Feeding on dreams: Confessions of an unrepentant exile

(First published in Upside Down World)11114997

Ariel Dorfman’s Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile (HMH Books, 2011) is an eloquent memoir which fluctuates between reflections on death and exile – the meaning of not having died next to Chilean President Allende during the 1973 military coup, and the consequences of Dorfman’s own exile, a decision enforced by Allende’s advisors and which very possibly saved his life from the deadly machinery of the Pinochet dictatorship, but which has assailed Dorfman with a tenacious need to question his own role and actions within that particular era of Chilean history.

Ariel Dorfman was thirty-one years old and working as a cultural advisor to President Salvador Allende when Augusto Pinochet’s military coup abruptly destroyed the socialist revolution. The actions of the dictatorship created a reign of macabre realities which would split Chilean narratives into opposing memory camps. Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile (HMH Books, 2011) is an eloquent memoir which fluctuates between reflections on death and exile – the meaning of not having died next to Allende in the presidential palace La Moneda, and Dorfman’s own exile, a decision enforced by Allende’s advisors and which very possibly saved his life, yet which has assailed Dorfman with a tenacious need to question his own role and actions within that particular era of Chilean history.

The book moves rapidly from one event to another, disrupting chronology whilst creating an intense discussion of contrasts – death and exile, the revolutionary and the exile, the desaparecidos and the exile, language and exile.  Exile becomes a single constant which, as time passes, exudes a certain inevitable detachment from the reality that is Chile. There is no reconciliation with the revolutionary past in exile – an issue which Dorfman struggled against for many years in various countries as he futilely sought to aid the Chilean resistance from abroad during the first years of exile in Paris and Amsterdam.

El pueblo unido – the people united in a socialist revolution under the banner of the Unidad Popular disintegrated in exile. A hierarchy developed within the exiled community, leading to strife within the movement struggling to develop a resistance movement against Pinochet. Dorfman recounts how his family had been promised an apartment in Paris by Carlos Iturra, author of the famous hymn Venceremos, at “solidarity rental rates.” The family moved their belongings to the apartment, only to discover a few days later that Iturra had received threatening phone calls from dictatorship sympathisers. The location was presumably unsafe. However, upon collecting their luggage from the apartment, it became evident to the family that the hierarchy of the Communist Party had negotiated with Iturra to reside in the apartment. Iturra was, at that moment, organising a vacation in the Alps for children of Chilean exiles. The sense of a community united in a revolutionary stance had deteriorated.

“Exile destroys children along with the parents.” Dorfman recounts how his children, Rodrigo and Joaquin struggle with identity and history in exile. Whilst the eldest, Rodrigo,  gradually eliminates traces of Chile in his art, Joaquin seemingly fails to absorb the Chilean identity. Dorfman describes how the Andes Mountains feature prominently in Chilean children’s artwork – a characteristic which holds no fascination for Joaquin, born in exile. However, both sons are affected by the consequences of dictatorship and exile. Rodrigo has imbibed a rebellious streak which leads him to a return to Chile and subsequent filming of protests.  Joaquin is haunted by the stories of the desaparecidos and the terror inflicted upon Chileans, such as the story of Rodrigo Rojas – a young man who, along with his girlfriend Carmen Gloria Quintana, had been doused with paraffin and torched. Their bodies were dumped in a ditch – at the exact location where three dissidents were discovered with slit throats only a year earlier. Dorfman admits an inconsistency between the lies designed to protect children from the horrors of the dictatorship and the children’s absorption of the truth.

The ramifications of exile flow into metaphorical prose. Dorfman distinguishes between various facets of exile – the actual departure from Chile, and the indefinite aspect – which lead the author to hold on to a library inside their house in Chile which was being used as a safe house for the MAPU, instead of acquiring new books. Exile created contradictions, ambiguity and barriers, as Dorfman realises that the revolutionary who joined the struggle for a socialist revolution, who was present when Allende saluted the people a week prior to the military coup, had distanced himself from his compañeros in Chile. After a long process in which he persisted in identifying with the resistance in exile and aiding the movement, Dorfman’s evolution veers towards the intellectual writer whose memories and stories are festering within an increasingly permanent exile and the still imagery of the revolutionary past.

