Ariel Dorfman: Caught in the Commission of a Truth

It is possible they will smash us, but tomorrow belongs to the people, the workers. Humanity advances toward the conquest of a better life.

– Salvador Allende, from Last Words Transmitted by Radio Magallanes, September 11, 1973

That’s right, [the CIA] played a major role in overthrowing what’s-his-name in Chile….

– Duane Clarridge, first director of CIA’s Counterintelligence Center

Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (2014), starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson, is essentially a filmed version of Ariel Dorfman’s play by the same name.  The setting is uncertain. It could be Chile or Argentina or Venezuela. It’s in the recent past somewhere; revolution has taken down an authoritarian government and the messy business of revamping democracy begins — rounding up the fascists for justice, commissions of truth to air the laundry, and cleansing sunlight applied. Paulina and Gerardo Escobar, former student revolutionaries, are now married, and getting on with it. But, as the story begins, Paulina, a former torture victim of the regime, hears on the radio the appointment of her husband to a Truth Commission. Driving home to her, Gerardo has a blow out and Dr. Miranda just happens to be coming along behind and gives Gerardo a lift home. He’s invited in. From his smells and laugh, Paulina is convinced that Miranda is the one who tortured and raped her while she was blindfolded.

Some characterizations and themes and dynamism and symbolism emerge. Ironies abound and are bound. From their abode on the rainy evening you can see a lighthouse blink on and off, a warning to sailors asea: Beware. In a moment, tables will be turned, and the tortured will become the torturer, with Commissioner as referee.  Miranda won’t be read his rights. The movie title is explained as the name of a string quartet by Schubert. Paulina had been raped by her unknown torturer as it played. One ponders the vocal range of violins, from Wagner’s ethereal whisper in the Prelude to Lohengrin to the stabbing motions of Psycho’s shower room scene.

The troubled Paulina’s PTSD reveals the lasting scars of violent interrogation, the smells and tics of others as triggers; the unknown assailant still out there. “I want the truth” versus “I’m sorry” repeated throughout the film as parallel motifs.  The trauma of otherwise Good husband’s adultery is revealed.  The intertextuality of de Sade’s propositions. Forced confessions, horned dilemmas, the power of prosecuting a narrative. The difference between a Midnight Knock at the door in a democracy versus one in a fascist state.

Throw in the Nietzschean tussle: His Über co-opted by fascists (the unfinished Der Wille Zu Macht influenced the Nazis thanks to Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth’s perverse interpretation of the Superman), while his philological-informed relativism has been championed by the Left (even feminists).  And we’re reminded of Nietzsche’s admonition that you must beware when fighting monsters that you don’t become one, and that when you look into the abyss, remember that  it also looks into you. And all of this is controlled by Polanski’s edginess between personae, and his sense of a supernatural world we seem to exist in sometimes, more dreamlike than real, more likely to be ruled, in the end, by the devil than the better angels of our nature. Polanski, of all people, seems to ask, What should a girl do? Drink the milkshake or marry Woody Allen? What would you do?

Ariel Dorfman and his work are full of complications, facets that are hard to read, nuanced and shaped by existential crises and displacement and exile.  He was born of Jewish parents in Argentina, themselves emigres from Europe.  They moved to the USA when he was a child, then on to Chile in 1954.  His nationality: Argentine-Chilean-American.  He was Salvador Allende’s cultural advisor and was forced into exile after the freely-elected leader was overthrown by the CIA-assisted Augusto Pinochet regime (his reflections of the event were recounted in the recent volume, Chile: The Other September 11, edited by Pilar Aguilera and Ricardo Fredes). Dorfman was good friends with Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, and you can see evidence of the latter’s influence in Dorfman’s character interactions, and in the late playwright’s anti-imperial politics.

As I begin reading Ariel Dorfman’s two latest short novels, Cautivos (2020) and The Compensation Bureau (2021), both published by OR Books, I find a viewing of the Polanski film quite helpful in understanding how Dorfman’s characters bounce off one another’s consciousnesses.  I’ve seen it before — we’ll see it again — individuals in a repressed society withdraw into themselves, become insulated, bear secrets.  Maybe nothing important, But they are in an existential crisis. If language is given to us by consciousness to help us negotiate the common terms of reality, with an implicit egalitarian exchange of meanings, then, in a repressive state, you fear sharing “too much” and if you see people you care about disappear because of their articulated utterances, the cogito ergo sum leads to dark places where we find it difficult to reach other.

