Guardian of Memory

Ariel Dorfman, interviewed by Sam Needleman

Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Fifty years ago this month, Augusto Pinochet, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, led a US-backed military coup to overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratic socialist president of Chile who had been elected just three years earlier. Among Allende’s staffers who fled from La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, was thirty-one-year-old Ariel Dorfman, a cultural and press adviser and an ardent supporter of Allende’s leftist program. In an essay published in the Review’s Fall Books issue, Dorfman recalls joining hundreds of thousands of Allende’s supporters in the streets of Santiago just before his ouster and death, chanting, “Allende, Allende, el pueblo te defiende.”

After seven years in exile in Europe, Dorfman ended up in the United States. In 1985 he began teaching literature at Duke, where he is now a distinguished professor emeritus. He returned to Chile in 1983 but was arrested and deported in 1986. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, he split his time between Santiago and the US. His novels and plays—as well as his essays, which have appeared regularly in the Review since 2017—have earned him a reputation as a rigorous and devoted chronicler of modern Chile, among a great number of other subjects. Half a century after the coup, as he writes in his essay, he has not lost his faith in Allende’s vision: “Allende’s insistence throughout his life that for our dreams to bear fruit we need more democracy and never less—always, always more democracy—is more relevant than ever.”

I e-mailed Dorfman last week to ask him about the putsch, Gabriel Boric, and the international future of socialism.

Sam Needlema­n: Your first contribution to The New York Review of Books was your signature on a letter, “Against Loans to Chile,” published in our June 11, 1987, issue. The letter called on the Reagan administration “to support Chilean democratic leaders’ requests for an end to international financial aid to Pinochet.” Among the signatories, you listed your nationality as Chilean, despite living abroad at the time and for extended periods of your life. Why?

Ariel Dorfman: The way I was identified was, in retrospect, symptomatic of my multifaceted, wandering life (geographically and intellectually). The story is convoluted. I was born in Argentina, followed my dad (who was in trouble with the fascists there) to New York (my first exile, at two and a half), and ten years later fled the States (McCarthy!) for Chile, a country that beguiled and enchanted me. There was the splendor of the mountains and sea, and the language, which captivated a young, gringo-educated English-speaking boy, but two whirlwinds of love were ultimately responsible for this ardor: a dazzling young wonder called Angélica (we have now been married for fifty-seven years) and the chance to accompany a people as they emerged from the inner exile of oppression. Both grounded me in a home, an extended heart that was a hearth.

More prosaically, I can remember a day when I felt Chilean through and through, to the chilled bone. When I first arrived, at the age of twelve, the ocean was intolerably cold thanks to the Humboldt Current. It was impossible to dip your ankles in the surf without turning blue. Then one sunny afternoon I stepped in, and I could bear it. I swam out and stayed in those waters for an hour. My body knew before my mind that this was my Pacific. And then, of course, there was Allende’s pacific…revolution.

In “Defending Allende,” you write about working for Fernando Flores, Allende’s chief of staff, in the months leading up to the coup. What was the atmosphere like in that office?

It was clear that a lethal confrontation awaited us, so every minute was filled with urgency and foreboding, but also joy at being able to contribute to the cause. Those were hectic, overflowing, slightly insane days: we were giving advice about how to respond to attacks in the media, promoting street theater and cartoons to combat disinformation, and plugging musicians, muralists, and writers who were in favor of reforms with ongoing educational campaigns.

My main task was to imagine unorthodox ways for us to survive. Just one example: the putschists’ main obstacle was General Carlos Prats, the head of the army, loyal to Allende and the Constitution. They harassed him day and night, trying to force him to resign. We discovered that our opponents were planning to convene the wives of several military officers outside of Prats’s private residence to demand that he abandon Allende. I thought that ridicule was one of our most potent weapons against fascists, so I suggested that we gather a large number of rats and let them loose on the seditious ladies. Cameras would record their panic and dispersal. Alas, the laboratories were all out of our rodent allies. (Maybe because of the American boycott of our economy? A bit too neat an explanation, but it makes a good story.) The women rallied raucously. A few days later, Prats resigned and Pinochet took his place. Prats and his wife were murdered in October 1974 in Buenos Aires by the dictatorship’s secret police.


Describing the million or so Allende supporters who marched through the streets of Santiago one week before the coup, you write, “We may have had an intuition that the battle for memory—a battle that has continued to this day—was already beginning.” In the weeks before and after the coup, did you write anything, either publicly or privately, that serves as a personal record against the erasure of memory?