Dorfman struggles with the truth as the exile commences in Buenos Aires. Narrating the case of Victor Jara, he tells of how a writer described Victor having his hands cut off by the lieutenants – an erroneous statement which portrayed how legends mingled with truth to construct a false reality. Another experience of false memory is Dorfman’s recollection of a photograph of him taken a week before the coup in front of La Moneda. His memory is of him in revolutionary stance, fists in the air. When the photo resurfaces, Dorfman discovers a pensive version of himself next to writer Antonio Skarmeta. The illusion of el pueblo unido had vanquished the actual memory – exile implants images in  the mind of the exile and constructs an alternative reality.

It is not only actual memories that abscond from the exile. Pinochet’s reign contaminated language and society by referring to torture as ‘excesses,’ whilst the dictatorship was described as a ‘regime.’ The euphemisms contributed toward the cycle of impunity and infiltrated social circles where new alliances were being forged, with some former socialists seeking to gain elite status by liaising with the right wing – a phenomenon which Dorfman states was blatantly portrayed in the social pages of newspaper El Mercurio.

The book is also replete with stories of people from Chile. Carlos – the carpenter who hid Allende’s poster behind the boards in his workshop until Pinochet was arrested in London. Patricia, the wife of a right wing thug who used her husband’s status as a cover to transport Allende supporters to safety in a car gifted to her husband by DINA. Susana Weiner, who worked as a courier for MAPU, played a role in saving the lives of dissidents, including Dorfman, and was entrusted with transcribing notes describing torture in detention centres and smuggling them out of Chile.  Their experiences, combined with the stories of the detenidos desaparecidos and President Patricio Aylwin’s initiative during the transition to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged Dorfman to contribute towards furthering the struggle, resulting in two particular publications written in exile.

Widows (1978) is a novel which deals with a group of women who refuse to hand over a body which washed ashore. As the novel was published, the first desaparecidos were being discovered in Chile. In the memoirs, Dorfman describes the act of disappearing people as an aberration on existence. “Disappearance was an outrage against the chemistry and structure of life itself. The bodies of the missing were wrenched out of the normal progression of existence …” The outrage of the discovery contrasts sharply with another discovery of bodies in 1990, where younger Chileans born after the coup were less interested in the process. According to Dorfman, this discovery was a disruption in their lives which necessitated excavation and destruction of a football pitch.

However, in his renowned play entitled Death and the Maiden, Dorfman shows how torture survivors were side-lined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Paulina – a torture survivor whose husband is a lawyer working on behalf of the Commission, kidnaps the man she believes to be her torturer and subjects him to a trial, appointing her husband as her oppressor’s defence lawyer.  Paulina insists she wants the truth – a truth which till now wallows in impunity as torturers and victims walk side by side on Chilean streets, depriving torture survivors of their right to justice and the opportunity to inscribe their testimonies. Dorfman describes how torture tarnishes universal expression such as music. The last scene features Paulina listening to Schubert in a concert – the music played during her torture session. The reconciliation with her favourite music was brought about after the confession was extracted from her torturer – the right to truth as opposed to sacrificing one’s self for the better of the democratic transition.

In the fragments of Dorfman’s diary of his return to Chile in 1990, the author grapples with the realisation that his experiences and that of the Chilean nation have diverged so greatly, it is impossible to nurture the dream of returning to live in Chile. The fragile transition, which sought to reconcile, rather than call for justice in order to avoid disruptions in the process, differed greatly from Dorfman’s vision of returning to the people united in a collective struggle. Exile further split the left wing memory camp, as those who remained in Chile looked upon exiles with certain resentment, contrasting the suffering they had endured with the relative comfort of escaping the horrors of the dictatorship.

Dorfman, unable to harmonize the experience of different memory camps on the left, decided to seek refuge in the US and later become a citizen of the same country which had conspired with Pinochet to overthrow Allende. He states that the desire to return was vanquished by the necessity to adjust, bringing to an end a previous personal conflict concerning language. Renouncing imperialism during the years of Allende’s presidency and the first years of exile also meant renouncing the English language, which Dorfman was familiar with since childhood, having lived in the US when his father and the family fled from Argentina. Throughout the course of exile and the subsequent return to Chile, Dorfman realises that language as a universal medium holds the power to navigate political borders and memory. Also, in Dorfman’s own words, acquiring US citizenship meant “I will never again go into exile.”

