The first thing I read by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman was a book about Donald Duck. Titled How to Read Donald Duck, this relatively long essay critiques the message of Disney comics through an anti-imperialist and Marxist lens. As a person who has always loved comics–and had read hundreds of Disney comic books by the time I found Dorfman’s commentary–that text changed my understanding of many things. Foremost among them was the role US culture plays in maintaining and expanding the Empire. I began to understand the meaning of cultural imperialism. Secondly, it clarified exactly why I disliked the super wealthy Scrooge McDuck character in the series. The next work by Dorfman I recall reading is his drama about the torture of a Chilean resister to the fascist coup of Pinochet and the CIA. Titled Death and the Maiden, this play pits the torture victim against her torturer. The tension between the two protagonists is palpable even on the written page and even more so when performed live. (Check out Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of the victim in the Polanski-directed 1994 film.)
Dorman’s most recent work of fiction is a novel titled Darwin’s Ghosts. It is a story about history and its meaning. He begins his tale on the narrator’s fourteenth birthday. After an erotic moment thinking about his girlfriend Cam Wood, the narrator Fitzroy Foster discovers, to the dismay of himself and his family, that when a birthday Polaroid photograph is attempted of him, another person’s image appears on the photographic paper in his place. It turns out the image that appears is of a young indigenous man who was kidnapped a century earlier from the southern tip of South America. No matter what kind of film or camera is used, that image remains as the finished photo. It appears that the narrator will never be able to be photographed again. His family takes him out of school, he cuts off contact with his girlfriend and he retreats into his house, rarely if ever leaving it. After years of withdrawal from society and a self-pity combined with frustration and anger, he joins his mother’s search for the individual appearing in the photographs. The hope is that by finding the individual photographed, some kind of amends might be managed, thereby making it possible for Fitzroy to once again be truly photographed. He also begins developing some imaging software that will create a current photo of himself from the last known photos of his adolescent self. Cam Wood reunites with Fitzroy and joins the search for personal reasons and as part of her research on the nature of genetic memory.
The tale that follows is one that unearths Fitzroy’s family history and its relationship to the young man who has replaced Fitzroy in the photos. The reader learns that not only was one of the narrator’s ancestors the photographer who took the pictures of the kidnapped “native;” he is also descended from the man who engineered the kidnapping. As the quest continues, Cam and Fitzroy unearth a history of kidnapping, exploitation and abuse of the colonized peoples around the globe. Done in the name of science, religion and just plain curiosity, the two come to realize that everyone in an imperial society is somehow complicit. This rings true generations later. Those who try and excuse themselves by stating that such abuses were all in the past deny not only history but the individuals themselves. (An example of this can be found in the US debate over reparations for slavery; many opponents will claim that they didn’t have slaves and neither did their ancestors so why should they have to pay any reparations.) As the exploration of the past deepens, Cam finds herself delving deeper and deeper, even wondering if the search itself is not some kind of imperialist act itself.
Simultaneously a romance and a mystery, Darwin’s Ghost is also an examination of the legacies of colonialism and resistance to colonialism. Reminiscent of the spirit of Goethe’s Faust, Dorfman’s novel examines the compromises and contracts one makes in life. Like Conrad’s novels and stories of colonialism, Darwin’s Ghost depicts the price imperial society pays for the sins it visits upon subject peoples. The nature of the latter scenario, especially as it relates to Dorfman’s tale, is that the sins of colonialism and imperialism will not be expunged any time soon. Perhaps the best those of us whose history includes the subjugation and exploitation of other humans can hope for is an understanding of what that history has done and continues to do to those on its other end. I suppose that is something.