by Erin Becker
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011 | 352 pages
“The language with which you will tell the story of your times.”
The thrust of Ariel Dorfman’s newest work Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile is instinctual. In it, he sets out to do what every mortal would, given the chance: tell his or her own story, in his or her own terms.
Feeding begins with Chile’s “other” September 11, the military coup of 1973. Its opening pages find Dorfman, Chilean-American human rights activist and Duke University professor of literature and Latin American studies, exiled from Chile following the coup carried out by ultra-conservative General Augusto Pinochet. The bulk of the book describes his family’s wanderings during the next 17 years, from Buenos Aires to Paris to Amsterdam to DC, often in poverty and always carrying the heavy weight of homesickness, fear and uncertainty about how it will all end. But we, as readers, do have the benefit of knowing how it “ends.” The family returns to Chile in 1990 post-dictatorship only to find the country in the grips of neoliberal conservatism, fear, and inequality. Near the book’s close he returns to his post at Duke and cozy home in Durham, North Carolina. It culminates, or perhaps decrescendos, in his reluctant choice to become an American citizen in 2006.
A good chunk of Feeding is comprised of excerpts from a diary Dorfman kept upon his return to Chile. Its observations flow alongside Dorfman’s reflective, painful, complex, and quiet prose: Dorfman questioning the political tendency to fear complexity as he tries and fails to stage his controversial play Death and the Maiden in Santiago; pondering the safety of his family in a country still uneasily returning to democracy; waxing lyrical on a stunning and ambiguous vision of the Andes that embraces and looms over Chile’s capital city: “to abide in the valley of Santiago became a way of living with the gods at his back, guarding the entrance to paradise.” (Note: fellow diarists be warned. Reading the excerpts from Dorfman’s journal may spur some syntactical insecurity for those whose nightly scribblings are less eloquent.)
The diary entries are integral, interwoven amongst more complex discussions of intrigue both between various interests in Chile and within the Communist party. Dorfman is a master at weaving together the personal and political. Though knowledge of recent Chilean political history helps in navigating the intricacies of Dorfman’s situation, he tends to universalize his experience, making his exile’s wanderings something relatable for anyone upset with the status quo.
In one passage, he explains the political passion of his youth: “Nothing compares to being set gently on fire with the knowledge that the world does not have to be the way you found it […].” The image is striking not only for its universality—that same fire has burned in so many generations, so many places—but also, paradoxically, for the way it contrasts with more pessimistic sentiments found elsewhere in the book, and our world. We find ourselves asking, do we really still feel this way? As Guy Debord documented in his Society of the Spectacle, has inhabiting this communal space grown more difficult as of late? Dorfman’s writing is clearly a response to this tension between past and present, change and deterioration.
In its cyclical rhythm of ideas, the book returns like a compass to the issue of language. In Paris, Heinrich Böll tells Dorfman to militate against Pinochet trying to “control the language with which you will tell the story of your times.” He describes how Hitler “contaminated” German, kidnapped the language, co-opting words like “comrade,” “joy,” “exultation” and “brotherhood.” Yet Dorfman is in the midst of a symbolic and debilitating writer’s block; the dictatorship and the exile have at some level co-opted his own voice. The threat of control and contamination becomes a reality.
In Feeding, language, identity and politics are wrapped up together; Dorfman’s prose continuously confirms Böll’s crucial advice. Throughout the work, language carries more than its weight in simple words. Dorfman writes, then cannot write, makes vows to literary silence he later breaks; he rejects Spanish and then later rejects English, only to conclude that he must write, and Spanish and English must continue their liaison within him.
Feeding compels us to ask: who defines language, who wields it, and to what end? How will we be remembered – what will our names mean? Dorfman pictures a child of the future slurring another with the words, “Oh, don’t be a Pinochet.” But the response surprisingly manifests not Dorfman’s hope for a future hatred of Pinochet, but simply a hope for his future anonymity:
“Pinochet?” answers the other. “Pinochet? Who’s that?”
Who in hell is Pinochet?
His wish is for a future unmarred by a name so present in his own story. He dreams of the wonderful silence of a larger-than-life caudillo, dissolved into unimportance by the years.
Confessions is actually part two of Dorfman’s story. He already detailed his earlier life in Heading South, Looking North, a memoir that was praised for its bi-cultural nature by figures such as Elie Weisel. With Confessions, Dorfman picks up where the earlier tale left off, and brings us to the present. In his earlier work, he has alluded to the fact that the period of the military coup of 1973 and the years that followed were too painful to write about at the time. His return to Chile was painful, too: the wealthiest of the country made leaps and bounds toward modernization during the conservative regime, but Dorfman sees the lower-class neighborhoods relatively unchanged. Yet, heeding Böll’s advice, he knows the story must be told.
For those interested in fictional accounts of dictatorial regimes, Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch and Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People both compellingly narrate the psychological and spiritual effects of dictatorship and echo much of what Dorfman describes in his memoir. For more Chile-related memoirs, turn to Marc Cooper’s Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir or—for something slightly less political—Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs (Confieso que he vivido), where he describes his earlier life as well as his growing involvement with the Chilean Communist Party.
In the end, whether Dorfman’s outsized hopes or his country’s flaws and fumbles in returning to democracy are to blame for his disappointment is an issue for each reader to puzzle out. Dorfman himself ponders both alternatives. (“Has the Chile I fell in love with really died? Yes and no…”) As the years shift our eyes from undemocratic regimes toppling in the Southern Cone to those toppling in the Middle East, Dorfman’s book can be read through the lens of legacy. The issue of writing inherently addresses how the future will see us, those we love, and those we hate. This account of one man’s life is a thrust toward memory, and toward a future where the story of those memories need not take place in dictatorship’s long shadow.
Erin Becker is an English teacher in Santiago, Chile, a graduate of the English and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her interests include the relationship between propaganda and literature, writers during wartime, and contemporary media discourse.