Brimming with konfidenz

The play that made his name has now been filmed by Roman Polanski. But there is more to Ariel Dorfman than Death and the Maiden. Clare Bayley reports

"Can you write a tragedy in our times? That's the question I ask myself. My answer is, I'm trying - but how do you make sure you're not writing a melodrama?" This is what's bothering Ariel Dorfman, the man many would say pre-eminently succeeded wi th Death and the Maiden. There's no doubt it's a tragedy - the story of a South American torture victim, Paulina, who accidentally encounters her old torturer and enacts her own kind of justice upon him. Yet despite its macabre subject, the play has stru ck a chord with contemporary audiences. Productions are being mounted in theatres from Bolton to Bogota to Berlin, and for the final seal of approval, Polanski himself has made it into a film which comes to Britain next month.

The exiled Chilean writer is not resting on his laurels, however. Success seems to have provoked a rush of creativity, and this week sees the publication of a novel, Konfidenz, simultaneously in Britain, Germany and Italy.

"I was very glad to get a novel written amid all the chaos of the filming of Death and the Maiden," beams Dorfman. Bounding with energy, slightly distracted from the excitement of it all, ideas cascading off the top of his head in a confused but invigorating flow, Ariel Dorfman is a man in the full flush of his success. He has even emerged from Hollywood unscathed. Whatever else anyone says about the film (which stars Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley) there is agreement that it is a faithful adaptationof the play, and not in danger of melodrama. "It was a wonderful experience working with Polanski," enthuses Dorfman. "I learned a lot from him. He has such an eye for the concrete, for detail. He understands very clearly that I have ideas about things and atmospheres, but no visual imagination. I could never be a director."

Even so, Dorfman has not been seduced by the silver screen. "Polanski was very faithful to my text and my story, but writers really control so little of a movie. I'm going to stay out of doing it again. In the theatre you only have control up to a point.The written page is my territory."

In Latin America, Dorfman is known principally as a novelist who also writes plays. His supporters, who include Salman Rushdie, consider him one of the most important fiction writers coming out of Latin America, even though here it is solely for Death and the Maiden that he is known.

Konfidenz has the stamp of a playwright's craft on it. A self-consciously enigmatic story about a woman who arrives in Paris to be telephoned by a man whom she has never met but who apparently knows every intimate detail of her life, it takes the form ofdialogue. Periodically the conversational narrative is interrupted by the prose voice of a shadowy third character, the author, commenting on his characters.

"Very often in my novels I find that my characters simultaneously exist as projections of the inner life. It has to do with the playfulness of the literary imagination. The same thing happens in my plays. For example in Death and the Maiden, both Paulina's husband and the man she believes was her torturer have their versions of how she should work out her future life. There's the silence option or the accommodation option. She's got her own version. You could see them all as parts of one mind working itout: the ego, the super-ego and the id. I don't want to give up the mystery that is behind these stories - as a novelist that's what I bring to the theatre."

July sees the premiere of yet another Dorfman work, The Reader, at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. This is the story of a censor who is horrified to discover that the text he is censoring is in fact the story of his own life. Dabbling in a Pirandellian exploration of character and identity, the play uses the same actor to play the "real" Reader and his fictional self. Although stylistically very different, similar preoccupations can be traced through all of Dorfman's work. The nature of identity, the telling of stories, the speaking of truth are constant preoccupations. And always there is the context of political oppression, torture, betrayal and censorship.

"I don't write to denounce a situation of torture," says Dorfman. "Many of the people who have been tortured have had their stories suppressed. The first crime is the torture. The more terrible crime is that they are silenced. As a writer I'm more worried about silence, because I can do something about that. In all my work there are people struggling to tell their stories." In both Konfidenz and The Reader, Dorfman employs the psychological thriller conceit that the protagonist's story is being told to them by somebody else. Never mind identity - truth itself is called into question. And the title of Konfidenz, with its peculiar, phonetic spelling, seems to undermine our trust even in language.

It's perhaps not surprising that The Reader began life as a novel. "The novel is supremely equipped to deal with fluidity, and with the shaping and misshaping of identity. On stage you have to deal with real bodies, so it is a much more complicated process. But people have got to realise that I am not just dealing with reality. My work is full of reality but it is not realistic," he says. "A director is able to work it stylistically so it succeeds at the level of metaphor and myth."

Just as Dorfman moves easily between the novel and the play, so too he is equally fluent writing in English and in Spanish. Born in Argentina, brought up in Chile, exiled in 1973 and now living in New York, Dorfman speaks rapid and elegant American-English with more of an East Coast accent than any trace of Latino. Since his success in the English-speaking world, he has acquired the habit of writing simultaneous versions in both languages. "If you don't betray a text you cannot translate it. Most betrayals are terrible, but some may be necessary in certain moments. For example, when you betray your former self, are you betraying you, or a someone you used to be but you are no longer?"

n `Konfidenz', by Ariel Dorfman, is published by Sceptre on 16 Feb, price £5.99

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