Monday, March 20, 2006

Ariel Dorfman (Chile)

A biography of Chilena writer Ariel Dorfman.

A late contributor to the Latin American literary "boom" of the 1960s and 70s, Dorfman, now 61, was hailed by Salman Rushdie as "one of the most important voices out of Latin America". Bilingual in Spanish and English (which he speaks with a New York upper east side accent), he writes in both.
Praising his "accessibility and greatness", critic John Berger said he "leads us, like Dante, into the pit of his country's experience". His art plumbed the state terror of the continent's "dirty wars" of the 1970s and 80s and their troubled aftermaths. His journalism appears in the US, Britain and Spain, and he uses his art for human rights education. Eugenio Ahumada, a Chilean human rights archivist since the coup, places Dorfman at the "centre of the struggle for memory".

His most famous and contentious work, Death and the Maiden, examined the compromise between justice and national reconciliation not only across democratising Latin America but also following apartheid and Soviet communism. In the aftermath of a South American military regime, Paulina kidnaps the doctor she believes tortured and raped her under blindfold to the strains of the Schubert string quartet. While her lawyer husband puts his faith in the "whitewash" of a truth commission, she craves justice but appears destined to coexist with her unpunished torturer.

The play premiered at London's Royal Court in 1991 and won a Laurence Olivier award. Mike Nichols directed the Broadway production while Roman Polanski made a film in 1994 - for which Dorfman co-wrote the screenplay - starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

For the playwright, the "juxtaposition between torturers and tortured, executioners and victims" is the story of the democratic transitions of the 1990s. His thriller dramatised dilemmas of revenge and reparation yet to be confronted. "I write when there's a void," he says, "but you end up being prophetic. By writing the imaginary, you write the future: what was not happening in Chile, South Africa, the Czech Republic, but was going to happen." Yet some were uneasy with the commercial success of a drama about rape and torture. Dorfman's recent career has been dogged by the charge that he has profited from others' experiences from the safety of exile.

A Chilean national, Dorfman sees himself as an expatriate, no longer in exile. Professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University, North Carolina, where he has taught since 1985, he lives with his wife Angélica amid pine forests just outside campus. He teaches two days a week in the spring, travelling for much of the year, and is increasingly involved in theatre and film.

Of his recent plays, Picasso Lost and Found, about the artist in Nazi-occupied Paris, was read in London in January by a cast including Rufus Sewell, Charles Dance, Thandie Newton and Juliet Stevenson, who played Paulina in the original west end production of Death and the Maiden. Purgatorio opens at the Arts Theatre in London in the autumn, while The Other Side has its world premiere in Japan next year.

Dorfman has described Pinochet as a shadow throughout his work, a "dark guide into the worst aspects of myself and others". He was "flabbergasted" in October 1998 when Pinochet, who had been forced to step aside after a 1988 plebiscite but remained chief of the armed forces and senator-for-life, was arrested in London, awaiting extradition to Spain on charges of torture and genocide. "I'd come to terms with the fact that he'd never be brought to trial, that we were never going to see justice done," he says.

In Exorcising Terror, The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet, published in March, Dorfman views Pinochet's "unending trial" as a victory, even though he escaped on the grounds of mental incapacity. The book, praised by Hugh O'Shaughnessy in the Observer as a "small bomb", dwells on Pinochet's betrayal of Allende. "I heard his voice before the coup and didn't recognise his evil," says Dorfman. "It haunts me."

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