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The Daily Tar HedThursday, October 22.9877
Chilean author champions the view of the intellectual
By CHRIS CAIN
There at the foot of the couch on
the linoleum floor, the tape recorder
was bound to pick up his voice. He
cautioned me to take notes as well,
but this man is an engaging speaker,
his voice demands attention, so. of
course. 1 didn't. And. of course, the
tape didn't pick that voice up -except
when, in order to make his
point absolutely clear, he sat up to
the very edge of the couch and leaned
over the quietly humming recorder.
Luckily. Ariel Dorfman. who is
presently the most popular writer in
Chile, has more than a few ideas he
wants to make absolutely clear,
points he feels it imperative to drive
home. I left Duke that day with
mostly garble on tape. Dorfman
fading in and out to the tune of The
Boomtown Rats who were being
recorded over. But the V that made
it in. that triumphed over Bob Geldof.
was full of the sort of passionate
intensity Yeats warned against, full
of an animated, immediate sort of
earnestness whether whispering
Dorfman's office in the Interna
tional Studies building at Duke is
sparsely decorated: a desk, a chair,
a couch, a box of hardback copies of
his most popular book "Widows."
a novel about the pain and suffering
of "the disappeared" in his country.
There is no carpet and his voice echoes
as he talks -of the popularity of Latin
American literature in the North.
"We have an exceptional amount
of very good writers," he says,
without a trace of an accent, "writers
for whom literature is a matter of
life and death. I think that shows in
the passion of the prose, in the
originality, in the search for meaning.
I think it may also be part of the
fact that Latin American literature is
one of the best ways of understanding
what's happening down South. It's
a way of initiating yourself much
better than any tourist trip."
A tour of Ariel Dorfman's literature
proves it to be as varied as the
Chilean-American landscape: Essays
on Donald Duck and The Lone Ranger,
poems, novels, regular contributions
to The Village Voice. New York Times
and Los Angeles Times, and. most
recently, a play. His fiction is allegor
ical, often fantastic, and always, he
"In Latin America it's absolutely
normal for writers to engage in
politics all the time ' for several
reasons. The first and obvious one is
if you're being censored, your col
leagues are being killed and tortured,
if your readers are being persecuted,
you can't stand back and not be
political, right? That's one reason.
"The other reason is that in our
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Ariel Dorfman is the author of Chile's
nations in Latin America the word of
the intellectual matters. I think here
it matters very little. I think it's
trivialized, it's marginalized, it is not
felt essential. There's an anti
intellectualism in the United States,
which is very different from what 1
would call a pro-intellectualism in
Latin America. Which means of course
if you're an intellectual they'll also
take you so seriously they'll try to
kill you. okay. But on the other hand,
you also have the privilege of the fact
that what you write about means
something. You see?"
The right wing dictatorship of
Augusto Pinochet took Dorfman's
intellect seriously enough to send him
into exile in 1973. A decade later in
1983. he was re-admitted and he
beqan spending half the year as a
professor at Duke and half as a writer
in Chile. This until two months ago.
when he was again kicked out of the
country, the first "re-exile" in its
history. But partly as a result of
extensive coverage in the US. press.
Dorfman was given permission to
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do so safely is a question he js now
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sation wasnt as fortunate: I am
really going crazy." he says into the
phone, trying earnestly to make the
voice understand. "I must tell you
that I feel pretty exhausted." Finally
he hangs up and sits back down. He
is tired of talking politics, he says.
He is a writer first. Yet he admits,
the two are inseparable.
"I'm political but every writer
is political in Latin America. There is
no one writer who is not He pauses.
thinking, then sits up to the edge
of the couch: "There are two basic
political acts that writers can have
in Latin America. One is an immediate
effect. Like for instance when I
comment on. when I denounce, what
v.i. ' rte: k&
is happening in my country and other
countries. That is taking a journalistic
"And another attitude is a deeper
attitude, a longer range, a longer
term attitude The language that
we speak in Latin America is degraded
by dictatorship and by poverty. It's
a language which is not fully grown;
it's a language that is hemmed in.
restricted it's a language that is
full of lies. What you've got to do
is clean up that language, you've got
to tell the real stories."
It is this deeper attitude that he
has taken in his fiction, telling the
real stories of violence and triumph,
and in his most recent novel, the real,
and utterly surreal story of birth.
"The Last Song of Manuel Sendero,"
published this year, is the tale of a
yet unborn baby who organizes a
strike of fellow fetuses until the
adults change the world into which
they must emerge. "I'm talking
about the problems of birth. How do
you give birth in impossible
"If you think of physical birth it's
something you can't possibly imagine
that something so large could
come out of such a small place. I
mean, come on. between the legs of
someone? It's an incredible act. To
give birth is just as difficult to
give birth to a revolution or to give
birth to a piece of work. To give birth
in the sense of renewing yourself
everv dav-To 9've birth to yourself,
Just as tnere is more t0 .Tne
s of Manue Sendero than babieSt
more Protest in Chi,e-tnere is
the eye. In order to fool the Chilean
censors Dorfman assumed name
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World War II. As it turned out the
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publisher refused to print the book
in Chile anyway until this year.
The publicity surrounding Dorfman's
re-exile has made "Widows" the
number one bestseller in Chile for
months. "I don't want to say it
myself, but it's had the wildest
success you can imagine. It's become
the major bestseller in I don't know
how many years."
As for the timing, he credits Mr.
Pinochet. "Now I'm nationally known
as a writer because of what the
government did to me. So when they
say the government doesn't care
about Culture, they're wrong. This
government has done an enormous
amount for culture: by persecuting
a writer they have made his book a
"But I'd rather my books sold a
bit less and they'd just leave me
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