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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.