Review of Ariel Dorfman’s Book “Darwin’s Ghosts”

After many years, Ariel Dorfman, who has been writing essays, memoir, stories, plays, poetry and countless articles for news agencies and journals, has returned to the novel. For those of us who met him through his fiction, Widows, for example, this is most welcome for it allows him to engage the full range of his incisive imagination. A Chilean-American author, agile in two languages, writing alternately in one and then translating into the other as a way of honing his prose precisely, Dorfman has taken it on himself to speak truth to power, both to Chile, through, for example, Death and the Maiden and Feeding on Dreams and to the U.S. with his latest Homeland Security Ate My Speech: Messages From the End of the World.  In doing so, Dorfman speaks to the world.

Darwin’s Ghosts benefits from Dorfman’s facility in navigating many worlds. The prose style of the linear contemporary novel is infused with the tradition of magic realism, if not in its language, in its storytelling.  The binary form is apt; the extraordinary is grounded in the commonplace. This novel insists that we accept the events depicted as real.  Our ethical lives depend upon it. 

A young American boy has his photograph taken for his fourteenth birthday. Fitzroy Foster – any relationship to the Robert Fitzroy, Captain of the HMS Beagle is to be noted – is an ordinary boy, in the ways white middle-class and upper class American boys are so very ordinary while expecting to be special. He is part of a wealthy nuclear family, has two brothers, a devoted, self-sacrificing mother, and an executive father working for Polaroid obsessed with corporate success. Fitz is a math whiz, is on the swimming team, has a girlfriend, Cam [sic} Wood, his equal as a swimmer who surpasses him in intellect and ingenuity. He is on the brink of sexual anxiety, exploration and discovery, his future unknown but predictable. Like most such privileged white Americans boys, he is innocent, oblivious, limited, and as one notable moment in the novel indicates –

“I turned to the river, crept to the water’s edge, until I found a pond among the reeds, and searched for my reflection and again recognized the young man who had awoken to his birthday, that very morning, an eternity ago.”

– narcissistic.

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The camera, a primary tool of acquisition, is at the core of the book; the landscape is photography. Fitz has not yet learned, what he and everyone else in this family will learn, that cameras can steal souls, at the click of the shutter, as a device of western culture’s hunger to capture and exploit whatever it can. Cameras may not be innocent instruments and we may all be responsible. Like everyone else, Fitz is looking for his own image, not ‘the other.”

But on this morning, at the opening of the book, it is ‘the other’ who appears at “the Polaroid moment of familial bliss” and then consecutively, every time Roy is photographed.  ‘The other.’ A monster. A ghost. A face from the past, a visitor, superimposed upon his own recognizable body.

“The eyes of that man, his wild overgrown mop of black hair, his snub nose and high cheekbones, his thick aboriginal lips with barely a white hint of teeth flickering between them, his surly enigmatic look…. The eyes, the dark eyes.


An ancestor. Not literally a forefather or a primogenitor, but as contemporary wisdom about ancestors and making amends informs us, someone who came before, someone with whom we are mysteriously and irrevocably intertwined, though unaware.  Someone whose pain we carry or someone whose deeds we must amend. The consequences of epigenetics: trauma passed on and or the ancestors speaking.

Fitzroy Foster is the narrator of his experience. A coming of age story? Initiation? A hero’s journey? Close but not quite. There are two stories of identity here. One is of the young narrator, who, because of the ghost coming into vision, like the details of a Polaroid manifesting out of the haze, must learn who he is outside of the superficial life to which he presumed he was entitled. The second story is of “the other,” whose identity, life story, suffering must be recognized, acknowledged and met.

This is complex. The lives of a naïve young man and his confident and determined lover, depend on their entering an exhaustive and rigorous examination of colonial history, our love of power, our belief in progress, science and privilege.

[Cam] would leave early in the morning and come back late at night, full of date and exhibitions notices, names of entrepreneurs, and explorers and photographers.  …Most of the victims were anonymous, forgotten by history except for a solitary snapshot, while those responsible for their captivity had led well-known lives. Kidnappers like … French entrepreneur Jean Tauver and his Kula tribe from Equatorial Guinea shown in Madrid and Xavier Pene, the owner of a plantation in Dahomey, who transported sixty-seven Africans against their will to Chicago in 1893. …The victims …far outnumbered the criminals… wild anything and anybody from the Philippines and Indonesia and Abyssinia and the Sudan …a perpetual planetary tour of horrors.” 


