Books: January-February 2003

January 31, 2003
Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet
By Ariel Dorfman.
Seven Stories Press, 2002.
222 pages. $11.95.
In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems from Two Languages
By Ariel Dorfman.
Duke University Press, 2002.
176 pages. $15.95

Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto PinochetIn his emotional new history-cum-memoir, Exorcising Terror, writer and Duke Distinguished Professor Ariel Dorfman reveals his elation when, in November 1998--just weeks after the London arrest of dictator Augusto Pinochet--he re-visits his Chilean homeland. "This is the first time in so many years, I murmur to myself, that I will not have to breathe the same air he breathes," Dorfman writes. "[T]he first time the General will be away, missing, gone."

Indeed, for those of us who lived through that other September 11--the 1973 coup that initiated seventeen years of bloody military dictatorship--Pinochet's October 16, 1998, arrest by London's Metropolitan Police came as the most unexpected of events and triumphs. In the twenty-five years since he had taken power, and then even eight years after leaving his post as president (but remaining Commander of the Army), Pinochet kept an ever-tightening grip on Chile's consciousness. The civilians who replaced him in power practiced what Dorfman calls a "selective amnesia," downplaying the horror of Pinochet's crimes: 3,000 murdered, 1,000 "disappeared," and scores of thousands tortured.

By the fall of 1998, it seemed that Chile's collective memory had been erased by some sort of mammoth electro-shock and that Pinochet and his historical legacy would forever be shielded by an impenetrable wall of legal and political impunity. Pinochet's terror was long outliving his actual rule. No one inside Chile, at least no one with a public voice, dared to say the obvious: Instead of being named an un-elected Senator-For-Life, Augusto Pinochet should be put on trial.

When, on that October evening, he was arrested on an international warrant issued by a crusading Spanish magistrate, the impenetrable wall began to quickly crumble. And so when Dorfman returns to Chile shortly thereafter, he savors the once unthinkable thaw in Chilean society, the melt-down of Pinochet's remaining political power and, consequently, of his place in history.

As an adviser to socialist President Salvador Allende, who died in Pinochet's coup, and as one who saw too many of his friends and nearly all of his country's democratic institutions perish at the hands of the dictator, Dorfman had a score to settle with the old general. For more than two decades, he admits he lived "obsessed" with Pinochet. Dorfman's slim but powerful new book--a deft mix of intimate personal anecdote and good old-fashioned narrative journalism--may be his final and is certainly his best revenge.

The book's subtitle tells us everything. With some wonderfully engaging, though at times distracting, twists and turns through his personal life, Dorfman offers a passionate and illuminating account of how that London arrest radically rewrote Pinochet's--and, more important, Chile's--destiny.

Dorfman paints a vivid picture of Pinochet's rapid decline. While hysterical and wealthy Chilean rightists demonstrated in the streets of London for his liberation, Pinochet remained in British custody for more than 500 days. Eventually, the British refused to extradite him to Spain or to the handful of other European nations then hankering to try the dictator on charges of killing their own citizens. Instead, Tony Blair's government, in early 2000, decided to send Pinochet back home to Santiago, claiming that the eighty-four-year-old was too feeble and ill to stand trial anywhere.

A number of human-rights activists thought the story ended there, with Pinochet going free. But Dorfman's tale reveals the ongoing political earthquake that was set off inside Chile by Pinochet's arrest. In the ensuing year and a half, many if not most of the obstructions to prosecuting Pinochet had been tumbled.

The supposedly enfeebled Pinochet arrived back on the Santiago tarmac nearly dancing a jig but soon found out that literally hundreds of murder charges had been filed against him by victims' families, and that a single-minded, courageous Chilean magistrate, Juan Guzman, was intent on indicting him, trying him, and throwing him into jail.

Even Pinochet's self-imposed Amnesty Law excusing crimes committed before 1978 had been punctured. Chilean human-rights lawyers successfully argued before their Supreme Court that Chileans who had been "disappeared" in the early Seventies were still unaccounted for and should therefore be treated as current kidnap victims, rendering the Amnesty Law powerless. Dorfman calls that court ruling "a lesson for the planet." And with the loophole opened, Judge Guzman formally charged Pinochet with murder, kidnapping, and torture.

After a year of legal maneuvering and some rather blatant chicanery by his defense team, Pinochet was eventually spared trial, again on grounds of poor health. But he had received, if not justice, at least a modicum

of comeuppance: Formally indicted and charged with murder, disgraced and dejected, wanted by a host of countries throughout the world, Pinochet found that his legacy was smashed. The history books would no longer remember him as the architect of Chile's free-market economic model but as one of the bloodiest dictators of our age.

Chile's proper historical memory is now being restored. "For decades, I was ashamed that Chile had unfortunately given humanity the word as well as the person Pinochet," writes Dorfman, as the general's final fate is being sealed. "Who would have thought that this word would end up being instead a legacy of ours to the planet, fervently notifying every child who is born on this Earth that he must never .... be a Pinochet."

