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Left Behind

In his disappointing new memoir, Feeding on Dreams, Ariel Dorfman insists on the ponderous and universal over the nuances of his exile from Chile

Irin Carmon
September 27, 2011
Ariel Dorfman, 2010.(PEN American Center/Beowulf Sheehan)
Ariel Dorfman, 2010.(PEN American Center/Beowulf Sheehan)

It is impossible, most of the time, to doubt the Chilean-American writer and activist Ariel Dorfman’s sincerity or good intentions. Still, sincerity alone is not enough reason to read his latest memoir, Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile. The prose, unfortunately, won’t clinch it either. A work of intensity that knows no levity, the book is weighted with ready-made pronouncements about homelessness, exile, and language that feel like they have been badly translated from Spanish, even though they were written in English. If it’s historical or personal truth you are after, Dorfman’s first memoir, Heading South, Looking North (1998), which described his falling in love with Chile and the Spanish language, is a better bet. Feeding on Dreams, which roughly picks up where his last memoir left off—with his banishment from Chile—is a collection of self-mythologizing clichés only occasionally sprinkled with self-awareness.

It’s not that the particulars of Dorfman’s life aren’t objectively compelling on their own. His grandparents fled pogroms in Eastern Europe; his Marxist father fled the Argentine junta for the United States and then was pushed out of New York by Joe McCarthy. Dorfman himself was an adviser to the democratically elected Chilean leftist president Salvador Allende until a coup and Allende’s assassination sent this Dorfman, too, on the run.

Years of often-penniless and paranoid exile in France, the Netherlands, and the United States—the focus of this book—followed, shaped by the sometimes petty politics of party and solidarity, and the vagaries of daily survival in foreign countries. Literary stars like Julio Cortázar, Heinrich Böll, Gunter Grass, Milan Kundera, and Il Postino author Antonio Skarmeta make cameo appearances. Except for when Grass kicks Dorfman out of his home for the latter’s hypocrisy in abandoning the Czech anti-Soviets, they don’t have much to say.

Looming above all this is the impossible dream of the exile’s return. As in the case of others banished before him, Dorfman’s return trips to Chile revealed a country that, even as it slowly transitioned to democracy, could never fulfill his outsized hopes and longings.

All this is told in an unsteady, fragmented mix of minutiae and sweeping declarations that even in the confession of imperfections cast the author in an exalted moral light. Dorfman bemoans “this mongrel heretic of language that I have become, this insurgent nomad of the earth.” He asks, in a typical musing, “How is it that I became a bridge for the multiple Americas so at war in the outside world of murderous nations and forbidden borders? Was it necessary and even inevitable that I should end up thus, my Spanish and my English making love to each other after so many years of fighting for my throat?”

It is clear from A Promise to the Dead, Peter Raymont’s 2006 documentary about Dorfman—frequently referred to in the book—that the author does actually talk like this, at least while cameras are rolling. With quizzical friends at his side who rarely get a word in, Dorfman relives the Allendista movement—the only time in his life, he says, that he didn’t feel like “a ghost”—and the bloody days of the coup. “I’ve always been someone who bets on life,” he grandly reflects on his escape.

Later, women who still hold vigil for their disappeared men listen impassively as Dorfman tells them that their pain cured his writer’s block: “Something terrible happened to me when I left. I couldn’t write or say anything,” he says. “It was impossible because I felt a paralysis here in my throat. I was able to start writing in exile because I began to listen to voices of the disappeared … to the voices of the women, mothers, daughters, wives of the disappeared. And I began to feel like I was the place where the living and dead could meet.”

Evidently, Dorfman is earnestly trying to give them credit for his own literary inspiration, finishing by saying, “I owe my birth to you. I haven’t forgotten you, and I haven’t forgotten each of the photographs that you carry.” Nothing resonates more than when the women dance before him the traditional Cueca dance—solo, a hen without a rooster, he explains in the voice-over—and he sits and listens to them sing lines like, “I wonder always where they’re keeping you …” His voice does matter, it does carry further. For all that, the interaction seems so much more about Dorfman’s suffering than theirs.

Dorfman isn’t actually the most overwrought pontificator in the movie—that honor belongs to British actress Juliet Stevenson, whose presence seems to be due to having starred in the original London production of Death and the Maiden. She announces that Dorfman is “very free of class constraints, he’s very free of gender constraints.”

To be fair, the book is at its occasional best when it puts aside platitudes like “we are all exiles,” and admits the nuance of Dorfman’s particular exile, which includes his understanding that his place in politics is as a mouthpiece and not as an operative. Though as a young man he was drawn to Allende’s peaceful revolution, as an exile Dorfman “realized with mounting relief that I was not made out to be a full-time revolutionary.” Instead, he begins to see himself as “a public intellectual at the service of all forms of liberation.”