Their survival depends on challenging the assumption “of the superiority of European Civilization” and the unexamined and tragic consequences for the Earth, Indigenous peoples and ourselves. Two streams of ancestors—the perpetrators and ‘the others’ who suffered unbearably.

Why give such an intricate story to an innocent, unformed, uninformed, about to be entirely cloistered fourteen year old who will only be twenty-six at its conclusion? Because it is our story, our innocence, our obliviousness and narcissism that must be examined and transformed, because the original tragedies and violations continue into this time and so we are asked, as Fitzroy is asked, to accept the ghosts of our Darwinian past as our own:

“…there he was, on paper and sepia, something she could touch and carry and examine and track and hunt down like a wayward cancerous tumor, a palpable sample of evidence from the outside world of history that antedated his incursion into Fitzroy Foster’s life and therefore her own … a Patagonian Indian brought to Paris along with ten other members of his tribe …. They had been exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle that celebrated on hundred years of liberté, egalité and fraternité. …The name of the savage was of no consequence…”


Dorfman’s choice of a young narrator allows for a breathless, as if hormonally driven examination of the past, its consequences and the persistence of our most beloved shibboleths of entitlement, impelled by his desire to be free of the ghost, to see his own face. He wants to be a free man, wants to be freed from captivity, but so did his ‘visitor.’ The book suggests, when such apparitions occur, we are shackled to each other. Our relationship to history and what our ancestors perpetrated might well become a plague of recognition capable of freeing the present from the pernicious influence of our pasts.

“Who knows how many men and women are also haunted by ghosts from the past, just waiting for us to find them.” 

(p. 196)

Fitzroy wants to be free. What does ‘the visitor’ want?  What does the past want?  The past, like the’ visitor,’ also wants to be free. But for Fitzroy to be free, he must discover and take responsibility for the actions of remote ancestors who, until entering this search, were unknown to him. But neither innocence nor ignorance can redeem him. He must bear witness and disentangle himself from the commonplace values that approved exhibition, experimentation, imposed exile, enslavement of ‘the others’ for one’s gain. The past wants to be free of the myriad re-enactments and re-incarnations of colonialism, of the gross repetitive acts of massacre, captivity and violation as a result of Western society’s ravenous hunger for land and resources to claim as its own.

“Henri’s ocean had not been choking with plastic, he had not passed carcasses of fish and birds poisoned by the slick from oil rigs and the sun in his days had not been dangerous to the human skin, his ozone was not depleted, there was no rust crusting the waves. How would he have grieved to see the ocean ,which had given his people sustenance for millennia turned into a garbage dump, the sewer of the world? Perhaps he would have considered that crime more unforgivable than his kidnapping …”


Indigenous wisdom recognizes, as does Quantum Physics, that time is not linear and that the past, present and future interact and affect each other. And so it is no surprise that a writer with Dorfman’s skill and brilliance would use an act of imagination as a means of inquiry into the very soul of Euro-American culture, the comforts it brings us and the price all beings are paying. The confluence of the past and the present repeats itself. Toward the end of the book, on his own involuntary journey, Fitz sees an imprisoned group within a large barbed wire compound.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, that’s Camp Bulkeley.  Haitian refugees, rescued on the high seas by our Navy—fleeing their country after the recent coup d’état.  The United States can’t let them reach our shores and can’t let them die in the ocean, so here they are till things settle down in their own land or we find some place that will accept them, though who knows who’d want the poor devils. I’ve been sending them extra food rations…”



I received Darwin’s Ghosts in the mail on May 1, 2018 and began reading it immediately, swept into the past, particularly the 19th century, but it would not be contained.  It began to speak and resonate with everything that concerned me in my/our lives as if the ghost was present and determined to bring our darkness to light.

Days before, on April 27, 2018, I had offered the Convocation at the International Conference and Film Festival to Free Elephants in Captivity in Portland, Oregon. Much of the Conference was devoted to chronicling the extremity of the current torture of Elephants, in the US and Asia with bull hooks, axe handles, and electric prods so that these wild animals who can never be domesticated, may be trained and confined, despite pain and anguish, whether it be to haul logs, participate in endless Temple ceremonies, paint self-portraits, pose for photographs, carry tourists, or be exhibited in zoos, roadside events or circuses for our profit and entertainment. This current situation heralded in Darwin’s Ghosts, in the neighborhood where I lived as a child.

