Ariel Dorfman Sees Pitfalls in Exile's Return

Chilean Writes of Democracy's Betrayals in New Memoir

By Ilan Stavans

Published December 01, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
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Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile
By Ariel Dorfman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages, $27

Ariel Dorfman
getty images
Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman has an ambivalent relationship with Chile: He is attracted to it and repelled by it in equal measure. As is clear from his handful of confessional narratives, the ambivalence makes him restless. But it also gives gravitas to his life, for Dorfman doesn’t write to produce aesthetically beautiful artifacts — he writes to reconfigure the world, to make it better.

He is kind of an older brother to me. In part it is thanks to him that I arrived at the crossroads of literature and politics: not via politics, as he does, but through literature. For him to write is to act, whereas for me to write is to think. Still, his “transtextual” forays (he is at ease in fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, theater and poetry) are a lesson to behold. His oeuvre is a denunciation of authoritarianism.

“Feeding on Dreams” is a supplement to his memoirs, and I use the word advisedly, because there are a number of them. One could argue that in Dorfman’s case, everything is autobiographical, since he always writes from the viewpoint of the personal, the “I.” From the opinionated (countless pieces on the meaning of political commitment, published in newspapers like Spain’s El País and England’s Guardian), to the rhapsodic (a National Geographic travelogue book about the Chilean desert), he ponders nature and history while insisting that our selfishness is a prison.

In this mode, a couple of his books and a documentary stand out. “Heading South, Looking North” looks at his trajectory as an exiled writer through the prism of language. Born in Argentina, he moved to the United States when still a child. Then he went to Chile, where his family roots were, to participate in Salvador Allende’s quest to bring a new era to the country. But the September 11, 1973, Pinochet coup d’état stopped Dorfman’s train to utopia in its tracks. Dorfman, who was one of the president’s cultural advisers, went into exile — first to Argentina, then to Holland and finally to the United States, where he is now a professor at Duke University.

When democracy returned to Chile, resulting in Pinochet losing power, Dorfman sought to reclaim his place in the country. “Heading South” looked at the Spanish and English languages as parallel and distorting conduits to understand reality from a dual, at times mutually exclusive perspective. Fittingly, in 1998, shortly after the memoir came out, Dorfman released a Spanish version — not a translation per se, but an adaptation — subtitled “Un romance en dos lenguas” or “A Romance in Two Languages.”


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