other characters in other novels. I do believe you’re right, that Konfidenz marks a phase in my work that is dealing with a world where we must build our relationships with one another in a very intimate, a very cavernous space. An intimate cavern of reality.

JB Why all dialogue?

AD Two reasons. One, let’s call superficial or anecdotal, comes out of working in theater and cinema for the last three years. The idea of having a camera there watching this was intriguing. It was not unlike the position I was in, and had never been in before, which is watching other people rehearse or rewrite your words, and you can’t do anything about it. During the period in which I was writing Konfidenz I was in the midst of production on the movie, Death and the Maiden, and watching all the productions of the plays. And that influenced me. A deeper reason was not knowing who these people were. From the very start I felt that they were shadows or actors who were speaking certain lines in front of me. I was unable to gauge what was really in their minds, what masks they had put on, what faces they had put on, what their real stories were.

JB Do you know where the work is going prior to writing it?

AD Never. There’s only one work of mine that I’ve known how it ended, which is Widows. I knew it would begin with a captain saying, “That old bitch,” and I knew that at the end that old bitch would be gone, but all the other women would be in her place and a body would appear out of the river and the widows would take the corpse toward the soldiers, who would either kill them or … I had no idea how to get from that first phrase to the last idea. Outside of that I have never known, ever, where anything is going, only that first phrase. I have an atmosphere, that first phase, and a general idea of what I want to explore. One of the reasons I write is to find out what it is that interests me in that first line. I want to unravel the experience hidden there. Konfidenz took me entirely by surprise, more by surprise than other works. I knew there was a certain experience during the first years of my exile from Chile when I was the intermediary between the people who left the country and the people who stayed in the country. I had that experience, and I knew it touched that, But I had no idea where it was going.

JB What sparks that first line? Death and the Maiden came from your car breaking down when you were living in Washington, D.C. Do these random, freak events hold a greater significance for you? Are they symbolic?

AD I don’t think that these events are random or freak. Certain things happen to you at a certain moment, and you either understand their meaning then or 20 years later you find their meaning.

JB Are you a fatalist?

AD Yes. I’m an optimistic fatalist. We live in a universe where everything has a hidden meaning. It’s almost as if every object is a sign of something else. And especially experience. There’s a reason why certain experiences happen to you, and if you can discover the meaning of that—such as, why was there a coup in Chile? We understand the socio-economic and political reasons why there was a coup. But what is the meaning of it in human terms? Very often you have an experience and you keep it in your head for a long, long time and then something sparks a fire. You become the one person who can explore the meaning of that. But very often you have to wait 20 years. I could not have written Konfidenz 17 or 18 years ago when the experience itself happened. Not the experience of Konfidenz, but the core: what happens if you have power over a person, over a man, and you fall in love with—or you were already in love with—that person’s lover? What happens in those circumstances? I didn’t answer that question until almost 20 years had passed. In 1975 I would not have been able to go into the ambiguity of the politics. Pinochet was in power and we were fighting him very hard but also immaculately. It was very difficult for us—like many people in the novel—to critique our resistance leaders, the people who were able and capable of betraying us at a certain moment. I wouldn’t have dared, for my own sanity, to have asked the questions I ask in Konfidenz. These questions were very painful ones.

JB What were those questions?

AD I really wouldn’t want to tell you that.

JB Okay, let me then ask you about free will, or self-empowerment. Leon decrees he was born at the age of 12 when Suzanna came to him in his dream. And in Manuel Sendero the fetuses refuse to be born. Does one have the ability to choose when they are born?

AD There’s a fate awaiting the character, and that has to do with that tragic sense of life I feel. You choose your fate. I’ve always felt we control so little of our lives, but we do control how we react to that destiny, to what is chosen for us. So I’m always focusing on people in very extreme situations who react in very extreme ways. And one of the ways in which they react is through their fantasy.

JB Very often in your work you set up a dichotomy between fantasy and hyper-reality.

AD There’s a constant appeal to the imaginary. I believe strongly that if there is salvation, if such a word exists or has a meaning, it’s in that capacity to create an imaginary world which gives an alternative meaning to the fate that has been imposed upon us. In as much as we can express that imaginary, we can commune with others who are constructing their own imaginaries in a similar distance. Then, we can create solidarity. Solidarity of the imagination. My whole work is infused with the notion that what happens to somebody is very often less important than the way in which the person reacts in his or her imagination. There is a way of telling the story differently, if only we can find it. And I’m always asking how you can join the visionary and the practical, the person who lives history without great fantasy and the person who’s shut up in the fantastic world and is creating these images. Or, in the prose sense, how can you join a very colloquial language with an enormously metaphorical, rich, perhaps baroque vocabulary? These are two parts of my personality. In fact, I fluctuate between two conditions all the time. I’m exiled and at the same time I’m obsessed with my country. I feel very much alive, while at the same time I’m a ghost. I love the mass media, and I detest the mass media. I live the contradiction. Fortunately, I’m a writer. Otherwise, I’d probably be in an asylum.

JB Do you consider yourself a cultural ambassador?

AD I am in a way. A bit less than before, but life has given me a rather strange bridge position. I am entirely bi-lingual and bi-cultural. I do belong to two worlds, and these are the two worlds of the Americas.

