Our Exile: A Chilean Memoir of Dislocation

by Ariel Dorfman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

Feeding on Dreams book coverThe twentieth century of exile and displacement bleeds into the twenty-first century. Great waves of despair, huge surges of people fleeing toward uncertain safety accompany innumerable individual losses of land, country, language, and culture. Increasingly, we are a world of displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, immigrants, and exiles. Alongside us, invisible animals, birds, and other creatures seek habitat and food as they are equally crowded out, hunted down, unable to adapt to the sudden and increasing changes in their environment. The very nature of their lives, and so their nature itself, is distorted—no differently than the lives of human beings. There are increasing numbers of citizens of nowhere and no place, and such diasporas add to our forgetting that land and place, country and territory, are essential to the stability and sanity of human beings.

Ariel Dorfman is one of our era’s many citizens of nowhere, and Feeding on Dreams is the story of his exile from Chile. It is the story of the recreation of a self under the pressures of dire loss and ongoing efforts to support, maintain, and protect those left behind. It is also the story and examination of exile itself in a time when such a state of disconnection and dissociation is commonplace. But this terrible familiarity does not mean that we understand exile, know how to meet those who are afflicted by it, or know how to help the distraught achieve balance and restore sanity.

Suffering breaks us down. Assaulted from without, we have to meet the great force of internal disturbance as well. How we meet it determines who we become. Will the external exile cause an internal exile? Will we be entirely separated from ourselves? Will we recognize our behaviors, responses, and values in ourselves no matter our circumstances, no matter where we are? Every story of exile raises these questions.

Allende’s Death; Dorfman’s Exile

The democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1970 became the great hope of the poor and the progressive people on the planet. Dorfman, a young but already recognized writer and novelist, gave himself entirely to that revolution. It was an accident, a gift of destiny, or a curse, that he was not at La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, on September 11, 1973, the day of the coup by General Augusto Pinochet. That day, Salvador Allende died and Dorfman received a permanent enemy to orient him in his disoriented life. Within hours, Dorfman was secretly driven to an overcrowded, desperate sanctuary at the Argentinean Embassy. His wife and son remained outside in Santiago. In December, he was secretly transferred to Argentina, and a long exile, the third one of his life, began. Often mourning his life, he had to keep faith with the dead and with the living. He had to tell the stories, to honor what was and what can be, to give language to the future.

In Feeding on Dreams, Dorfman writes: “I had not been brave enough to die next to him [Allende] in La Moneda, and not brave enough to refuse my party’s orders to leave Chile when the junta hunted me down. I had kept myself alive so I could tell the story of our era.”

Dorfman did not go mad, though exile can and does often drive its victims mad. No one fully escapes its various symptoms—disorientation, confusion, bewilderment, extremes of feeling, muteness, fear, suspicion, determined cunning, distrust, hopelessness, and despair. He lived with and in the chaotic whirl of homelessness. He was trying to create meaning and a foundation (albeit ever shifting) for himself, his wife Angelica, and his sons, Rodrigo and Joaquin.

One grim consequence of exile was, for Dorfman, also his salvation. Inevitably, his family would also be in exile; he could not protect them from it. His wife, Angelica, suffered what he suffered alongside him, and carried all the burdens that fall upon a woman who, under the most difficult of circumstances, must still keep the family, that is, the world, together. Exile undoes us, but a marriage of true partners can cohere us.

Released from the Embassy but unable to stay in Argentina, Dorfman yielded to the wishes of his party. He and Angelica were sent to Europe to gather support and raise funds for the writers, artists, and activists in exile and remaining in Chile. Traumatized though he was, he tried not to indulge self-pity. He knew what his wife had agreed to take on and carry. He also maintained a constant internal witness to those who were being physically tortured and mutilated under the brutal repression of Pinochet, just as many others are being tortured today by other intelligence agencies trained (like Chile’s National Intelligence Directorate was) by the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Benning, Georgia.

In exile, one lives in several unsteady worlds at once: the remembered past, the terrible personal present, the reality of those left behind and suffering, and the shifting vision of the future. Exile is the loneliest path for an individual or family. It can only be eased or healed by deep companionship, by the impossible challenge of trusting others again and by finding oneself trustworthy after the disorientation of separation. Solidarity had been the word associated with Allende’s socialist government. There are so many synonyms for solidarity that convey the hope and possibility of that time: unity, accord, agreement, alliance, teamwork, fellowship, etc. However, the coup was rupture, separation, alienation, discord. Barely escaping the fate of being hunted, rounded up, tortured, and killed as many of his companions were then and for years afterward, Dorfman was ordered to leave because he could serve his country best from abroad.

