ARIEL DORFMAN, a 41-year-old exiled Chilean writer, sat on the couch in his Bethesda home last month, his feet cushioned in thick white socks and soft slippers. Pantheon had just published the first English translations of two of his works--the novel Widows and a collection of essays, The Empire's Old Clothes-- and he was elated about having his first immediate audience in 10 years. But his feet still hurt.
Dorfman, a novelist, poet, journalist, and essayist, was taking a day off from a tiring, and admittedly quixotic, 11-day trek through the halls of the U.S. Congress. With heavy duffel bag slung on his shoulder, he was going from office to office to deliver a copy of his novel to every senator, every representative. "I've got 36 to go in the House, and 57 in the Senate," he said, glancing ruefully at his swathed feet.
Set in Greece in the 1940s, Widows portrays the stubborn courage of women whose husbands have been abducted by a military regime which then denies any knowledge of them. The parallel with the tragedy of thousands of women whose relatives have "disappeared" recently in Argentina, Chile, and other countries is clear.
Like many other Latin American writers, Dorfman believes he has a responsibility to connect his work to the often bitter reality of his homeland. "We Latin American writers are very often channels for the voices of those who are voiceless," he explained. "Taking Widows to the Congress is a gesture. I wanted to bring the voices of these women to the most powerful people in America. I'm not sure any one of them will read the book, but it's an act of faith in language, and ultimately in Congress. In my country, the Congress was closed down. They turned it into a national detention center."
In the catalogue of human rights violations, it is the plight of the desaparecidos that most appalls Dorfman.
"The reason it's so terrible is, let's take other horrors, like torture. Somebody survives torture. They come back from torture. They give a witness to it. They say what happened. And by saying what happened, in a sense they destroy their torturer. Or an execution. You have a body there. And a grave. And the grave says: 'This happened. It shouldn't happen again.' The idea of disappearing a person is to destroy the witness, the evidence, even the death. There's nothing there you can hold onto. It's an abstraction."
He paused a moment. "There's also a very personal reaction," he said. "As any imaginative, or overly imaginative, person, I'm always worried about what will happen to my friends and my family. I've always been able to imagine their destruction. If a person arrives five minutes late to a meeting with me, I begin moving and looking out and getting ready to call. I'm a worrywart about people because I have a feeling that death is just around the corner. Always. Always. And of course, when I came up against an historical reality where death is just around the corner, where there are political forces that have this capacity to make my friends and the people I love and my whole people disappear, it struck something very deep in me.
"The worst thing in the world for me is uncertainty. Not knowing whether something is true or false, whether someone is hurt or not hurt. And when I think that people have to live with this uncertainty, between life and death, it just breaks my heart. And it comes back and back in everything I do."
Political issues are never far from the center of Dorfman's concerns. Many of his essays analyze the just- below-the-surface ideological messages of children's books, comic strips, and magazines like Reader's Digest, messages he finds inappropriate for Chile and other Third World countries. In his fiction and poetry, he often writes about exile, repression, and dictatorship.
"I'm a professional dictator-molester," he says. The dictator he most wants to molest is Augusto Pinochet, whose military coup against a democratically-elected government in 1973 drove Dorfman and thousands of other Chileans from their country. Since then, he's lived the exile's insecure life, moving from Argentina to France, then to Holland, where he taught for several years, and finally to the United States.
"I came to Washington in 1980 as a fellow at the (Woodrow) Wilson Center at the Smithsonian," he said. "We'd hoped to be able to return to Chile after that, but Pinochet decided otherwise." Settling in Bethesda with his wife and two sons, Dorfman set about the business of making a living as a writer in a foreign country and a different language.
"Obviously, I had some advantages," he said. "I really grew up in this country. My father was an economist at the United Nations for 10 years. I was 12 before we returned to Chile. I understood Spanish, but I only spoke English. I was 22 or 23 before I began to write in Spanish."
He smiled broadly when asked about his first attempts at writing. "When I was seven, I wrote a 'novel' as a birthday present for my father. It was all about cowboys and Indians. But the Indians were the heroes." Years later, in an essay called "The Lone Ranger's Last Ride," Dorfman would analyze cultural meanings in popular comic strips about the Old West.
By 1973, he'd published five books of essays and one novel. Exile, he believes, profoundly changed his fiction.
"My earlier narrative work was very intellectual, incomprehensible for the majority of readers. When I went into exile, and lost my audience, I became aware of the fact that I wanted to communicate with my own people. Since then, my works have become, not more simple, but more accessible. So the first thing that exile has done to me is make me more aware of the audience that I lost, and for whom I never wrote when I was there. By being far from them, I've grown nearer to them in language. This has happened especially in the poems and short stories, which circulate widely in Chile, in a clandestine way."
Outside of Chile, Dorfman has been successful in the more usual channels of communication. "Widows is already going into its second printing," he said, "and we've got two offers for movie option rights so far." An earlier books of essays he co-authored, How To Read Donald Duck, has been translated into 13 languages. The novel he wrote while a fellow at the Wilson Center, La ,ultima canc,ion de Manuel Sendero (The Last Song of Manuel Sendero) was published a few months ago in Mexico. "It's told by an unborn baby who has organized all the other unborn babies in the world in a strike. They refuse to be born until things change dramatically." Last year, Amnesty International published his poems about the desaparecidos. His articles appear in major European and Latin American newspapers as well as in the United States. He writes several articles a year for the Village Voice in New York. And he is currently writing a nonfiction book on exile.
Dorfman said he's never wavered in his desire to return to Chile as soon as political conditions there make it possible. While he waits, and works, he's enjoying being settled somewhere when his books come out. "I've written a lot of books in these last years, and many books have appeared, but never with me settled in a country where I speak the language. It's exciting because one of the wonderful things for a writer is to have an immediate reaction from an audience. Very often, when you're in exile, and you can't be read in your own country, you feel that your books are cries of despair, bottles that you throw into the sea and you don't know who receives them or if they do receive them. I have the impression that with these books, I'm getting an immediate reaction, that I know what people are feeling, that the books are alive. That's what you want, you know. A writer doesn't really write for posterity."