Interview with Ariel Dorfman

Context N°15

by Sophia A. McClennen

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, journalist, and human-rights activist. Dorfman was born in Argentina in 1942 to Jewish immigrants. His family was forced to move to the United States in 1945 due to anti-Semitism and political intolerance. They then became the victims of McCarthyism in 1954, when Dorfman’s father was targeted as a communist threat. They next fled to Chile, where Dorfman eventually gained citizenship. When Augusto Pinochet led a coup in 1973 against Salvador Allende, Dorfman was forced into exile again. A professor at Duke University, he currently lives in Durham, North Carolina and now considers himself an expatriate. The author of eight novels, seven plays, a memoir, and several collections of essays, short stories, and poetry, Dorfman’s international success boomed with Death and the Maiden, a play about the complex and painful issues that confront nations as they transition from dictatorship to democracy. His most recent works are a novel co-written with his son, Joaquín, The Burning City (Doubleday 2003); the play Purgatorio (which premiered in London in 2004); an account of the Pinochet case, Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet (Seven Stories 2002); and a travel narrative about the north of Chile, Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North (National Geographic 2004). Sophia A. McClennen interviewed him via telephone as part of the research for her forthcoming book on his work, Ariel Dorfman: An Aesthetics of Hope, to be published by Duke University Press in 2005.

SOPHIA A. MCCLENNEN: You’ve published eight novels, three plays, a memoir, a travel narrative, as well as collections of poetry and short stories. You have also published more than ten works of essays. Few authors move across so many genres. When you have a story to tell, how do you decide which genre to work in?

ARIEL DORFMAN: I think the genre decides for me—which sounds like a way of avoiding the question unless I explain first that this chameleon-like border crossing, this shifting of genre identities is, I realize, parallel to, or anticipates, or recollects my own life. I’m probably fluctuating across genres perhaps because my identity itself is always in flux. Therefore I don’t feel comfortable in only one genre. In fact, there are several cases where one story, idea, or character travels from one genre to another. Widows is one example of that kind of crossing, where there’s a poem, there’s a novel, there’s a play, there may be a film. Or Reader, which is a story and a play, and perhaps a film. In fact, with my son Rodrigo, we decided to adapt the story of a censor who suppresses a book in which he himself is the main character for a science fiction film version called Paradise II, placing the protagonist on a dystopian planet in the future. Another example, “A la escondida,” begins as a poem, goes on to be a story, and then becomes a short film, and, in fact, we’d like to take the piece’s two characters and use them in a longer film. So I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that there is only one possible perfect way to tell a story, which is what most authors would believe. They confront something inside them which says this is a novel and can be nothing else and, if it is adapted into another genre, well then it should be done by someone else or it’s seen as a lesser work of art, let’s say. And it is likely they would possibly claim that the adaptation is not as good as the original, whereas I don’t consider each generically different rendering as an adaptation but as a shifting fluctuation.

SM: Do you take into account an intended audience?

AD: Never. I never do that. . . . At first I thought that Death and the Maiden would be a novel. So, at times, the story comes to you attached to a genre and that attachment is wrong. It is only when certain things happen in history and certain phrases come to me and I feel compelled to write, that the story comes into focus, the generic focus becomes visible.

SM: So while you feel that certain stories can be told across several genres, there are other stories that seem to have a form that they want to take.

AD: Yes, at times the first form it takes may be its only form. I mean you can’t make a play out of The Nanny and the Iceberg, a sprawling erotic epic that depends on the deluded voice of the narrator. And I had a very difficult time taking the novel Widows and turning that story into a play. In fact, finally Tony Kushner had to come in and help me find a stage version, effectively coauthoring that play. But in other cases I find that the story comes to me yet again in a different form or it may be that the story wants to be told in a different way, because when it moves into a new genre it will be able to reveal something entirely new.