In the weeks before the coup I was too busy to write anything of the sort, and after the coup I was in hiding, just trying to survive. But memory was raging inside me and so many others. I use the word “raging” deliberately, because the new rulers of Chile submerged the Allendistas in a deluge of lies and engulfed Allende himself in obscene falsehoods. I may have felt a particular responsibility to tell the real story as truthfully as I could, both because I had been spared death and because of my own literary talents. I intuited that I was some sort of bizarre guardian of what we should remember, and one might venture that in those first days, this essay for the Review was looming fifty years in the future. Also already calling to me was my new novel, The Suicide Museum, in which I investigate that period in all its complexity, because memory, of course, is constantly shifting, so we cannot tell the story if we do not recognize how the past changes as we try to seize and fix it.  

You write that much of the press—notably El Mercurio, Chile’s newspaper of record—was hostile to Allende’s socialist project and therefore sympathetic to the coup. What is your impression of the national and international press’s treatment of the socialist project of Gabriel Boric since his election to the Chilean presidency in 2021?

Boric comes from a socialist tradition, but his project is not socialist in the way that Allende’s was. These are other times. Though Boric said that Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism and vowed that his presidency would be its tomb, nothing of the kind has happened, partly because of self-inflicted wounds in his own coalition, partly because of the enduring strength of the right wing, which dominates many of the same media outlets that undermined Allende. Reading the papers in Chile today I often have a sense of déjà vu. Many of the same blatant tactics being used against Boric recall the playbook that was used to destroy our revolution. For instance, Boric is accused, as Allende was, of dividing the country and sowing hatred. Or Boric is mocked, believe it or not, for being too interested in poetry; Allende was mocked for his passion for modern painting. The international press has been, by and large, far more benevolent.

If Boric’s presidency and the fortunes of the left in Chile since his election have been disappointments, where in Latin America or around the world are you looking for inspiration on the left?

To the young, mainly. But this is not a problem of left and right anymore. We are threatened with extinction (climate apocalypse, nuclear war, the threat of artificial intelligence), and in order not to commit suicide—which is where I frequently feel, in despair, we are heading—we need to awaken and think ourselves out of the crisis. One of the things I most admire about Boric (he is now only thirty-seven) is his ability both to listen to people he disagrees with and to maintain the certainty that he cannot forsake principles and dreams—justice, equality, freedom, empowerment, democracy, sovereignty, women’s and indigenous rights—in the process. But lately I have found most of my inspiration in literature, specifically Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Rereading it, I confirmed that it may well be the greatest novel about the search for utopia and radical change through nonviolence. Would that every politician on the left (and everywhere else) read it.

The Suicide Museum is in part about a Holocaust survivor who funds an investigation into the death of Allende. What do you hope to accomplish with a novel that you cannot with criticism or an essay?

Two of the novel’s epigraphs might illustrate what fiction can accomplish. One is from Novalis (“Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history”), and another is from Javier Cercas (“Epic, history, poetry, the essay, journalism, memoirs: these are some of the genres that the novel has swallowed throughout its history”). How to narrate Allende’s last stand while contesting the official stories that always serve the interests of the powerful who propagate them? How to go beyond the many books on the subject, several of which completely contradict one another? And how to link that mysterious death to the death of humanity that menaces our future, which the billionaire Holocaust survivor in the novel is trying to avoid by building a gigantic Suicide Museum, hoping to stop us all from becoming desaparecidos? The only way forward that I could envisage was to send someone like Ariel Dorfman (the narrator has my name, my family, my chronology) on a mission to discover the truth about Allende’s death. It is as if, in writing the novel, I have access to a multiverse—an alternative, parallel version of events—and can navigate those historical moments to deepen our knowledge of what happened as well as what might have happened.


This only works if the characters have their own enigmas that they are hiding and hiding from, and only if readers believe they are just as real, or even realer, than our factual selves. Maybe I was able to take so many risks, aesthetic and political, in my new novel because my essays and op-eds have been meticulously fact-checked over the years. So I am fortunate to be able to have it both ways: historical truth in the meditation I wrote for the Review and wildly imaginative adventure in the novel, where everybody, including me, is treated fictitiously. Or as Josephine Baker declares, in yet another epigraph to The Suicide Museum, “I don’t lie, I improve on life.”

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