Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Feeding on Dreams," by Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman's dissection of exile doubles as a portrait in unrequited love.

In Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile the Chilean playwright, novelist, and essayist -- exiled voice of the anti-Pinochet resistance throughout the 1980s and '90s -- blows long on the strange forces that subvert the expatriate's efforts to reconstruct a life.

But "Feeding on Dreams" is also a story of rejection. The Chile of revolutionary struggle and progressive experimentation Dorfman was forced to flee is gone once the dictatorship is lifted and he returns.

His adopted country's embrace of neo-liberal policies during the author's 20 years in the hinterlands changed Chile for good, structurally and spiritually. We learn from this account that the literal massacre of the left opposition is an act with permanent ramifications.

As Dorfman worked abroad to keep the dead and deposed president Salvador Allende's ideas alive, while exposing the Pinochet dictatorship's chronic addiction to murder, the country had moved on.

Written over a backdrop of big history, a U.S.-backed coup and narrow escape into exile, "Feeding on Dreams" is really a tale of subtler things. Dorfman lost a country and status and he writes of the slights and adjustments endured.

Trying to shield their children from the fear of capture or murder beclouding their lives, mother and father eventually learn they have done nothing of the kind. That they live in danger, insecurity, and their children are fully affected by them.

Dorfman is something of a relic: the engaged leftist intellectual who uses his art to further the working class cause, while actively pursuing goals in the political arena. They just don't make them like this anymore.

His time is one when the world was split into two large camps represented, more or less, by their choice of economic religion. Dorfman's crowd was typical of the post-war left, rainbow in aspect, but driven by communist discipline, numbers and money.

He survives exile thanks to the assistance of countless solidarity groups spawned by the socialist and communist parties around the world. Their tenacity and commitment are noteworthy and detailed.

The good and the bad.

Residing in Holland thanks to assistance from some local and left-wing outfit, the author runs afoul of a good friend and ally through some strange misappropriation of money he was given.

The help was firm, but the qualifying criteria stringent.

Dorfman made two returns to Chile, once during the dictatorship and then post-Pinochet. Neither went well. There was a nagging guilt at having escaped what became a rather expansive concentration camp. There is the change in once-idealistic allies' more cynical view of politics and its purposes.

Having not lived the fear, Dorfman stakes his claim to a rightful place in the Chilean intelligentsia by writing a play that gets up everybody's noses. Those who have lived the horror have agreed to not talk about the horror, to try and leave it behind.

Dorfman's play, successful in other places, fails miserably in Chile. They are not ready for his in-depth accusatory. He has no constituency there and ends up in North Carolina.

The author is humble, bemused, and possessing of aplomb throughout this difficult account of a man slipping, stubbing, and stumbling across the planet. He is frank about his self-assessment when it came to marketing his writings on Chile to the top newspapers in the U.S. and aware the value his personal tragedy gave that work.

He is a writer and given to metaphorical flight. Be prepared to know that a stick of a tree growing somewhere in Santiago actually signifies exile and return, a long-ago friend who has held the flame of continuity even as the spurned son floundered on foreign shores...

But we jest. The literary insight to the things Dorfman has seen open up broader vistas, engage the spiritual as much as the factual.

He writes lovingly of the place and longingly for the politics of solidarity that put him at the maelstrom of Chilean history. His pain is clear, because he confronts it in this book.

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