SM: The novel Konfidenz, as is the case with many of your works, seems to move across genres. It begins like a play in pure dialogue and then it breaks into a form of second person address that speaks to the reader/author directly. I understand that you wrote the novel as you were working on the set of Death and the Maiden. Given that both texts are about betrayal and trust in moments of historical transformation, how does Konfidenz dialogue with the style and setting of Death and the Maiden?

AD: The crisis of who do you trust is imbedded in my very first work. There is a first period in my work, which I would call the period of Hard Rain, Widows, the stories of My House Is on Fire, and some of the poems from Last Waltz in Santiago, which while they have some doubts about the presence of evil inside us, tend, in general, towards a utopian longing. If you look at Widows, it has a heroic, epic range due to how the women confront these men. Yet already in Widows I start working on the idea that I must treat the characters that I would despise historically with exacting authorial care. Take the example of Emmanuel: he is a traitor, a traitor to his class, to his woman, a traitor to his boss, to his father, to his family. Yet, I would say that he is one of the most sympathetic characters that I have ever created because I think that I plunge into him and I think that the moment when I wrote that chapter, “the Emmanuel chapter” I call it—which is entirely different stylistically from the rest of the book—there was a very strong turning point in the way my work would be from then on. Because the next step from the point of view of writing a novel is going to be The Last Song of Manuel Sendero, and in The Last Song what I do is confront head-on this problem of betrayal, betrayal of the babies, those who, by being born, betray the pure cause and therefore decide to live even if living is a form of betrayal. You cannot be pure. There is no such thing as purity. This idea comes through particularly in the dialogue of the two exiles, Felipe and David, who engage in the fundamental discussions of how you change the world . . . and who do you trust, and how much can you compromise to be rid of evil. This interest in betrayal and trust culminates in Mascara, where I take this exploration one step further because, instead of dealing with the problem as such, I deal with the most damaged person I can find and I try to figure out if he can or cannot love someone and save himself, and I, therefore, invest power in somebody who can be a revolutionary or who can be a fascist, can go either way.

And so there is a core in Mascara of the marginal man. It’s like notes from the under-underground, from the invisible underground. I think that all of this is a preparation for Death and the Maiden, where betrayal is the central issue from the point of view of the characters. The central issue, of course, from the point of view of the audience is generally justice, torture, vengeance, etc. From the point of view of what makes the characters tick it’s their desire to trust one another or not. That is their basic dilemma. Paulina has to decide if she can trust somebody, and she decides she can’t. She discovers her absolute solitude (though also her dignity). So the next step, in Konfidenz, was to do something I had not yet ever attempted, which was to look at a revolutionary movement that might be willing to betray one of its own, which is a terrible thing to conceive for somebody like myself who has participated in a revolution and who would never have thought that possible in the Allende years. It seems almost inconceivable, in spite of the whole sorry story of socialism and of human beings, right? Let me just say that it was almost impossible for me to express that directly or openly while I was engaged with a collective that was trying to overthrow a dictator. In other words you bring in certain doubts, but those doubts cannot be the focus, they cannot be in the center of what you are writing, because he who doubts to the degree that I do in Konfidenz is unable finally to engage in immediate political action. So, I think that Death and the Maiden comes out of the sense that democracy will not solve the political, economic, and social problems of Chile, and especially it will not solve the moral problem of Chile. In fact, the moral problem will deepen. This relates to a global problem because the transition in Chile was part of the transitions all over the world that were happening at the same time in the early nineties. And so I dig deeper into this human condition as a theme in Konfidenz. The germ of it or the seed of it was in previous work, but you can only see the previous work once you’ve gone onto the next one. So, in Konfidenz, I focus on the question of trust. Who can trust another human being? Can you trust somebody else? Can that woman trust that man? Can that man trust that woman? Can Martin trust either of them? But I layer that with an even more anguishing question, which is, how do we trust language? How do we trust fiction as such? Can fiction tell the story? And I question the difference between the dream and reality, or between what we dream and what we desire, and what we see. So there is an epistemological questioning at the very basic level of storytelling itself. There was no such major questioning in a novel such as Widows. I mean there is a lot of narrative experimentation and the characters themselves do not know, because I always love mysteries, they don’t know where the bodies are coming from and they don’t know what they’ll do next. But there is no malaise about the fact that maybe these women are trying to claim someone who is not their boy. The reader goes into it trusting the narrator and trusting the world. The historical options between Widows, which is a 1978 to ’79 novel, and Konfidenz, a 1993 to ’95 work, change very significantly for me, and I deepen the sense of mistrust even of my own self. And at the same time, of course, I am trying to rescue, as I have during the whole period of exile, those forms of hope that I think are essential for us to continue living. So, in this sense, these are not despairing narratives at all. I mean my major struggle is to get through this mistrust, this distancing of the world, this very careful dissection of truth and the idea that there are certain truths that we have to believe in. It’s a sort of enormous act of faith and of love that I think is finally what Konfidenz grasps for.

