Arts: Donald Duck and dictators

The horrors of the Pinochet regime inspired Ariel Dorfman's most famous work, Death and the Maiden, but politics has always been at the heart of his writing.
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He has very odd ears, the Argentino-Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman. The outer lobe folds uncomfortably on to the inner rim, giving him a hobgoblin look. I have plenty of time to observe Mr Dorfman's ears - and the back of his head - as I struggle to keep up with him in radio and TV corridors, lifts, a chauffeured car and hotel lobbies, on the day that seven Law Lords gave their verdict on General Pinochet. Everyone in London, it seems, wants to hear his opinion about it.

Dorfman's own verdict is unequivocal: "It's very satisfying for humanity that Pinochet was not granted immunity. I think it means there's a whole new human rights legislation coming into being for the 21st century. But the Lords can't do our work for us, we as Chileans have to come to terms with him, and with our own past."

Chile and the horror of Pinochet's years in power, from the overthrow of President Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government in 1973 to the bathetic end of the military regime in 1989, has always provided Dorfman with his material as a writer. Novels such as Widows or Confidenz may be set in other countries, but they invariably refer back to Chile. And that is where he returned to in his most successful work, the play Death and the Maiden, where Dorfman once more probes the dark side of human existence, our seemingly endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others. "Pinochet is a dark shadow in all my books," he tells one radio presenter. "He's like a dark guide into the worst aspects of myself and others."

But Dorfman was not born in Chile. He was born of Argentine immigrant parents in Buenos Aires in 1942 and, as his recent memoir Heading South, Looking North shows, from very early he not only spoke English as well as Spanish, but also incorporated the cityscapes of New York before those of Santiago in Chile. He was in Chile, though, in the early 1970s, when Allende was trying to take the country along a peaceful path to revolution, and in so doing awakened the dreams of young intellectuals from all over Latin America. Dorfman's first book, How to Read Donald Duck, is a product of those times: a denunciation of North American cultural imperialism through its comics which, for years, nestled alongside the work of the poet Pablo Neruda or Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America on bookshelves from Buenos Aires to Mexico City.

It was being an outsider, an Argentine, that saved Dorfman from the violence after the coup in Chile at the end of 1973. He succeeded in getting out of the country, lived in Paris and then Amsterdam, and eventually established himself in the United States, where he now has a university professorship. Although some of his Chilean contemporaries criticise what they see as selling out, he finds no contradiction between his denunciation of US imperialism and choosing to live there.

Rather wearily, he points out that in Heading South, Looking North, he has revisited his early book and modified his views, but also defends his choice in personal terms: "The United States is the place I'm most accepted, it's a multicultural country in a way that Chile is not. And now, 25 years on, I've decided to stop being ashamed of being bilingual, of having a complex identity. I'm trying instead to make something positive out of it, to adopt a bridge-like position."

Dorfman is similarly robust when explaining why he feels justified in writing about the misery others have experienced but that he by and large escaped. "I write about what I know, and that is Chile and what happened there. In a way, all writers are in the situation of using other people's experiences, but in my case I think you do what you can to help things, you write about them, and if you're successful perhaps that's because you've helped others come to terms with their fantasies."

It is his success which he thinks has led to him being attacked by other Chileans who lived through similar experiences. "I'm successful, and many Chileans can't forgive me for that. There's this kind of chaqueteo, which means they try to grab hold of your jacket and pull you down to their level all the time. Also, I'm a foreigner, and use that position to speak my mind, which means I'm a pain in the ass." But he insists it is only his own mind he is speaking: "I'm not speaking for Chile. But I can articulate things that, for example, the people in the shantytowns of Chile feel. I can get topics listened to, whereas they have no chance of being heard."

Paradoxically perhaps, Dorfman now says he feels "exasperated" by Chile today. On one level, he says this is because the Chileans have still failed to come to terms with their past, with Pinochet and his legacy. He is horrified that about a third of Chileans still not only support the General, but see him as their hero - "but he doesn't have the slightest bit of moral grandeur. He is a caudillo, he's another comic-book character." On another level, Dorfman chafes at "the way they treat their maids in Chile, the way they treat homosexuals, women, young people... why should I go back just to feel I don't belong?"

This exasperation, combined with an interest in the politics of everyday existence, comes together in Dorfman's new novel, the curiously titled The Nanny and the Iceberg. The iceberg is real enough: in 1992, the Chilean government decided to tow an iceberg all the way from the Antarctic to the World Fair in Seville. Dorfman is gleeful at the way Latin American reality can throw up these bizarre events, but is careful to distinguish this "from magical reality or exoticism". He prefers to put it into another tradition: "A lot of what's going on in Chile is like the 18th century in Europe, and now I want to explore the picaresque side of things."

The Nanny and the Iceberg is a surprise: a big, rambling, playful book. "It may come as a shock to some people," Dorfman explains, " because they see my name and immediately think `human rights'; but I've always had these other voices in me, and now's the time to let them out a bit more". This does not mean the novel is not political: its hero, Gabriel, learns how little he really knows about what is going on around him, and the iceberg itself becomes, as Dorfman says, "the symbol of the illusion Chile is living through today: Pinochet is supposed to have brought modernisation, to have integrated the country into globalisation, but that's a deception, an illusion and, like Gabriel, the people can't see it."

Much of this is being told in the back of Dorfman's hired Jaguar as we speed to his next TV interview. I'm still fascinated by his ear, and pondering the symbolism of General Pinochet as the looming icy presence that dominates whatever landscape it is hauled into, but Dorfman makes a final plea for the competing strength of literature: "It's one of the few places where we can meet each other, it's a healing place, where we're allowed to imagine something different, where we have the space to play."

`The Nanny and the Iceberg', published by Sceptre, pounds 10. Ariel Dorfman will be appearing at the Peacock Theatre, London on Saturday 27 March, as part of The Word Literary Festival