Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

Dorfman has written about thirty books, ranging from essays, prose, theatre, poetry, journalistic articles to cinematographic script; he has even directly supervised the making of four films based on his work. His dramatic work continues to be performed worldwide and he collaborates with TV companies such as the BBC. Dorfman’s literature does not leave the reader indifferent; the strength of his characters has an enormous and often disturbing impact upon us. Dorfman’s own life has been intense; fraught with dangers, miraculous coincidences and several years of hard work to produce his literary oeuvre. However, Dorfman assures me that he would not dare to do some of the things that Paulina does, that he has not suffered, at least corporeally, as she has. Despite this, Dorfman concedes that “Paulina and I are joined by our ferocious need to know the truth, to not lie to ourselves, to keep some part of ourselves intact and decent.”

Dorfman tells me how he has lived a “hybrid, mongrel, linguistically adulterous existence.” Only someone who has dabbled in two or even more parallel cultures, can truly understand what he means. He speaks of the two languages which rule his life as if they were two lovers manipulating him, he being at their beck and call.

Dorfman was born in Buenos Aires in 1942, he grew up in the United States and then moved to Chile in time to witness some of the most difficult events of the country’s history. When Dorfman speaks of politics and the situation in certain countries, he does so with full knowledge of the facts: in his book Heading South, Looking North, he describes how, during the infamous September 11th of 1973, only chance saved him from death or potential torture. At that time he was working as Cultural Adviser for the Chilean government in La Moneda, the presidential building in Santiago. The day of the coup d’etat, Dorfman was not working, he had changed his shift with a colleague and although his name was on the list of emergency contacts, he was never called. It is a blessing to think, after having read Dorfman’s work, that his fate was not death but testimony.

Like many others, I wonder whether the average citizen still remembers with the same intensity the pain that was suffered; whether the Chilean youth continue to bear in mind the recent history of their country. As Dorfman explains: “Memories of the past, particularly in its more traumatic aspects, are not easy to live with. Just after the dictatorship, many different individuals and groups, both anti and pro Pinochet, wanted to turn their back on the past. Some because it was too painful; others because they were ashamed of their complicity; still others because it was convenient and created a sort of false consensus of peace. But the past has a way of resurfacing.” At this point Dorfman mentions his novel Widows, which was later staged at the theatre and denounces the disappearance of thousands of people who were against the military regime.

According to Dorfamn, in the last few years, particularly after Pinochet’s arrest in London, the Chilean people have started to confront the deeper sorrows and terror that was experienced. He explains: “The latest glorious resurrection has been that of President Salvador Allende who has been returned to a certain mythical presence after being carefully buried and reburied by those in power.” Dorfman emphasises that one of the saddest results of a dictatorship is the breaking down of contact between generations, the feeling the youngsters have of being orphans, adrift, unable to establish a contact with their own history: “The young remember some things. But often, and this may be inevitable, they remember in ways that are not always entirely true to what happened”. Dorfman continues: “Most of the world had forgotten OUR September 11th a long time ago and I don’t think that the New York tragedy has made all that many non-Chilean citizens aware of it anyhow. I’ve tried my best to juxtapose the two September 11ths to see if they can illuminate each other, but I don’t have that much hope that I will succeed.”

In 1990 Dorfman witnessed the homage to the victims of the Military Junta which took place in the National Stadium in Santiago of Chile. More than 70,000 people attended the act which was, according to Dorfman “a wondrous moment in which we tried to conjure away the past and commune with our dead.” In his book, Exorcising Terror, we can find an emotive description of the event and of the feelings experienced by the people who congregated there.

The mention of the dead leads us back to the “great” General Pinochet, who led many to victory and many more to hell; the leader who is at this very moment awaiting trial. More recent incidents in other countries that have also had to suffer despotic rulers, have diverted international attention towards others of his kind. Again, in his work Exorcising Terror, in which we find a detailed description of events and circumstances surrounding the much awaited trial, Dorfman says:

“The best thing that can happen to a criminal is to be captured, because in his solitary cell, without the habitual defences with which he has hidden his past from himself, at times the miracle of a minute window opens inside the prisoner’s heart, a window that might lead to self-awareness and redemption.”

The question I pose is: Do you believe that people like Pinochet, Milosevic, Sadam, Franco and even Bush lack the kind of conscience we should all have? Or Are we losing our own morality? Our own humanity?Dorfman replies: “The operative words are “might” and “miracle”. There is no guarantee that redemption will surge inside an offender. What is relatively certain is that we need to create the conditions whereby that offender can be stripped of power and be confronted with his crimes. We can’t force those men mentioned to have the kind of conscience we would expect of rulers; but we can precariously and painstakingly try to examine our own selves, put our own morality to the test. And change the world so nobody finds himself with so much power that he can create sorrow and mayhem without any sort of accountability.”