SM: Even though your novel and play Widows is set in Greece and Death and the Maiden takes place in a “country that is probably Chile,” it is not until Konfidenz, which deals with German exiles in Paris during WWII, that your writing seems to move away from an implied Latin American setting and audience. Do you see Konfidenz as a novel that marks a transition in your writing? And, if so, how would you describe that transition? We’ve talked about that a little already, but I am thinking spatially here too.

AD: The fact is that spatially the movement is in the novel itself because for the first ninety pages you don’t know and, in fact, I myself didn’t know whether these aren’t Latin Americans exiled in Paris. Most people would immediately conjure them up as Latin American. The original anecdote comes from something I lived as a Chilean exile when I censored the letters of revolutionaries, of a friend I knew. Let’s just say that I myself did not know or I wrote the novel in such a way that I did not want to know where this was situated until the plot demanded, or the characters demanded, or, let’s say, the rhythm demanded a location. I could not go on in this way forever. Something demanded that history come in, right? In other words, the characters needed somebody else to come in and erupt into this relationship, to turn it into a crisis. There is no crisis in this relationship until they are put to the test, this man and this woman, until they are forced to face each other, until they are forced to know whether they can touch and they can make love. Until that moment happens I could play with the reader and with myself and therefore could situate it in Paris at any moment in time as long as the phone had already been invented. By the time we find out that this is the day that the Second World War begins, which is from my point of view the turning point of the twentieth century—the most important date of the twentieth century—when we discover that this is what is happening, that these are the identities, and this is the time, and this is the moment in history, I hope by then that the novel is contaminated by the idea that this is happening to many people in many places. Therefore the betrayals we are talking about are not only the betrayals of the Second World War, and there are many examples: I mean Stalin’s betrayal of the German communists, how the Allies betrayed Spain, the betrayal by the French of their own refugees, you could go on and on and on. But those examples from the Second World War recall direct parallels with other betrayals in history that I am interested in alluding to, that and the idea of how do a man and a woman get together and create something beautiful, something enduring, in the midst of all this destruction—the destruction of the moral, the destruction of the aesthetic, the destruction of the physical. How does that happen? How do they negotiate the labyrinth? The spatial context, then, is a turning point inasmuch as for the first time Chile does not directly come into it. Latin America does not directly come into it. Except that the author clearly is a Latin American in some ways, especially in terms of the authorial voice. Also in a sense it relates to my idea that because I’m such a quintessential expatriate or exile that I’m writing from a perspective where I want this story to be about many people other than ourselves. I don’t want this to be only about Latin America, only about Chile. I want it to go beyond our experience. I want the experience that I had in relation to Chile to be an experience which is valid for many people around the world, where readers around the world can read into the situation their own history so that my version of history, my decision that this is one moment to attend to, will not preclude other people reading into it their own moment, their own sorrows, their own dreams, their own repression, their own falsification.

