This review was first published in Upside Down World here.
Ariel Dorfman was thirty-one years old and working as a cultural advisor to President Salvador Allende when Augusto Pinochet's military coup abruptly destroyed the socialist revolution. The actions of the dictatorship created a reign of macabre realities which would split Chilean narratives into opposing memory camps. Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile (HMH Books, 2011) is an eloquent memoir which fluctuates between reflections on death and exile - the meaning of not having died next to Allende in the presidential palace La Moneda, and Dorfman's own exile, a decision enforced by Allende’s advisors and which very possibly saved his life, yet which has assailed Dorfman with a tenacious need to question his own role and actions within that particular era of Chilean history.
The book moves rapidly from one event to another, disrupting chronology whilst creating an intense discussion of contrasts – death and exile, the revolutionary and the exile, the desaparecidos and the exile, language and exile. Exile becomes a single constant which, as time passes, exudes a certain inevitable detachment from the reality that is Chile. There is no reconciliation with the revolutionary past in exile – an issue which Dorfman struggled against for many years in various countries as he futilely sought to aid the Chilean resistance from abroad during the first years of exile in Paris and Amsterdam.
El pueblo unido – the people united in a socialist revolution under the banner of the Unidad Popular disintegrated in exile. A hierarchy developed within the exiled community, leading to strife within the movement struggling to develop a resistance movement against Pinochet. Dorfman recounts how his family had been promised an apartment in Paris by Carlos Iturra, author of the famous hymn Venceremos, at “solidarity rental rates.” The family moved their belongings to the apartment, only to discover a few days later that Iturra had received threatening phone calls from dictatorship sympathisers. The location was presumably unsafe. However, upon collecting their luggage from the apartment, it became evident to the family that the hierarchy of the Communist Party had negotiated with Iturra to reside in the apartment. Iturra was, at that moment, organising a vacation in the Alps for children of Chilean exiles. The sense of a community united in a revolutionary stance had deteriorated.
“Exile destroys children along with the parents.” Dorfman recounts how his children, Rodrigo and Joaquin struggle with identity and history in exile. Whilst the eldest, Rodrigo, gradually eliminates traces of Chile in his art, Joaquin seemingly fails to absorb the Chilean identity. Dorfman describes how the Andes Mountains feature prominently in Chilean children’s artwork – a characteristic which holds no fascination for Joaquin, born in exile. However, both sons are affected by the consequences of dictatorship and exile. Rodrigo has imbibed a rebellious streak which leads him to a return to Chile and subsequent filming of protests. Joaquin is haunted by the stories of the desaparecidos and the terror inflicted upon Chileans, such as the story of Rodrigo Rojas – a young man who, along with his girlfriend Carmen Gloria Quintana, had been doused with paraffin and torched. Their bodies were dumped in a ditch – at the exact location where three dissidents were discovered with slit throats only a year earlier. Dorfman admits an inconsistency between the lies designed to protect children from the horrors of the dictatorship and the children’s absorption of the truth.
The ramifications of exile flow into metaphorical prose. Dorfman distinguishes between various facets of exile – the actual departure from Chile, and the indefinite aspect – which lead the author to hold on to a library inside their house in Chile which was being used as a safe house for the MAPU, instead of acquiring new books. Exile created contradictions, ambiguity and barriers, as Dorfman realises that the revolutionary who joined the struggle for a socialist revolution, who was present when Allende saluted the people a week prior to the military coup, had distanced himself from his compañeros in Chile. After a long process in which he persisted in identifying with the resistance in exile and aiding the movement, Dorfman’s evolution veers towards the intellectual writer whose memories and stories are festering within an increasingly permanent exile and the still imagery of the revolutionary past.
Dorfman struggles with the truth as the exile commences in Buenos Aires. Narrating the case of Victor Jara, he tells of how a writer described Victor having his hands cut off by the lieutenants – an erroneous statement which portrayed how legends mingled with truth to construct a false reality. Another experience of false memory is Dorfman’s recollection of a photograph of him taken a week before the coup in front of La Moneda. His memory is of him in revolutionary stance, fists in the air. When the photo resurfaces, Dorfman discovers a pensive version of himself next to writer Antonio Skarmeta. The illusion of el pueblo unido had vanquished the actual memory – exile implants images in the mind of the exile and constructs an alternative reality.
It is not only actual memories that abscond from the exile. Pinochet’s reign contaminated language and society by referring to torture as ‘excesses,’ whilst the dictatorship was described as a ‘regime.’ The euphemisms contributed toward the cycle of impunity and infiltrated social circles where new alliances were being forged, with some former socialists seeking to gain elite status by liaising with the right wing – a phenomenon which Dorfman states was blatantly portrayed in the social pages of newspaper El Mercurio.