Is this idealism, or is it the simplest way of understanding democracy and peoples’ rights. As Dorfman suggests, men capable of committing barbarities are not on their own. A parade of unscrupulous self-seeking beneficiaries surround them, closing their eyes to any reality which might be against their own interests.

With regards to Pinochet’s arrest in London, Dorfman says that although we live in a world with so much impunity and so little accountability, we should celebrate every step towards a world in which the international laws and treaties against human rights abuses are inviolable. He tells me: “Let’s not minimize our every victory, because yes, the Pinochet trial does establish a precedent and these do matter. In fact, dictators do think they are more vulnerable because of the ruling of the House of Lords that there was cause to have Pinochet tried in a Spanish court for crimes against humanity committed in Chile.”

Dorfman adds that in spite of the many arrests that took place among the advisors and military figures who supported Pinochet, there is still a need to make public the fact that without the help of many average citizens who facilitated his regime, the Gen
eral would never have been able to commit his crimes. Exorcising Terror we find the following sentence: “It´s never too late, General.” I question Dorfman about it and about the old age of the General.

Dorfman responds: “I said in that book that ‘it’s never too late’, true, but I said it to him. Never too late for him to repent. In another sense, of course, it is always too late. Once the crime has been committed, it can never really be undone. And we should never abandon the hope for justice. Not because there is any certainty that we will obtain that justice, but rather because … well, think of what the world would be like if we gave up hope and struggle. Often the only reward is in the struggle itself.”

In his autobiography, Heading South, Looking North, Dorfman also touches upon two very emotive topics, shared by millions of Latin-Americans, millions of immigrants and millions of exiles: bilingualism and the fear of death.

“Fear of death,” explains Dorfman, “has come in and out of my life in ways that are not fully understandable to me yet, and may only be understood when it all ends. I´ve never been afraid of the pain, to tell the truth, but of the loneliness. My struggle for language – whether it was to be Spanish or English which gave me refuge – was crucial in my quest for a way to defeat death.”

Dorfman responds to this interview in English, as it is the language which occupies him at this precise moment. In fact, he is currently working on a rehearsal of a play in English about Picasso under the Nazi occupation of Paris, and on a script for the BBC.

Dorfman’s answers inspire more questions, I could argue with each one of his responses and yet I am left with insatiable curiosity. Dorfman is a very busy man, maybe the reader will feel as motivated as I am to start their own search for answers; a search for the truth that keeps Dorfman so active, so politically involved, jumping from one risk to the next, from work to work, tirelessly, as he has been doing up to his moment and delighting us in his compromised complicity, his literary activism, his never ending anxiety for exploring the hidden truth.

Dorfman’s narrative is full of questions. Among them, a constant: why was he one of the few who were spared from the massacre? He will probably continue looking for an answer. In the meantime he updates me with his future projects:

“For the last few years, I have been working on a series of plays. Two of them, Purgatorio and The Other Side, opened late last year at the Seattle Rep and at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, and I am working on their staging in London in the near future. I find myself at the moment about to open the third one, Picasso’s Closet here in Washington DC (from where I am writing these answers). It deals with the life and dilemmas of Pablo Picasso under the four years of Nazi occupation of Paris. Ahead of me lie several other projects: an anti-war musical, DANCING SHADOWS (my libretto; music and lyrics by Eric Woolfson, of the Alan Parsons Project); a film for the BBC, written with my eldest son, Rodrigo: and a new play, IN THE DARK, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and which delves into many of the questions posed to me in this interview with Three Monkeys. Later this year, Peter Raymont (Director of Shake Hands with the Devil) will be filming, with my help and support, a documentary version of Heading South, Looking North. And, yes, I do breathe from time to time in the midst of so much work.”

Dorfman’s beloved country is experiencing, after the hard decades of the 70’s and 80’s, a rebirth towards freedom, with a woman as head of the government for the first time in its history. Dorfman, in his article entitled Michele, our belle, published in a Guardiancolumn in which he regularly collaborates, talks of the new president as someone who looks towards the future, with her feet on the ground, determined and unpredictable. Without a doubt, she is someone in whom the people trust and who may bring fresh hope.

It is with this hope that we must say farewell, impatient as we are to know more about the subjects treated and with the trust that the work of this versatile writer will continue to bring us news of hidden truths, inspiration and the anxiety needed to make us continue (or indeed start) actively defending, with our humble possibilities, the rights of the weaker ones, the rights of each and every one of us.

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