Early in May, I wrote a piece about Death and the Maiden, a play by Ariel Dorfman, which (among other thorny moral issues) explores the difficulty of psychologically outliving atrocities, and the effort it takes to keep a desire for revenge from reducing us to the level of those we are trying to bring to justice.
I have just finished reading Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, a memoir that elaborates on some of these themes. The book traces Dorfman’s attempts to settle on a country he can call home, moving in a non-linear way through many of the key events in his life. He was born in Argentina to Chilean parents, taken to the United States as a child, then to Chile. Closely involved with the government of Salvador Allende, he was forced into exile when Augusto Pinochet violently took over the country in 1973.
Dorfman then spent almost two decades trying to regain a normal sense of home, a relatively untroubled life with his friends, family, and profession, and conditions that would once again allow him to write in Spanish. His travels took him to Peru, Cuba, France, Holland, and the United States, before he returned to Chile in 1990.
There are several reasons why Dorfman’s exile never ended, why he was no more satisfied with post-Pinochet Chile than with any other country in the world. First, Dorfman was uncomfortable with Chile’s haste to bury the unpleasantness of its recent past, to re-establish a sense of normalcy without rancor against the people who had supported the dictatorship.
Forgiving and forgetting, the only way for most of his compatriots to carry on, had become the policy of the country, but he could not forget. As he wrote in 1990:
The real reason I have come back: to tell stories against the flood of amnesia, force my hand to write about the most dramatic situation that history could have handed an author, the multiple scars nobody is interested in.
It is not a task I take upon myself willingly.
And as for forgiveness, the other part of the formula, much of this book reflects Dorfman’s struggle to accept his former foes. This aspect of the book will be of greatest interest to memoirists trying to recover from pain or trauma.
I’ve been wrestling with the dilemma of how you coexist with those you hate since before the military takeover, since before I was really hurt, before I learned how hard it is to live side by side with men who can kill those I lived, who could kill them and did, who could arrest my little boy and did arrest him.
Forgiving is difficult, Dorfman observes, because survivors of any struggle harbor memories that support their own part in it. To illustrate the point, he cites a chance meeting with a Pinochet sympathizer years after the dictatorship, as a weakened Pinochet lay dying in a Santiago hospital. He wanted to engage her in a discussion of their differences, but his efforts were hampered by more than simple politics:
It is her memory against ours, and there is nothing I can do in this world — or doubtless in the next one — to change what she recalls, what she has selected to recall in order to defend the identity she has built for herself. Her narrative, her most intimate story, the myth by which she has lived for decades, is that Allende was a socialist who threatened her peace and prosperity, and thus Allende’s barbarian followers had to be violently suppressed by substitute father Pinochet.
And yet, Dorfman was unwilling simply to agree to disagree with those who terrorized, tortured, and killed his friends and associates. The movement of this book toward acceptance involves finding ground for true reconciliation, so that even former opponents could live peacefully beside each other in the new Chile. And this would involve a change of attitudes on both sides.
For a long-term ceasefire to exist, some remorse would have had to bite inside, she would have had to be willing to inhabit my memories . . .
Ultimately, if Dorfman could not live with the ceasefire he found, it was not because he ran into intractable attitudes. There was a second reason why Chile did not represent the end of his rainbow.
Although he never stopped devoting his energies to uprooting the dictatorship, the fact remained that Ariel Dorfman had become an outsider once he left Chile. This could not help but give him a different sense of “home” than was felt by those who had endured the years of kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment up close. An unbridgeable gap kept him from sharing the dreams of his former associates.
Even his good will was not enough. To dissolve the sense of exile it may have been a necessary condition, but it was not a sufficient one. So Dorfman moved to the United States, where he writes in English, having once more left the homeland that filled his dreams for so many years.
Most of us crave a sense of home, want to be understood in our own language, want to be free to improve the world around us, to make the world more pleasant and secure for the families that produced us and the people who share our dreams and passions. This memoir can make you weep for humanity even if you have no connection with Chile, even if you have never met anybody who was displaced and disoriented in an alien environment.