In his play, enacted by Polanski, the three main characters all have secrets, and yet, on the surface, might be amiable. The language they share bears an unexpressed intertextual suffering; they’re walled off somehow. Paulina, married to Gerardo, a champion of human rights, and who will lead a Truth commission on the disappeared and the tortured, still hasn’t told him of the rapes she suffered.  He hasn’t fully come clean on his affair.  And everything could be fine with Miranda — he’s amiable, cares about Gerardo’s work, and is engaging.  Had he not smelled a certain way or laughed a certain way, then the trio would have had a different evening of laughs and drinks; these ordinary features, peculiar to her sense are Miranda’s secrets.  She ties him up and tortures him to get at those secrets, but she could be wrong, and tries to force a false confession under the pressure of a double bind. It’s a brokenhearted menage a trois. It’s human language broken bad, real bad.

In Cautivos, Dorfman gives us a narrator locked away with Miguel Cervantes, twice imprisoned for petty reasons, and about to undergo interrogation by Spanish Christian thugs for a crime he didn’t commit. The narrator is a projection of Dorfman trying to read Cervantes, who spends his time trying to read the world in preparation for what will become a “thesis” on the world, in the form of his famous picaresque novel, Don Quixote. And we the readers perform Dorfman’s projection, which, in essence, is an early role play of Sancho Panza, who, in the novel, will often have sidekick takes on the Don’s doings. And you are reading my read of Dorfman doing all that. Dorfman’s play and the opening of Cautivos show us that it’s all complicated, this interplay of realities between humans, and you can see why human progress can take awhile to become apparent. But not for the interrogator types. They just can’t wait to make the “economy” scream. (At least, that’s what I remember from reader-response theory.)

A crime he didn’t commit. That’s what Dorfman’s narrator tells us in Cautivos. Cervantes is a prisoner (cautivos) locked away in a place that is bedlam. How’s he put it? “…their indocility will never leave his ears, this is a place where one is never alone, where you cannot hear yourself thinking, where writing is impossible.” We need space to think. Mental space. Cogito, motherfucker, or no sum. Pressure can be exerted to close that space, to take away the pinprick essence of being.  Cervantes’s companion (the narrator) provides the vibe:

The bedlam panting at him from inside the prison conjures up for us both a demented dog, an insane asylum, so much chaos and turmoil slapping his skin that I am confounded, it is not clear which of the two is thinking these thoughts, they must all be crazy, have been rendered wild by the sound of themselves, senselessly shouting their own obsessions without listening to anybody else, an uproar that is not likely to subside entirely in the months yet to be….

We can crack open like a hairy walnut, the meat of our mind exposed to the cracker, if that’s the direction we want to go in.

This has something of a hint of the Inquisition to it. You can imagine messengers from the future sent to us with gift paradigms and us getting ‘em on the rack ASAP.  Abu Ghraib dogs unleashed on some prophet’s naked ass. Galileo, forced to admit that 2+2=5 to stay alive. And, it seems to us abstract now, a thing of the Dark Aged past. But a recent tweet brings it home again, like history as the Monkey’s Paw: Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison, pressure on, the tightening gyre, the precious light of reason ready to implode and go all suckhole black and absorb him in its gothic bedlam.  How can he stand such daily fucking noise?

No thoughts to publish to consciousness in such bedlam. How wicked.

Cervantes’s companion describes how Miguel is negotiating the rules of captivity with his captors. Seemingly born with a flair for dramaturge, what could be an endlessly vicious and foul daily routine, is turned dramatically when Miguel is able to conjure up for the oafs of his demise characters, images and stories of far away places; in short, he kindles a vestigial imagination in the men and they likey the stim so alto to the repetitive, and one must think rewardless, brute force approach that suits their halitoxicity (the captor “who has not washed his teeth in several decades”) and lassitude.

For a while, the kazoo is replaced with Coltrane blues, as it were. Cervantes’s observer (think Plato watching Socrates work the crowd) tells the reader to perform the following:

a breathless diatribe, a dramatic opening of the cortinas sounding so true and passionate and compelling that they could not but applaud him, all three men, even the notary Carrasco who was supposed to be neutral, merely note down the defendant’s every term, that recital from the thirty-three-year-old Miguel elicited their bravos, their amazement and contrition and awe.

