Books: Home is where the art is

He helped melt the cold heart of Pinochet's Chile, but can he bridge the gap between gringo and Hispanic? Ilan Stavans on the Latino's dilemma
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Nanny

and the Iceberg

by Ariel Dorfman

Sceptre, pounds 10, 360pp

IN THE last decade, Ariel Dorfman has undergone a crucial transformation. He has ceased to be Latin American; instead, he has become something the British do not yet fully grasp: a Latino intellectual, bilingual and bicultural, ambivalent about almost everything, and most especially the place called home.

Latino is the rubric coined to describe US Hispanics acclimatised to American joi de vivre yet deeply rooted in the reality south of the Rio Grande. Dorfman's north/south ambivalence is at the heart of the memoir he published last year. It manifests itself in explorations of his complex feelings not only towards Chile and the US, but also towards Spanish and English, the two tongues he communicates in with equal ease. And it is also in the texture of this novel, which, while set primarily in Seville and Santiago and New York, is an American by-product in ways his memoir never was.

Latinos have a difficult time being read in Latin America. There is much resentment for those who left. Dorfman is no exception. His literature has never been fully embraced in Chile, perhaps because he is a foreigner. (He was born in Buenos Aires, and is Jewish.) In the English-language habitat, on the other hand, he has the status of a star: his work functions as a bridge across idiosyncrasies.

This is patent in and the Iceberg. The book juxtaposes themes that have long obsessed him: pop culture and its ideological undercurrent, the baroque Latin American psyche, revolution and democracy. It is a bravura performance, knitted by a suave, hypnotising prose, structured in the form of a thriller with a delayed denouement.

The main character is Gabriel McKenzie, a hybrid comfortable in e-mails and Hollywood imagery, international politics and Spanish culture. Or perhaps the real protagonist is the mammoth iceberg from Antarctica the Chilean government decides to exhibit at the World's Fair of 1992, to commemorate Columbus's arrival. The iceberg, of course, is but a metaphor: a huge structure obstructing a view of the past. Therein lies Dorfman's message: Chile, he argues, refuses to grow up. It remains incapable of confronting its past and battling the ghost of General Augusto Pinochet.

As I read, I kept on thinking of Christopher Unborn, the anti-utopian science-fiction novel by Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes's theme is also the Colombian Quincentennial and his prose is also inspired by the Gargantuan pyrotechnics of Salman Rushdie. The difference is the difference between an exile and an emigre artist.

While Fuentes spends part of the year in Mexico and the other part in England and the US, Dorfman is an American whose visits to Chile are promotional rendezvous. He is far more rooted in US culture than his Mexican counterpart, and his novel's main character is proof of it.

McKenzie is, happily, not quite a McDonald's, but not too distant a relative either. Although he refuses to acknowledge it, he is not only an emigre but an immigrant. Fuentes's cast, on the other hand, is made up of variations on Mexican icons - all insiders to the core, and always looking inwards.

True, elsewhere Fuentes has ventured into US culture, but his forays are always from south to north, whereas Dorfman's latest book travels from north to south. The plot of and the Iceberg is global, its language infused by Cyber-Spanglish, and its concerns those of Latinos today - people whose national borders extend from Hawaii and Alaska to the Patagonia and the Iberian peninsula.

What makes Dorfman's odyssey paradigmatic are his chameleon-like transformations, from anti-American activist to Latin American "boom" writer to Latino intellectual. His latest novel is fascinating as the meditation of an American Hispanic fighting from afar for the triumph of political transition, in a context that is no longer fully his.

Ilan Stavans edited `The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories', and has just completed `On Borrowed Words: a memoir of language' for Viking