Dorfman and his family wandered poor, alienated, exhausted, and determined from safe house to safe house, from country to country, trying to serve a wounded Chile and trying to find an impassioned life that was committed to hope for the future.

Despite the agony of remembering, one way of survival is memory. Through memory, Dorfman’s experience veered away from post-traumatic stress disorder, in which memory itself might be the nightmare territory that cannot be re-entered. For writers such as Dorfman, the journal can be a way reestablishing a world that is constantly disestablished by circumstance. Then, later, it becomes the source of memoir, where one can offer digested and contemplated experience and understanding.

Feeding on Dreams consists of a dialogue between the memory of the years after 1973 and the journal he kept in 1990, when he tried for the last time, and failed, to end his exile after a plebiscite limited General Pinochet’s rule in 1988. Memoir can describe a person’s life, but that is not its highest purpose. Memoir has the capacity to truly reveal the deep struggles, contradictions, confusions, emotions, and finally, the wisdom that comes from living one’s life with the terrible awareness that can accompany times of chaos, upheaval, and great struggle. Memoir is a form to recount events, but its essence is the communication and elaboration of their ultimate meanings, implications, and consequences. Dorfman writes:

Because I have lost my country three times in the course of one lifetime, the attempts at self-scrutiny that habitually accompany human existence have, in my case, been forced to grow and ripen through the fragmentation of many arrivals, returns and departures, complicating the natural intricacies that every exercise in remembering, every memoir, already faces.

Our Meeting Before the Coup

September 18, 1972. I had been traveling down the spine of Central and South America to Chile with David Kunzle, an art historian who has a particular interest in political graphic mediums, especially the poster and the comic book. Salvador Allende was president, heading up the first elected socialist government. Saul Landau had told us that the political posters of Chile are the most beautiful and powerful in the world. We were bringing David’s collection of North American posters of protest to hang in the national museum in Santiago, hoping to collect Chilean posters and meet with different artists, poets, and activists connected with the revolution. In Lima, Peru, I had come across a periodical with an excerpt from Como Leer El Pato Donald (How to Read Donald Duck) by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. The book is a remarkable analysis of cultural imperialism and the ways that Disney comic books systematically deconstructed socialist values and the realities of the Third World.

When we came to Santiago, we sought out Dorfman, convinced him, over time, that we were not with the CIA, and gained his confidence and eventually his love. David offered to translate Como Leer El Pato Donald, and, in return, Ariel opened the new Chile to us. He became a true guide to the inner dynamics of a peaceful revolution that could radically change history for all of us.

Two days before we left Chile, we had said good-bye to Ariel and his wife, Angelica, at their home. He was driving us to our next visit at the home of a fellow artist. There was a torrential rain, so we were astonished when he stopped in the middle of a crossroad and asked us to get out, pointing the way we should walk the several blocks to the painter’s house. The water was almost over the top of my cowboy boots, the car chassis was barely above the flood, and we were without an umbrella. We did not know the details, but we understood that he must not go further. Political tensions had been rising in the last few days; there was real danger. We, ourselves, had been caught in a police action using tear gas, and Ariel was far more vulnerable than we. All the Chileans were waiting for the coup that was being planned.

“Nos vemos,” I said, “we will see each other.” Ariel had come out of the driver’s side, despite the rain, to embrace me as if it weren’t raining, as if there were no danger. But as we were folded into the enormous warmth and protection of his heart and arms, he answered, “No. Not ever.”

“Nos vemos,” I insisted.

“No. Not ever,” he said wearily, and entered the car and drove away.

When a year later on September 11, 1973, the golpe, one of the world’s bloodiest and most savage coups, occurred, I feared, for the first time, that Ariel had been prescient, that I might never see my new brother again.