The book is also replete with stories of people from Chile. Carlos - the carpenter who hid Allende’s poster behind the boards in his workshop until Pinochet was arrested in London. Patricia, the wife of a right wing thug who used her husband’s status as a cover to transport Allende supporters to safety in a car gifted to her husband by DINA. Susana Weiner, who worked as a courier for MAPU, played a role in saving the lives of dissidents, including Dorfman, and was entrusted with transcribing notes describing torture in detention centres and smuggling them out of Chile. Their experiences, combined with the stories of the detenidos desaparecidos and President Patricio Aylwin’s initiative during the transition to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged Dorfman to contribute towards furthering the struggle, resulting in two particular publications written in exile.
Widows (1978) is a novel which deals with a group of women who refuse to hand over a body which washed ashore. As the novel was published, the first desaparecidos were being discovered in Chile. In the memoirs, Dorfman describes the act of disappearing people as an aberration on existence. “Disappearance was an outrage against the chemistry and structure of life itself. The bodies of the missing were wrenched out of the normal progression of existence ...” The outrage of the discovery contrasts sharply with another discovery of bodies in 1990, where younger Chileans born after the coup were less interested in the process. According to Dorfman, this discovery was a disruption in their lives which necessitated excavation and destruction of a football pitch.
However, in his renowned play entitled Death and the Maiden, Dorfman shows how torture survivors were side-lined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Paulina – a torture survivor whose husband is a lawyer working on behalf of the Commission, kidnaps the man she believes to be her torturer and subjects him to a trial, appointing her husband as her oppressor’s defence lawyer. Paulina insists she wants the truth – a truth which till now wallows in impunity as torturers and victims walk side by side on Chilean streets, depriving torture survivors of their right to justice and the opportunity to inscribe their testimonies.
Dorfman describes how torture tarnishes universal expression such as music. The last scene features Paulina listening to Schubert in a concert – the music played during her torture session. The reconciliation with her favourite music was brought about after the confession was extracted from her torturer – the right to truth as opposed to sacrificing one’s self for the better of the democratic transition.
In the fragments of Dorfman’s diary of his return to Chile in 1990, the author grapples with the realisation that his experiences and that of the Chilean nation have diverged so greatly, it is impossible to nurture the dream of returning to live in Chile. The fragile transition, which sought to reconcile, rather than call for justice in order to avoid disruptions in the process, differed greatly from Dorfman’s vision of returning to the people united in a collective struggle. Exile further split the left wing memory camp, as those who remained in Chile looked upon exiles with certain resentment, contrasting the suffering they had endured with the relative comfort of escaping the horrors of the dictatorship.
Dorfman, unable to harmonize the experience of different memory camps on the left, decided to seek refuge in the US and later become a citizen of the same country which had conspired with Pinochet to overthrow Allende. He states that the desire to return was vanquished by the necessity to adjust, bringing to an end a previous personal conflict concerning language. Renouncing imperialism during the years of Allende’s presidency and the first years of exile also meant renouncing the English language, which Dorfman was familiar with since childhood, having lived in the US when his father and the family fled from Argentina. Throughout the course of exile and the subsequent return to Chile, Dorfman realises that language as a universal medium holds the power to navigate political borders and memory. Also, in Dorfman’s own words, acquiring US citizenship meant “I will never again go into exile.”
Personified by writers such as Milan Kundera, who Dorfman describes as “the saddest man I have ever seen,” and Antonio Skarmeta, author of Il Postino, who predicted Dorfman would never return to live in Chile, exile became the ultimate choice of survival, creating a refuge within another complex realm of loyalties.
Whilst the book might have benefited from a more chronological order, and the metaphorical prose might seem daunting for some readers, Dorfman has masterfully created a narrative so intricate and yet simple in its message. He lays bare the complexities of memory, made easier to follow once the reader acknowledges that memory knows no chronology but is rather a series of events that profoundly impacted the rememberer’s life, and the act of remembering is a process of cunningly implanting additional images and obliterating others. Most importantly, Dorfman furthers the split memory narrative by adding the memory of the exile, the desaparecidos and the torture survivors to the usual general divide between the supporters of Allende and those of Pinochet. As compromising as it may seem, Dorfman acknowledges the importance of embracing ambivalence in order to construct a narrative which berates, glorifies and wallows in despondency. The book emanates the turmoil of Dorfman’s complicated yearning to regain Allende’s years, and his unrepentant decision to seek shelter in a nation known for its oppression, in order to avoid repeating his own history.