“…–then the same girl, this time with the enormous head of an elephant mounted on her shoulder….a circus entrepreneur [had] brought the elephant Topsy from Africa in the 1870s. Topsy ended up at a Coney Island amusement park where, in 1902, she crushed a spectator who had burned her trunk with a hot cigar.” 


Cruelty against animals arising from the same mind that hunted, kidnapped, enslaved non-white human beings as if they weren’t people and continues to do so.

May 15, 2018— President Trump used extraordinarily harsh rhetoric to renew his call for stronger immigration laws Wednesday, calling undocumented immigrants “animals” and venting frustration at Mexican officials who he said “do nothing” to help the United States.

“We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” Trump said.

“These aren’t people. These are animals.”

Darwin’s Ghosts is dizzying in the best ways. It is a presence. Open the book and the ghosts manifest. The immediate events of our lives parallel the events and concerns in the book. And vice-versa. This dynamic insists we engage in its profound inquiries and challenges to a way of life that in our innocence we have falsely valorized.

“Something had opened up in the history of humanity that day [October 12, 1492] when the world changed forever… Columbus had started it all, returning with six Arawak Indians to be flaunted in the court and streets of Spain, he was the first to call them cannibals, the first to decide that their earth and trees did not belong to them….”


On May 11, 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed in a Canadian court on behalf of the thousands of Indigenous people alleged to have been unwittingly subjected to medical experiments without their consent.

At the same time. Michigan State University settled a class action lawsuit by paying $500 million dollars to women and girls sexually abused by Larry Nasser, MD, under the guise of medical exams.

Not different from the long ugly history of violation that Dorfman chronicles.

“In Munchen the captives are impatiently awaited by embryologist Van Bischoff, eager to study the native women’s sexual organs…. Told that these Patagons had no shame or decency, this specialist in the ovulation of mammals expected to be able to conduct a full cavity probe.”


Albert Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire… was more interested in animals as spectacle than as an object of study… His major innovation came in 1877, when he added fourteen Nubians to menagerie of exotic beasts, camels, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, dwarf rhinos. Attendance skyrocketed…”


Another character, who resides in Punta Arenas near Patagonia, expresses his concern that he might be implicated through his great-grandfather in the “killing fields of Patagonia:

“He most certainly sold the guns that did the killing.  …twenty-seven rifles and eight revolvers, all of them .44 caliber and twelve thousand and five hundred bullets for the rifles, nine hundred fifty for the revolvers.  And the knives, biscuits, fishing nets, clothes and boots, everything that was used in the mass slaughter on the sheep farms and on the nomad islands. An accomplice. And so my dear friends, like you, I have something to atone for, a past that drives me.”


The book takes us, back and forth between the events described by Dorfman, or Henri – the name given to him further dismissing his culture and being – from 1492 through the early 20th century, Fitzroy’s own history, 1967 to 1992, five hundred years after Columbus, and then mysteriously, as I was reading and writing, to the grievously resonant events of these very days.

On May 14th 2018 at least fifty-five protesters were killed by Israeli snipers in Gaza as the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem.

It is May 18, 2018. The ghosts of the past and the present are speaking to us. What do they want? That we bear witness, account for our lineages, make amends, live transformed and conscious lives.

Sometimes a novel does more than tell a story revealing our history and lineage. Not simplistic cause and effect, but the nature of the field of consciousness and unconsciousness from which our lives and values emerge.

Sometimes a novel is itself a spirit speaking, a voice rising up through the generations, that finds a writer, enters his psyche, and through him enters our bodies and minds, so that we, the readers, may become exquisitely aware of the consequences of our lives.

“You can’t know it, unless you go through it yourself,” Dorfman said to me, reflecting on Fitz’s process as well as his process of writing it. Ariel Dorfman has always been a committed writer who lives through whatever he must so that his writing might be true and necessary. Darwin’s Ghosts is such a marvel of a novel.

(Originally published in Tikkun on May 20, 2018 and republished from the Tikkun archives)

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