JB You were born in Argentina, raised in New York, and then you finally settled in Chile. You said you have fanatical feelings toward your country. To what degree was a feeling of cultural identity imposed upon you, or did you actively look for it?

AD I looked for it. I left Argentina when I was two, and I went through a very traumatic adaptation in the United States, which I don’t want to go into now because I’m writing about it. I tried to become a typical American boy, which I wasn’t. And then I had to leave for Chile when I was 12 years old and I found myself trying to remain loyal to the American child I thought I was. It was only gradually as time went by that I fell in love with Chile and with my wife to be, Angelica. I was seduced by the country. And then I lost the country. And I went abroad into exile. I spent a great part of my exile pining for that country, but pining for it in a very special way, now a much more sophisticated way. And the years go by and I’ve gone back to Chile, and I’ve not really found myself belonging entirely there. I have discovered that perhaps I must admit the fact that I am a man in between. That I am a man who lives on the frontier between places. A fluctuating place is an interesting place to live. And perhaps I have all my life lived on the frontier trying to deny it. Trying to deny life on the margins or periphery of something. But that’s a very stimulating, creative place to be.

JB Your work appeals on such a universal level to diasporic communities, and it addresses the need to create a psychic homeland in an immediate environment when one has had to, or been forced to, or chosen, to give up a physical homeland.

AD I would agree with you absolutely. Since Pinochet ceased to be the dictator in Chile five years ago and comforted himself with being head of the army, I am free to go back to live in my country or not live there. Since that moment five years ago I have begun to feel accompanied by many similar experiences of diaspora, in the sense of saying: Look Ariel, it’s time you didn’t try to mold yourself or conform yourself into one version of who you are, but you are as plural and as multiple as many people around the world. Your story is in one sense very unique and in another sense it is the story of so many others who have to cross the borders, who have to work with the ideas of cultural identity clash, and assimilation. I have to live these problems. And I feel myself inhabited now by these dilemmas, more than by the dilemmas of what does it mean to be Chilean, by what it means to live the border crossing in this age of ours. Mascara and Konfidenz and even Death and the Maiden, I’ve written in a way in which readers can find their own stories, even if it’s not immediately identifiable with their local circumstances. I really feel the story of Konfidenz has happened innumerable times to innumerable people in innumerable places. And history interrupts their dialogue, it does not allow their dialogue to continue. Which is what happens in our life-stories. We try to create an imaginary story and then all of a sudden history, or the historical circumstance, comes and breaks open that reality which we try to create like a womb or an intimate experience.

JB That’s certainly what happens in Death and the Maiden, the hazy boundaries of trust between Paulina and Gerardo and Miranda.

AD The problem of trust is very central in Death and the MaidenManuel Sendero, and Konfidenz. In my literary evolution I go from the epic to the intimate. Before the coup we seemed to inhabit a time of revolution when we were going to change everything. There was a sense that reality was ours for the taking, that all we had to do was imagine a different future and it would immediately come true. Gestate out of ourselves. But as the years go by the epic question of the country, or of the world, becomes a question of how do I trust one other person in the world, and with that one person create a community with which to confront the horrors of our time? And more and more the question is: how do I trust somebody else? How do I believe somebody else? How do I know if the story they’re telling is the truth? How do I know if their mask is not hiding something terrible? This has to do with my meditation about the public and the private. Our privacy has been invaded to the point that I think we hardly have any privacy. Everything has been appropriated from us. That’s the feeling I have constantly. And it has to do with another thing you mentioned, which is the degree to which you collaborate or not, with power. Because the only way in which you can change the world is if you are born, if you do engage with the world as it is. At the same time, if you give of yourself too liberally, if you don’t keep some part of yourself intact, you may not have anything with which to change the world once you have engaged it. And this problem of trust, which has a lot to do with betrayal, is crucial. Konfidenz is a study in betrayal, and therefore, it’s a study in loyalty. Is it possible to love and be loyal in times such as ours? It’s not about our times, really, but it is, of course. These are the central questions we have to ask ourselves: how can we believe somebody else, how do we know who that somebody else is? When all the constructs have failed us, how do we continue to dream?

Jenifer Berman is a writer who lives in New York. She is a contributing editor to BOMB.

Eric Kraft by Frederic Tuten
Eric Kraft 01
Cristina Peri Rossi by Carmen Boullosa
Perirossi 3 Body

Crazy people tend to have lots of talent. It must be a sort of compensation.

Claribel Alegría by Daniel Flores y Ascencio
Claribel Alegría 01

Claribel Alegría is one of the foremost poets of Central America. A supporter of the Sandinistas and mentor to the young intellectuals drawn to Managua during that period, she has published over 40 books of poetry, fiction and testimony.

Mayra Montero by Jose Manuel Prieto
Montero 01

“I’m sure I have suffered much more and experienced much more poverty than many of those who go around today feeling sorry for themselves. But no one has ever heard me complain at conferences, or found these laments in my books. One should be more modest, and less arrogant than that.”

Originally published in

BOMB 50, Winter 1995

Featuring interviews with Eric Fischl, Billy Sullivan, Luscious Jackson, George C. Wolfe, Tina Barney, Sigrid Nunez, Victoria Williams, Abbas Kiarostami, Ariel Dorfman, and James Carter.

Read the issue
050 Wintter 1995