Dorfman’s role is possible because of his education and class. He is far from the first leftist intellectual to comprehend the contradiction between his revolutionary values and class privilege, but in post-dictatorship Chile, that contradiction has a new pain, which Dorfman describes through his relationship with a parking lot attendant:

Some distress in my eyes, or maybe the deference in which I treat him, must have disclosed that I’m a compañero, that once upon a time we strode together through streets we thought would always be free, but he can’t say compañero to me because the dictatorship has taught him not to use that word, and he won’t say señor to me because it would indicate that we are longer equals, not even in his and my recollection, so he has found the only word that lets him keep his memories unsullied, he calls me amigo, gracias, amigo, he says I’m his friend, attempting an impossible compromise between the joyous past and the squalid present.

The successive murmurings separated by commas, the fixation on language, the suffusion of regret—these are all quintessential Dorfman, and what he does well. And yet we also can’t escape hearing that he is nicer to the poor, which is the kind of literary humble-brag to which the author is often prone.

Dorfman’s role as a revolutionary is also circumscribed by the inescapability of his being identifiably European in a society stratified by color. (He never specifically discusses his Jewishness, at least not here.) Of course, his white skin is not always an advantage; in 1986, at an anti-Pinochet demonstration in Santiago timed to the appearance of Halley’s comet, Dorfman is knocked down and kicked by soldiers and then held at the point of a submachine gun. He writes, “Though I was five meters away from death I couldn’t stop intellectualizing, during those seconds I allowed myself to become acutely cognizant of the divide between us: he was poor and uneducated and I was well-to-do and deft with Western words; he was of Indian ancestry and my folks noticeably came from somewhere else. … I wondered if, now that the tables had turned, he would make me pay for those centuries of neglect.” He did not. But years later, Dorfman’s son Rodrigo managed to talk himself out of prison by brazenly telling a lone white policeman: “You’re white, I’m white. You have blue eyes, I have green eyes. You don’t belong here, I don’t belong here.” Rodrigo subsequently left the country rather than play that card again. And his father eventually realizes he, too, can never return permanently to Chile.

The privilege inherent in his childhood mastery of the English language was another asset that Dorfman was at first reluctant to use. He tried throughout his life to repudiate or subsume his mastery of English, only to realize it was his economic salvation and a powerful tool for getting the revolutionary message out. (The same would eventually be true for accepting U.S. citizenship.) And the further his words went, the closer he became to “the prosperous Chileans … who have profited from Pinochet’s modernization than I am to the impoverished victims toiling like members of a chain gang, the workers I had once called my comrades,” even as the continued rule of Pinochet allowed him to blame everything, up to a broken-down car in a blizzard, on the dictator. The comforts and mobility offered by Norte America, along with Chile’s right-wing intransigence, made him a permanent exile, but it also made him a Latino, linking him to parking attendants and intellectuals from all points south. (The memoir is written in English, though a note in the timeline at the end of the book indicates he’ll “rewrite” it in Spanish.)

More vivid than vague pronouncements about homelessness and exile is the specificity of Dorfman’s portrait of a Chile largely celebrated by the world for betraying the social and economic ideals Allende stood for—a country that remains profoundly socially conservative and whose critical establishment rejected Dorfman’s consummate work, Death and the Maiden. When he wrote that play, he was reacting to a place made up of “an uneasy alliance between those who wanted to forget the past because it was full of their crimes and those who wanted to forget it because it was too painful.” This is where having been gone all those years provides true clarity—and both conveniently and importantly, frees him from any need to have compromised himself to get through daily life. These sharp, specific observations mean more than his grandiose attempts to cast himself as a universal voice for the oppressed.

Early on, Dorfman describes the son of a Communist family friend who back in the sixties moved to a shack in a Santiago slum out of solidarity, only to return home with typhoid. Dorfman’s father “used the occasion to drill a sobering lesson into me: ‘The poor don’t want you to be miserable like them; they want a chance to live decently, to have some say in their life. They want you to help them eliminate the conditions which created that misery.’ ” This useful message might be extended to the book itself: Those left behind probably don’t want you to say that you’re their voice or that you’re the same as them, even as op-eds and the benefit concerts and documentaries and memoirs might give them a better shot at having their own say.

All too often, Dorfman prefers the universal and the ponderous, a tendency that generates the kind of response captured by New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood when he wrote of Widows that it was “the kind of play that makes you feel bad for being bored.” The conclusion of Feeding on Dreams is, straight-facedly, “We are all in this together. Maybe that is why I am writing this memoir, why it may matter to draw some lessons from a life so full of wanderings and conflicts. So I can send out this plea, teach this incredibly simple conclusion: We must trust one another.” Bromides like this may have helped make Dorfman popular in a United States that is usually indifferent to Latin America unless its products come packaged in magic or pat spiritualism. Dorfman’s cheesy universalism is something different: neither politically accurate nor compelling to read.

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.