So the work on Konfidenz is a very major moment for me because it also coincides with the moment when I decide that I will not return to Chile. That decision really grows out of Death and the Maiden, but the new novel cements it. The fact is that you decide things will be one way, and then history tells you there’s unfinished business. Because I felt that having finished Konfidenz, the moment had arrived for me to write my memoir, which of course is about Chile. And The Nanny and the Iceberg, which is also about Chile. And yet The Nanny and the Iceberg does, I think, exactly the same thing that Konfidenz does, except it does it in reverse. It starts out as a novel which is exclusively about a very special, specific moment in history. In fact, it charts the story from one date in history to another date—from July 9, 1991 to Oct 12, 1992.

It charts that year and a few months very specifically and it inserts itself inside that moment in history and does not change one event that really happens in relation to the iceberg. I did some-thing which I’d never done before, which was to write a historical novel in the sense of a novel that tells a parallel plot to something that is real. And why I say that it reverses Konfidenz is that, starting from something as specific as Chile (and later Sevilla) from July 9, 1991 until Oct 12, 1992 as the novel progresses, I think, and some reviewers think, that what the novel does is display on an epic scale all the dilemmas of so-called third world countries in the sense that, though specifically and culturally Chilean, these are the dilemmas that could happen in Brazil, in Argentina, in South Africa, in Thailand, in South Korea. Once again it would be a radically different novel if I had situated it in any of those other countries. But the fundamental question of the accelerated globalization or modernization of society and the tensions that this creates, in which those transitions to modernity demand a delusion of who those people think they are, which is a comic thing, a picaresque thing—this idea of human beings caught in a delusionary universe resonates because the transition itself is in great measure delusionary. And we are dealing with a society where you pretend to be what you are not and, though that is what the country is doing, what Chile is doing in The Nanny and the Iceberg, it turns out that that’s what every character is also doing at the family level, at the level of maternity, at the level of paternity, at the level of making love, at the level of your rival in love, at the level of selling the country, in every level you find this structure. So that by situating it in Chile I was, in fact, reaching out to the whole world. This became my first comic novel, my first picaresque novel, my first epic novel, a genre I had been wanting to plunge into for a long time. For years and years. Also in the sense of liberating my voice as well. I never could have been as transgressive as this if I hadn’t suffered through Heading South, Looking North before, which is definitely dramatic and solemn and serious. Not that the memoir lacks funny moments, because I am always aware of the absurd situations my characters (including myself) end up in, but ultimately that exploration of my own existence, and many exiles and divided languages, is quite a serious affair, which, once written, allowed me to be ever more playful and disembark on the shores of The Nanny and the Iceberg and many of my current projects.


Selected Works by Ariel Dorfman:

Blake’s Therapy. Seven Stories, $12.95.
The Burning City (with Joaquín Dorfman). Doubleday, £10.99.
Death and the Maiden. Penguin, $10.00.
Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North. National Geographic, $21.00.
The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. Out of Print.
Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet. Seven Stories, $11.95.
Hard Rain. Trans. George Shivers. Reader’s International, $14.95.
Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey. Penguin, $15.00.
How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (with Armand Mattelart). Trans. David Kunzle. Out of Print.
In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems. Duke UP, $15.95.
Konfidenz.Dalkey Archive Press, $13.50.
The Last Song of Manuel Sendero. Trans. Ariel Dorfman and George Shivers. Out of Print.
Manifesto for Another World: Voices from Beyond the Dark. Seven Stories, $9.95.
Mascara. Seven Stories, $8.95.
My House Is on Fire. Trans. George Shivers. Penguin, $17.00.
The Nanny and the Iceberg. Seven Stories, $14.95.
Other Septembers, Many Americas: Selected Provocations, 1980-2004. Forthcoming in July from Seven Stories.
The Resistance Trilogy. Out of Print.
Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction. Trans. George Stivers. Duke UP, $21.95.
Violence and the Liberation of the American Reader. Out of Print.
Widows. Trans. Stephen Kessler. Seven Stories, $12.95.


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