Within days, fate brought David and myself together with a small group of Latin American scholars, writers, and artists including filmmaker Walter Locke. Locke had managed to return from Chile just before the coup, smuggling footage that was to be used in a film he was making with fellow American Charles Horman. We agreed to make what we eventually called a film pamphlet named Chile: With Poems and Guns. We were showing it by December 1973; the first documentary on the golpe. Perhaps what determined us to create this film was  learning that Horman had been arrested and killed after he met a Chilean naval officer in a bar in Valparaiso who told him that the U.S. had cooperated in the coup. Ten years later, this story would be told in the Costa Gravas film Missing. I watched that film alone one afternoon, in an almost empty movie theater, grieving the reality that no film could possibly capture. But by then, I had seen Ariel again, and had news of many of those I had met in Santiago, both living and dead, both remaining in Chile and in exile. A few weeks before the first reunion of the Lucha Film Collective after almost 35 years, Ariel came to Los Angeles and put a copy of Feeding on Dreams in my hand.

A Memoir of Dislocation

Exile separates us from our families, our people, and our country. And, as tragic, it separates us from our land. Humans, just like animals and birds, depend on the land to which they are born. For Dorfman, leaving his land, his mountains, and the stars by which he navigated all manifested as soul loss. We Westerners are so alienated, we no longer understand this.

I write about the dislocation animals, birds, and other nonhuman beings deliberately. These parallels, which may seem frivolous, are deadly serious. The earth always suffers war. The natural world is always and everywhere the victim of any human violence.

Dorfman writes in Dreams that, as a young boy, he rowed with his schoolmates to a “particularly savage island ... and watched the antics of a group of penguins.” He continues:

The land at the tip of the bay ... had been occupied by a private consortium, the Cofradia Náutica del Pacific, mostly consisting of former naval officers led by Admiral Merino, a member of the junta on whose ships many women had been raped and patriots tortured to death. The Cofradia had cut off the outlet to the sea, erecting a wall of rocks that joined the mainland to the island so that the yachts could dock in an artificial cove.... An army of voracious rodents were now able to cross onto the defenseless peninsula and devour the eggs [of the penguins], wiping out future generations of flightless birds. Nature had been stolen from me, from all of us, by the coup.

Forests are composed not only of trees, but also of the songs and tones of the animal orchestras. Birds and other creatures locate themselves in their particular niches by entering into their designated place in the soundscape. When a particular song or sound is missing, when a bird has been disappeared or exiled, the composition changes and the other creatures are disoriented. The barrenness of sound disrupts the natural order, and all suffer that terrible stillness.

For Dorfman, at his core a writer, that is one who sees, bears witness, and offers what he understands to us through language, soul loss became silence, and silence became bereavement and defeat. For a long, terrible time, this writer couldn’t write.

Then, after many futile attempts, deep empathy and profound connection freed him. Consistently haunted by the tortured, the dead, the imprisoned, the disappeared, he awakened one night to record a terrible nightmare, retold in Dreams. In it, he stood alongside a blindfolded prisoner, and walked with him, counting the steps: “If forty-five they can’t be taking you out for exercise, si pasaste los ochenta y empiezas a subir, if you get past eighty ... there’s only one place, now there’s only one place left where they can take you.”

In this way, a poem came, and then others. The final gift of the condemned prisoner was to free Dorfman to write.

Chilean Protest 1985

Chileans protest against the military regime in 1985. Ariel Dorfman was in exile at this point. Creative Commons/B1mbo.

Dorfman’s personal history had added to his ordeal of silence. This was not his first exile. He’d been born in Argentina. His parents came to the United States, but because of Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt, they had been forced to leave and establish a home in Chile. Ariel had been born into Spanish, turned his back on it for English, had to reclaim Spanish very reluctantly by setting English aside, only to be disconnected from Spanish again when he went into exile. After Argentina and Cuba, he had to speak French, Dutch, and always English, the lingua franca. The struggle for a safe and expressive language parallels the struggle to find a place to live that is safe, where one can establish oneself again. As has been and remains the case for so many exiles and refugees, one often has no choice but to settle into an enemy language and an enemy or colonial country—France, French, for so many Arabs, Germany and Poland for some Jews, England, English, for refugees from India or South Africa, and the United States for so many immigrants from Latin America, like Dorfman.

Such are the contradictions of exile. In and after exile, one is always among foreigners from whom we are estranged and yet often come to rely upon and resemble. No struggle, armed or peaceful, will ever free one from involvement with one’s antagonists. Exile catapults us out of innocence and purity. The coyotes take up residence in our neighborhoods, the bears come down for water, the mountain lions slink through our territories. We become apprehensive. We/they cross each other’s territories even as we/they, also disappear. Chain link fences go up as borders and check points are increasingly militarized. We seek new passports desperately, and the boundaries between self and other blur.

