Books: Pinochet among the puppets

The Nanny and the Iceberg by Ariel Dorfman Sceptre pounds 10

Ariel Dorfman comes but irregularly to the UK: on the last occasion for London's literary festival The Word, and before that for the BBC screening of a film set to his poems. Both visits coincided with the Law Lords' rulings in the Pinochet case, which meant the literary interviews he was scheduled to give were upstaged by the news programmes clamouring for him to appear. General Pinochet, of course, is a topic on which Dorfman has had much to say, in life and in writing.

Since being a member of Allende's Popular Unity government, overthrown by the General 25 years ago, Dorfman has written and campaigned as a journalist and human-rights activist against the abuses of power in his homeland. Or rather, not quite in his homeland, since he was born to Argentine parents in Buenos Aires and raised largely in the United States, where he has lived for considerably longer than in the country where he was first a student militant.

He now believes that joint Chilean/US nationality leads him to be the "voice" of his adoptive people. Also a repository of memory: "the dead speak through me: I am a burial ground for those we haven't been able to bury in the earth." The 4,0000-plus citizens whom Pinochet stands accused of having brutally "disappeared" have never been laid to rest, not least in the popular consciousness. Dorfman further describes himself as "a therapy ground: I understand that my writing has to do with the healing of individual human beings, inasmuch as I ask them very challenging questions about their human condition."

The extent to which one person can substitute for another, still less speak for a whole people, is bound to be contentious. And yet to invoke human rights, the human condition and the rest is, of course to invoke a universal. Can it matter what nationality someone happens to be in speaking out against human rights violations? Not, presumably, if they speak as a human being rather than claiming superior status as a fellow national.

When Dorfman wrote Widows, the story appeared to be set in Greece, under the 1969 military junta. Death and the Maiden had deliberate resonances of Dorfman's own origins as a European Jew. Neither was explicitly connected to the tortures and drownings ("burials at sea") conducted by the Chilean armed forces: this was intended both to make the books more easily available in Chile and to universalise their message. Here, in his latest novel, Dorfman appends a sly disclaimer that one character, the government minister Pablo Varon, is "a not-so-veiled reference to Enrique Correa, who served in Patricio Aylwin's democratic government [which succeeded Pinochet's military dictatorship] ... No such parallel or connection crossed my mind."

So what we have is a novel, in which real characters - Pinochet, for example - appear among a cast of studiedly fictitious ones. The Nanny of the title represents the warmth of the indigenous peoples of the Southern Cone, known to generations of bourgeois "white" children as the loving substitute for absentee parents. The iceberg, meanwhile, was Chile's sole exhibit at the 1992 World Fair in Seville, celebrating 500 years since Columbus's journey.

The rest of the cast are a kind of knockabout Punch-and-Judy show featuring a remote, philandering father; a leftover hippie mother who believes her son, conceived on the date of Che Guevara's death, to be his next incarnation; the son himself, a 23-year-old virgin, stymied by his father's machismo into conducting an e-mail relationship with the Manhattan-based Janice Worth, of which this book is the transcript. Throw in incest with a half- sister who isn't; best buddies who aren't; a step-brother not half as sinister as he's made out to be; a rapacious male and an altruistic abortionist; straight male/ female role swaps in a vain attempt to make politics and frippery interesting then add, in a final act of desperation, as the puppeteers of all these wooden characters a beyond-the-grave Nana and equally ghostly Che Guevara ... and what do you get? Something which resembles only the operatic nonsense of the Don Juan story, with not even the sound and the fury, still less the humour or the drama.

The iceberg becomes the love-object of the hero, Gabriel, who claims: "I bought a ticket to see Don Juan Tenorio at the Teatro Lope de Vega, Zorrilla's play where the don is saved by the love of Ines, a nun ... I left in disgust at the end of the performance and swore no woman would save me, save the iceberg ..." Don Juan was, of course, a native of Seville five centuries before the iceberg went on display in a refrigerated tent.

When I paid my respects to the Seville iceberg in 1992, it was being besieged by a crowd of drunken performers dressed as sailors from Columbus' expedition of 1492. "Oh, that Columbus, he was always lost at sea," one of them told me. Lost and at sea this book is too: loud on buffoonery and very, very soft on reality - or, worse still, on fantasy.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us