You can see Homer conjuring up flattering images to the beach-bound, neurasthenic Greeks at Ilium building pyres for what? emiserated by the logistics alone, already doubting, in the modern way, that any “dame” could be worth it. One warrior decapo-ed when he cracked, “Word is Helen was a floozy and a boozy,” depressing the lot who themselves suspected said same silently.

They want more and more from Cervantes, until he becomes in their eyes a celebrity, an Elvis who needs to leave the building to get back to it, their panties, in some cases unthrown,  stained with tears of rapture. He has unfinished Man business back in Algiers, he tells his captors, and he leads them on, will-be swine, that he’ll drop off at Circe’s Tavern on the way for some fresh liebfraumilch they’ll never be slaked by. His coup de wah:

I had just enough strength in one leg to lift it slightly, so the chains clinked. I was alive, that sound said, I’m alive, that is all that separated me from being buried, from suffocating in a common grave. And that is all, gentlemen, that in effect separates us from death: that clink clink our chains make, the bell of our soul announcing our time has not come, and back there in Algiers reminding me that as long as I had a clink clink of strength, as long as I could lift a leg, as long as I can make a bit of noise, there is hope.

They’re all woo-hoo and send him on his way, free. And, yes, we, the readers, too, go with him on this Man Journey, on his quest for the holy grail of tittihood, goes by the name, Zahara. C. conjures up an image of Zahara desserts to be crossed by that slow beast of burden the tongue must sometimes be in the dunes and crenelations of wasteland fantasies. The Oral Tradition must have been a hoot.

Dorfman here provides us with a plausible beginning of Cervantes’ long fiction career, after dabbling in novellas, such as those contained in his Exemplary Novels. Here in this Sevillian prison hundreds of years ago is the seed of a narrative genius come to flowition in the form of an errant knight (Dorfman tells us Cervantes hated chivalry shovelers) whose adventurous ordeal seems to exemplify the hopeless and daft idiocy of our doings, but is peppered with romance and “impossible dreams” and exploitable hypnotic states that make for good book sales.  Dorfman neatly amplifies the element of Cervantes’s story-telling I’ve always liked: The action of the hero, the counterpointing one man chorus of Sancho, the reader attuned to both, in a neat little cohabitation of souls in soft collision. You could do worse than take up light housekeeping with Cervantes for a few hours of your life.  Windmills? Make of them what you wish, Dr. Rorschach.

Cautivos gathers from this situation resolved. One sees (or, I saw) what Dorfman seemed to be after.  The importance of table-turning, of grudge match tag team narratives where upperhands change the moment, that will become so important to Dorfman’s later tales and plays, and certainly is evident in Death and the Maiden. In some bizarre way, Dorfman’s humanity seems tied up in this Hegelian-esque struggle of master narrative and slave listener (needing each other for the sake of the narrative), roles reversed by the hour; its heartbreaking to think that this intense empathy can be so cruel and even sadistic in its implications and needful resolutions. God help us, if a Monster came along to play with this quandary further, Dorfman seems to say.  If you’re not careful in your thinking, it can make you wonder how democracy is even possible at all.

The editorial blurb on the book’s cover nicely and succinctly offers up how Cervantes, in general, and Cautivos as an example, sums up the age-old problem that writers of literary fiction face:

Writer/activist Ariel Dorfman imagines for us scenes from the picaresque life of Miguel de Cervantes, a man who wrestled as intensely with the contradictions implicit in writing fiction—how can one write something “real” if it is labelled fiction, but in fact how can one write anything “real” unless it is fiction?—as any scribbler who followed him in the centuries since.

This is the meat of Cautivos; you might even say, in the parlance of our day, that it is a work of creative non-fiction, a kind of memoir, or an exegesis of the processes that went into his own product line — Cervantes his secret sauce liberally, and thankfully applied, to a boigy that has been around the block a few times.  It’s all about the secret sauce then.  If they could just bottle it, who wouldn’t gladly give it all up to be a brown-bag bum on Skid Row?

I could go on and on about Cautivos, just as I might have spoiled a viewing of Death and the Maiden by saying too much, maybe too cutely, revealing the “poignant” endings, like some asshole. But I will stay away from that tender loin, that easy flip, that need for you to see Maiden or Cautivos or Dorfman strictly through my eyes. You’re a reader: Read.

Roman Polanski’s version of Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (2014), starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson, is available at the Internet Archive.  Dorfman’s play is also available there. As is the soundtrack from the film, featuring Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.