Personified by writers such as Milan Kundera, who Dorfman describes as “the saddest man I have ever seen,” and Antonio Skarmeta, author of Il Postino, who predicted Dorfman would never return to live in Chile, exile became the ultimate choice of survival, creating a refuge within another complex realm of loyalties.

Whilst the book might have benefited from a more chronological order, and the metaphorical prose might seem daunting for some readers, Dorfman has masterfully created a narrative so intricate and yet simple in its message. He lays bare the complexities of memory, made easier to follow once the reader acknowledges that memory knows no chronology but is rather a series of events that profoundly impacted the rememberer’s life, and the act of remembering is a process of cunningly implanting additional images and obliterating others. Most importantly, Dorfman furthers the split memory narrative by adding the memory of the exile, the desaparecidos and the torture survivors to the usual general divide between the supporters of Allende and those of Pinochet. As compromising as it may seem, Dorfman acknowledges the importance of embracing ambivalence in order to construct a narrative which berates, glorifies and wallows in despondency. The book emanates the turmoil of Dorfman’s complicated yearning to regain Allende’s years, and his unrepentant decision to seek shelter in a nation known for its oppression, in order to avoid repeating his own history.

Asociacion ilicita. Los archivos secretos de la dictadura.


Mauricio Weibel Barahoma, Carlos Dorat Guerra

Ceibo Ediciones, 2012

(review first published in Chileno)

Re-enacting Chile’s dictatorship history is an arduous task, undoubtedly hindered by Augusto Pinochet’s insistence upon oblivion and legally sanctioned by the enacted impunity laws. Seeking to annihilate memory by imposing a reign of persecution, torture, disappearances and exile, the struggle to delegitimize the leftist struggle degenerated into Pinochet’s obsession to legitimise his dictatorship. Evidence compiled by authors Carlos Dorat and Mauricio Weibel reveals a sinister collaboration extending beyond the secret network Dirección de Intelligencia Nacional (DINA) and later Central Nacional de Información (CNI), involving ministries, embassies, diplomats, the FBI, the Vatican and right wing Latin American governments.

Asociación Ilícita: los archivos secretos de la dictadura (Ceibo Ediciones, 2012) examines documents which for some reason, failed to be destroyed by the CNI in 1988 prior to the transition period. The documents, detailing extensive correspondence on behalf of Pinochet, are mainly attributed to Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, Odlainer Mena, Humberto Gordon and Hugo Salas, proving the extent of collaboration between various governmental and international bodies, as well as incursions to divert civilian attempts to shed light upon Chile’s reality. From El Plan Condor to inscribed orders from Pinochet requesting the detention of socialist opponents, terror and diplomatic strategy comprise the analysis of what the authors term ‘a catalogue of horror and intolerance’.

September 11, 1973 unleashed the neoliberal experiment upon Chile, supported by the US which was, in Kissinger’s words, unwilling ‘to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide from themselves’. Following an initial purging of socialism in Chile, the published documents in this book reveal how political strategy, in collaboration with the Vatican, was aiming to install Pinochet as an icon of freedom and anti-communist struggle. Apart from the well known targeting of Communist Party and Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) militants, the military advocated a complete dismantling of social movements, student organisations and embarked upon restricting the Church’s activities. With regard to the latter, correspondence with the Vatican illustrates the alignment of the church oligarchy with Pinochet’s dictatorship, as opposed to priests working in the country who, contrary to what had occurred in other countries, aligned themselves with the left. While the Vatican urged priests to adhere solely to ceremonial roles, Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez had abandoned the designated conservative role in favour of exposing dictatorship atrocities through the Vicaria de la Solidaridad. Part of the political strategy against human rights groups was to seek invalidation of exposed atrocities by citing Marxist infiltration.

