As a briefing paper for the Congress, "Widows" is not of the common mold. Nor is its author, Ariel Dorfman, the standard special-interest pleader. "Widows" is a political novel set in a Greek village in 1940 that describes in polished and unlabored prose the effects on families when husbands, sons and brothers are abducted by a military government and listed as disappeared.
Dorfman is an exiled Chilean writer who fled his homeland in 1973 Colman McCarthy when his beliefs in human rights and democracy were seen as subversive by the Pinochet dictatorship, one of the most cannibalizing in Latin America.
For the past few days, Dorfman, wearing sturdy walking shoes and accompanied by his son, has been delivering copies of his novel to each senator and representative. A foundation bought 535 of the books from Pantheon, the New York publisher, and Dorfman, going office to office through the Dirksen, Russell, Hart, Cannon and Rayburn buildings, has been a personal delivery service.
"Widows" is topical reading. For a decade, abductions have been the favored form of silencing dissent in Latin America. The terror against the left in Chile worked so well that the Argentine government adopted it. Now, after a drift north, it is common in El Salvador and Guatemala.
An untraceable abduction is a double punishment that means death or imprisonment for the victim and years of uncertainty for the family. Governments deny the grieving mothers and wives the icy comfort of visiting a grave to pray. A disappearance leaves no place to kneel.
Dorfman gave his novel to Congress to help broaden the discussion about this country's involvement with the dictators and the secret polices of Latin America. His claim that the voices of the missing and their relatives are left out of the military aid dialogue is not unfounded. Ronald Reagan's speeches on Latin America are silent about the disappeared. If anything, his anti-communist railings send messages of support to the abduction squads.
Dorfman gave the first copies of his book to Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). The two congresswomen, both of whom are bywords for attentiveness to human rights, had come to a lunch in Washington that Dorfman hosted on May 5 for several mothers of the missing. By coincidence, that was the day when thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets of Buenos Aires to protest the military government's report that tried to justify the massive abductions from 1975 and 1979.
After Schroeder praised the mothers for their courage and Mikulski recounted her recent journey to hear the poor's side in Central America, women from Argentina, Chile and El Salvador were asked to tell of their suffering.
The Argentine mother, wearing a red skirt and flowery blouse, spoke of her son who has been missing since 1977. "The monstrous crime against him" and as many as 15,000 others was one thing, she said, but now the government is calling the past elimination of its critics an "act of service" to the country.
A Chilean woman was next. She told of her son being taken from a church three days before Christmas 1973. This was months after the democratically elected Allende government was overthrown in a military coup. The Pinochet government has denied for a decade that her son was taken prisoner. The mother said she and her family "will never give up until we have proof of his life or death."
A Salvadoran mother followed. Her daughter was taken from her home a year ago by 20 military men. She was barefoot and wore a nightgown. Neither the International Red Cross nor Amnesty International has been able to trace the girl.
Of the three stories, the most riveting was the Salvadoran's. Stories about the missing in Argentina and Chile have reached American audiences before. The shock has worn. In Argentina and Chile, the mothers want the world to remember the disappeared. But in El Salvador and Guatemala, where abductions are today's news, the mothers are insisting that the United States not forget that its support of the military will lead to more disappearances.
In "Widows," Dorfman was writing about a Greek village during a state of siege 40 years ago. The story line is transferable to the Latin America of 1983. A woman tells the police captain about her father: "They took him away one night, saying they'd bring him back in a few hours. It's more than a year since then, sir."