Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Democracy with blood on its Hands: An Interview with Ariel Dorfman

“To create a democracy, blood must sometimes be spilled”. These would be wise words were it not for the fact that they were pronounced by Augusto Pinochet, one of the greatest mass-murderers of the 20th century. Pinochet’s seizure of power on September 11th 1973, an earlier 9/11 which produced a similarly catastrophic scene – that of the storming of La Moneda in Santiago, Chile, where the then president, Salvador Allende, died. One of Allende’s daughters described her escape during a BBC documentary: “We escaped in a taxi and the police let us through because my sister, who was pregnant at the time, pretended to be in labour”.

Since then, thousands of cases of murders, disappearances and torture have been and continue to be investigated by several pro-human rights NGO’s throughout the world. Amnesty International has been the most active of these groups and publishing detailed reports regarding the torture techniques carried out in prisons during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Among those who have expressed concern for the administering of justice is one of Chile’s greatest activists, Ariel Dorfman. Without mincing his words, he has come dangerously close to the underlying truth. The author, despite a consistently full schedule, kindly shared his time and experiences with Three Monkeys Online.

Throughout his work Dorfman confronts one of the most difficult aspects of Pinochet’s regime, that of torture. It is dealt with in one of Dorfman’s most well-known works, Death and the Maiden, which in 1995 was made into a film starring Sigourney Weaver and the multifaceted Ben Kingsley, famous for his interpretation of Ghandi. The film was directed by Roman Polanski with the script closely supervised by Dorfman. The play is another cry for justice from the victims. Weaver, a heroine in stories such as Alien or Copycat, plays a woman who is raped and angry at the loss of her pride and sense of identity.

Dorfman sets his play in what he describes as a “country in Latin America”, but there is more than one coincidence that leads the well-informed viewers to draw a connection between the plot and the tragedy experienced in Chile. There is the mention of an investigative commission in the play which is none other than the so-called ‘Rettig Commission’ established on 25th April 1990 in order to investigate cases of human rights abuses which ended in deaths linked to the Chilean state.

Some have considered the work done by the commission as insuficient. Dorfman, however, defends its significance: “On the basis of what that commission did, we were later able to prosecute many of the Pinochet regime´s worst human rights violators”

Dorfman believes that the problem lies not with the commission but with ourselves:“If we accept that work as final (nothing else to be done), then we are to blame for not pushing harder, demanding more justice. Always put yourself in the shoes (or other garments) of the men and women who emerge from a dictatorship” and he urges us not to “judge anyone too harshly until you have lived through the terrors and sorrows and mistakes they have lived through”.

Dorfman humbly confesses that “the truth is that I had expected, after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, that Death and the Maiden would be staged even more than it has been in the past. It deals, after all, with the central dilemma of our times: how to make sure that, when grievous harm has been done to us, we do not turn into the monster who has given us such pain? How do we separate justice from revenge? How do we ensure that our rage does not make us blind? How to keep the innocent from suffering as we seek to avenge the dead?” Dorfman’s questions are probing and provide food for thought.

“Although it continues to be performed extensively around the world, the play has not had any major revivals, at least in the States and in England, in the last five years. There are signs that this is beginning to change.”

I ask Dorfman whether he would change the end of the play, considering the events that have taken place since its conception. “No,” he assures me, “I think it is more relevant than ever: or can anyone deny that we live in a world where far too many victims are forced to coexist with the men who destroyed their lives and ravaged their bodies?”

Paulina, the play’s main protagonist, represents the courage and the pain of the survivor who attempts to recover normality in her life; she is both physically and mentally bound by her painful memories. Dorfman describes his strong emotional connection with the character: “I love Paulina. She is one of my favourite characters – perhaps the most rebellious of all the upstart women I have notoriously created. But I wouldn’t say she is all courage, bravery and pain. Fortunately, she is all too human, imperfect, difficult, complicated, devious. This, for me, draws her closer to us.”

I cannot help but think that this is in fact how most women are and I generalise when I think of all the times that women are categorised as difficult and imperfect creatures. However, as hard as I try, I cannot imagine another woman with Paulina´s determination and coldness.

Dorfman explains: “I’m sure that many women (and many men, why not?) see her as representative of the suffering women of the world and, more specifically, of Chile. And that is a legitimate way of embracing a character. For me, above all, she is a full human presence, given representation by the depth of her personality, the ferocity of her devotion to rescuing the woman she once was, before the basement, before that doctor.”

I suggest that Paulina is the voice of the people but Dorfman shies away from this idea:“Everyone has their own voice,” he explains. “It just happens that, often through writers and their ‘medium’, certain voices resonate so strongly (as Paulina’s does) that we feel that voice somehow speaks for us, tells other things we have been nursing and have not dared express.”

At this point I can do no other than reflect upon the voice behind Paulina´s, the hand of her creator, Dorfman. In accordance with his own theory I must thank Dorfman for making his voice so powerful that we feel it is speaking on our behalf as well.

Death and the Maiden shows the consequences of torture; the injuries inflicted both physically and psychologically on those who have survived it. Unfortunately it appears that we are living in a world sadly accustomed to the violent scenes that indiscriminately flood our television screens; we have gradually become immune to the images of torture carried out in distant countries. I mention the case of Guantanamo Bay, where accusations of the violation of human rights have been made and how, in my opinion, the topic of torture is now as relevant as ever; the aggressors may change, but the cruelty is still applied in the same way. Dorfman admits that “what is worrisome about torture in our day is that it is being justified by many who proclaim their adherence to democratic ideals and human rights, and who nevertheless consider torture as a messy but inevitable consequence of the so-called war against terror.”

Dorfman affirms: “These people in power are not the ones who are applying the electricity to the genitals, humiliating prisoners, near-drowning them, but they are the ones who create the conditions for such horrors to occur. It is not clear if they could be brought before a tribunal, but the least that should be done is to shame them in public as often and as eloquently as possible. If we don’t denounce that culture which encourages torture, then, in effect, we make ourselves responsible for those abuses.”

Dorfman openly expresses his concern that torture has corrupted our sense of morality, destroying t
he ethical element within our society. He suggests that I read an essay from his book Other Septembers, many Americas, where he emphasises the fact that perpetrators of torture do not carry out their crimes “in the name of evil, but in the name of safety, the common good, the necessary things that have to be done so that we can all sleep quietly at night. It’s up to us to reject that fear and insist that we do not want anyone hurt in our name.”


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