A brief overview of DINA establishes an ideological framework attributed to Jaime Guzman, who fostered a counterinsurgency programme based upon combating Marxism and seeking the annihilation of social movements from the political scene. As DINA’s power intensified, counterinsurgency became central to the stability of the dictatorship, lending the state a channel through which to intensify diplomatic efforts with other right wing governments and repressive bodies, in order to present a formidable opposition to organisations expressing their outrage at the widespread violence. Documents relating to Operaciones Epsilon reveal that former head of DINA, Manual Contreras, was authorised to give orders to various ministries. An 11 page document relating to the assembly of ‘Comision Interamericana de Derechos Humanos’ sought to ‘neutralise worldwide accusations of human rights violations in Chile’, instead proposing an emphasis of human rights disputes in Vietnam and the Soviet Union, among other countries.  The neutralisation of any verbal opposition against the dictatorship was to be met with an open and clandestine psychologicalcampaign, in order to preserve Chile’s ‘image’ from any possible ‘discrediting and spreading of false information’.

The political threat was personified in particular by the clandestine Communist Party and MIR, who waged armed resistance against the dictatorship and suffered great losses due to persecution and disappearances of many militants, including the notorious Operacion Colombo. The book states that, according to research carried out by renowned author Manuel Salazar, Contreras had been compiling information about political leaders of leftist organisations since Salvador Allende’s presidency. Related documents published in this book and stamped as confidential outline the activities of several left wing leaders, including Victor Diaz and Luis Recabarren.

‘The problem of human rights’ constituted a major problem for the dictatorship, as it relentlessly sought to portray any internal or external criticism as tarnishing the image of Chile. Despite the extermination of socialist leaders, subsequent regrouping of MIR, Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitario (MAPU) and other left wing groups gave rise to an initiation of protests against the dictatorship, with people demanding the return of their exiled relatives. Hundreds were massacred by the CNI, as the military was deployed to the streets in an effort to stifle dissent. As the dictatorship faced the most difficult years of its era, Guzman advocated an ideology shifting towards permanent military rule.

The authors describe the oppression as methodical – indeed the documents reveal statistical data of ‘terrorist activity’ and ‘manipulation of conduct’. The constant preoccupation and compilation of data enabled the dictatorship to enact legislation according to the circumstances, in order to ensure a continuation of impunity. A trend of state terrorism is easily gleaned from the documents produced in the book, as well as the analysis provided by the authors. The ‘Caravan of Death’, the ‘Plan Condor’, which was carried out in collaboration with other Latin American countries, ‘Operacion Colombo’ – also known as the Case of the 119, ‘Operacion Epsilon’ and the collaboration with the US regarding ‘the distortion of Chile’s truth in favour of Marxism’ gave rise to the tracking of dissidents’ and exiles’ activity abroad, in order to prevent the possibility of the formation of a government in exile. Embassies were also authorised to keep copies of any published material relevant to Chile, in particular reports concerning human rights violations. The exercise was described as ‘censorship of negative information’. However, the dictatorship’s targeting of any person suspected of harbouring leftist sentiment, even through association not related to political activity and irrespective of nationality, led to disclosure of torture practices in international media. The case of Sheila Cassidy – a British doctor suspected of having offered medical assistance to Pinochet’s opponents led to international outrage, which in turn the dictatorship tried to stifle by refusing to issue working permits for journalists travelling to Chile in order to report on human rights. State organisations were also forbidden to comment about Chile without prior permission granted through formal official channels. At least 761 journalists were prohibited from reporting about human rights violations in Chile and their details were included in the dictatorship’s archives.

Hostility against the media was enhanced by the fact that culture – an integral part of Allende’s campaign and perhaps synonymous with the nueva canción movement, was not to be stifled. Inti Illimani and Illapu, together with other singers in exile such as Angel Parra, Isabel Parra and Patricio Manns maintained their political stance and disseminated their convictions through music. The literature of Ariel Dorfman and Antonio Skarmeta was banned in Chile, as was the political thought of Eduardo Galeano and Karl Marx.

Perhaps the significance of this book lies in the fact that it is yet another sliver in Chilean memory elucidating the callous ideology behind the committed atrocities. By analysing this archive of documents, Dorat and Weibel have succeeded in reassembling the fragments of the dictatorship, most importantly eliminating the gap between the experienced violations and the dictatorship laws which ravaged the lives of thousands of Chileans.