Ultimately, Dorfman reminds us, in these uncertain global times, there was more than one September 11 in recent history and that often the worst terrorists among us are those who cloak themselves in the trappings and legitimacy of state power.

--Marc Cooper


Cooper, a contributing editor to The Nation, was a translator to President Salvador Allende. He is the author of the memoir Pinochet and Me

In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems from Two LanguagesThe poetry of In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land belongs to what the author calls "testimonial literature." The phrase comes from his signal essay, "Political Code and Literary Code: The Testimonial Genre in Chile Today," collected in the 1991 volume Some Write to the Future. In that essay, Ariel Dorfman lists three principal functions of political testimonial literature: to accuse, to record, and to inspire. He asserts that oral testimony is not sufficient; oral accounts must be put into writing and shaped into literature.

Dorfman has many persons to accuse and much suffering and terror to record, and he has succeeded in inspiring courage in victims and resolve in reformers. Born in Argentina, he received his early education in New York City but eventually became a citizen of Chile. There he worked for the government of Salvador Allende, from 1970 until that democratic leader was overthrown and assassinated by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. After the coup, the author moved about the world, writing essays literary and political, fiction, plays, and films in both Spanish and English. He now holds the Walter Hines Page Chair of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke.

A literature of testimony must be couched in words that are not original to the author, but for which he must be held responsible. These words must report not only the facts about the individual situation but the truth of the case in every similar situation; they must speak in particular terms about a general dark condition; they must be acutely personal but bear some of the authority an impersonal tone shall impart.

Dorfman manages to accomplish these tasks by choosing a variety of speakers to address the political repression they are experiencing. In "Red Tape," a Chilean father searches for the corpse of his son; in "Two Times Two" a fellow prisoner listens to the footsteps of a comrade led off to execution. "Nuptials" is spoken by a bridegroom whose new wife has been abducted by the state; "Last Will and Testament" is spoken by a disembodied voice, which may be that of a ghost or the silent thoughts of a prisoner.

These voices belong to individual personages, yet they sound a general theme in very similar tones. This similarity of tone produces a flattening effect, but what the poet has lost in variety and color he has gained in collective power. The speakers amass into a chorus a little like Beethoven's chorus of prisoners in his opera Fidelio, though without that joyous final resolution.

The persona poems come from part one of Dorfman's collection, "To Miss, Be Missed, Missing." Parts two and three, "Poems I Wasn't Going to Show Anybody" and "Undertow," are spoken mostly by the poet. The four epilogues, "Anything Else Would Have Tasted Like Ashes," combine the voices of other personae with that of the author.

My description here is largely correct, but oversimplified. The speaker of "I Just Missed the Bus and I'll Be Late for Work" in part one seems to be related to "Something Must Be Happening to My Antennas" in part three. Both poems undertake the same theme, the inability to mourn because sensibility has been numbed from repeated shocks. In "Antennas" the speaker learns that "they" killed his friend's sister on a street corner, yet he is "not moved." "I must be very sick," he says, confessing that, though he cannot mourn the real woman, when he watches the television soap opera General Hospital, "something wet and salty runs down my cheeks." In the same way, the speaker of "I Just Missed the Bus" says, "I'd have to piss through my eyes to cry for you." The last poem in the volume, "Vocabulary," also admits to emotional impotence; the speaker was in another country, separated from the events, unable to tell "their story." Finally he confesses, "Let me tell you something/Even if I had been there/I could not have told their story."

Perhaps no literature is more important than the literature of testimony. Certainly none is more urgent. Yet even in testimony that strives with all its strength to attain truthfulness, a powerful element of ambiguity inheres. That is the discovery made by both the victim, Paulina Salas, and the victimizer, Roberto Miranda, in Dorfman's 1991 play Death and the Maiden. But such ambiguity does not discredit testimony; it makes it, in fact, all the more important to deliver. In the afterword to that play, Dorfman poses the question, "How can you tell the truth if the mask you have adopted ends up being identical to your face?" That is what happened to the torturer Roberto Miranda--and to the poet-speaker of In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land. The mask that had been adopted for the purpose of self-preservation came to be an indelible part of the personality. That was almost the case also with the poet.

This acquired indifference did not finally obliterate the courage, the determination, the heroism that assumed such indifference as a disguise. And that gives us opportunity to hope. We live, and, for a long period have lived, in a time when each of us may wonder, "How would I stand up to false imprisonment, to brutalization, to torture, and to the disappearance of my loved ones?"

Dorfman's writings, and especially his poetry, show that, though we may buckle and admit defeat, our defeat can be only temporary. We cannot hope for real justice; the odds are too strong against the possibility. What we will strive for is the vindication that the knowledge of the truth will bring. To that end, our literature in every form must be testimony. In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land is irrefutable testimony, not only against tyranny and repression but also for integrity and endurance.

--Fred Chappell


Chappell '61, A.M. '64 is a poet, novelist, and professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.