Dorfman’s great struggle, as is the case for all exiles, and perhaps all of us living in these times of enormous flux, was to learn how to live alongside—and perhaps even reconcile or make peace with—those who had acted against him and the promise of the Allende government. While he could not always avoid this in France, and even less so in the United States, he could never avoid sharing place, cohabiting with, or interconnecting with those who might have been collaborators, torturers, or assassins in Chile.

Was the stranger, the good samaritan who stops on the lonely road to help us fix our car, once a torturer? Is he one now? And if so…? Such questions each of us in this century, not only the exiles and refugees, must address.

As difficult as it was to interface with those who were there, it was even more painful to deal with those who were no longer there, the numbers of desaparacidos—the numberless disappeared. Dorfman writes:

There was a sick logic to disappearance what made it such a prized form of repression.  …Pinochet could kill my compañeros and at the same time avoid the public shame of engaging in mass murder; …. No body, dead or alive.  No victim and ergo no crime.

In their ceaseless efforts to seize power from Pinochet, to sustain their communities inside and outside Chile, and to discover the histories and find the bodies of the disappeared, Dorfman and his companion, served the living and the dead.

The genius of Dreams lies in its ability to render the intimate knowledge of a profound soul and committed family struggling to live and stay loyal to what truly matters in a world that works relentlessly to tear Dorfman and his family apart. The territory we enter with Dorfman is not a foreign country. This is our world. As Dorfman reveals the struggle of trying to bind, to tie, to reweave what has been savagely ripped apart, we are confronted by both grave dangers and possibilities of survival in the world we sadly inhabit, where torture, betrayal, and destruction are ubiquitous.

We call the country from which Dorfman was exiled “Chile” even though it could have been any of so many countries around the globe that people are currently trying to escape. People we know. Not strangers. Not characters and personas in newspapers and books. Living, vital, suffering beloved friends and acquaintances of ours. Ariel was a brother of mine when the golpe came, and I didn’t know if he was alive or dead for weeks. Let’s call the country Chile, because it can be, and is, anywhere.

Telling the Truth

At the beginning of exile, Ariel escaped from Chile to Argentina, where he wrongly believed he would receive asylum and could work on behalf of his people and compañeros. There, he had the fortune of meeting with Jacobo Timmerman, the writer and editor who, a few years later, would publish the names of the Disappeared of Argentina on the front page of his paper. Timmerman advised him, “It is always necessary to tell the truth, no matter the consequences, and as for the time, siempre es ahora, it’s always now.”

What the truth is and how one tells it is one unspoken theme of Feeding on Dreams. Dorfman chronicles a disorienting ride in repeatedly unknown territory, while careening wildly, but fluently, from Spanish English, each having inserted itself seamlessly into his consciousness, while each comprised, as languages do, entirely different understandings and world views.

How tell the truth when you are so many people at once, or no one at all? When you believe that as a revolutionary, you have betrayed your people by deceiving them about the future  and so leading them to their deaths? When you discover that what you do to survive or to help your companions will survive may cause you to lie or injure others? And how speak truth to power?

Dorfman wrote this memoir because he was pained throughout the years by memories, shame, and guilt. His response was to be ruthless in his investigation of himself and his character. His writing is so skilled, immediate, and true that we are compelled to be fully alongside him in this inquiry and examination of his soul. This is a man who loved earth, a country and a people. He reminds us what such love of land can and must be even though he ultimately needs to remain elsewhere. His final lesson that exile and separation may willy-nilly become permanent even when we devote our lives to keeping ourselves aligned.

The unavoidable consequence of the terrible cruelty and brutality of the coup and the gentrification of recovery that equally attacks people, culture, and the natural world are that Dorfman and Chile have to live apart. But living away (as he does now), Dorfman never gives up trying to fathom the suffering that people bear, the mind that would torture, the contradictions and sacrifices inherent in peace, and the real ways that soul, family, and community can survive the worst pain and trauma. Such is the task of a great heart, and it makes Feeding on Dreams a book that will simultaneously undo us and sustain us.


One thought on “Our Exile: A Chilean Memoir of Dislocation

  1. Thank you Deena forthe encompasing warmth of your brilliance. The years have only enhanced your compassion and your insight. COBRE CHILENO still occupies an honored place on the wall next to me here in our new digs in Austin, Texas. It’s rosy cheeked children still bring me hope for the future we shall never know, even in these darkening times. Keep speaking and sharing your gifts.
    Meeting again here, after so long, may not be as strange as itl seems. Les

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