The Better Angels Book

Until the latest breakout of war and miserable violence distracted them from distraction by distraction, as TS Eliot puts it, the mainstream media (MSM) spent most of their days “covering” the latest machinations of the Trump Organization — its deviant Marvel cartoonish designs to take back the night his presidency was “stolen.” The clueless MSM glooeys were missing out on the end of the world. It’s like a scene from the Gloom-and-Doom comedy, Don’t Look Up (2021), with everybody in chuckle festival mode and blithely ignoring the bad news, the very bad news. Ariel Dorfman draws the same conclusion in his new novella, The Compensation Bureau. Despite everything the angels of mercy (up there) can do for us, spruiking love, re-educating baddies, the human condition seems doomed.

The Compensation Bureau is a parable.  The universe is seen as needing tender care, like a garden of unearthly delights. They keep things in balance between light and dark forces. And angelic creatures calling themselves Actuaries work the terrains on the Lazarus Project. As Dorfman describes it,

Conceived in response to the shocking violence observed in humankind, the project identifies people who have wrongfully died at the hands of others, and attempts to make up for the cruelty and pain they faced in life and death.

Yes, that’s right, Earth is the problem child of the universe. We just can’t quit the violence. As the lead, unnamed first person Actuary tells, “I have been gradually worn down by so much malignancy.”

For Ariel Dorfman exposure to such malignancy has been a mainstay of his life. The America-Chilean-Argentinian spent some of his boyhood in the USA, but left when his parents were threatened by the pressure of the Joseph McCarthy show trials.  Ariel was born in Argentina. They moved to Chile, where Ariel grew up, eventually befriending and advising Salvador Allende, and feeling forced to leave in exile when Allende was driven out, with the CIA’s assistance, and replaced by the Pinochet regime. He moved back to the US, where he continued his writing career.

Like his good friend, the late Harold Pinter, Dorfman’s major concern in his work is the power and destructiveness of unbridled tyrannical and fascist forces that degrade popular politics and make representative democracies problematic, if not impossible to achieve or maintain. Pinter hated imperialism, and with his Nobel Prize speech laid into American hegemonic aggression, which he saw as catastrophic in its neo-fascist requirements of Other states. Dorfman, like Pinter, is a playwright, and his most famous work, Death and the Maiden, is a study in the roles developed by torture, between the “interrogator” and the victim. In this play, Dorfman turns the tables, the one becomes the other, in what becomes a kind of radical interpretation of human empathy.

And it’s just such radical caring that carries the spirit of Dorfman’s parable of angels to the rescue.  The Actuary has witnessed it all and at a  conference reports to fellow Actuaries:

I saw children scorched in ritual fires. I saw women being stoned for the crime of love and I saw women being murdered because they refused to love the lords who had bought them. I saw men decapitated and men thrown from cliffs and men whose hearts were carved out and men who were blown to pieces and men impaled with their entrails bleeding into the soil and men and women and children and the old and the new and all ages in between suffering….

On and on she goes, and the others have similar findings.

But in Dorfman’s story the narrating Actuary falls “in love” with a victim of horrific violence, her name is Alba Jannah.  Though the Actuaries are meant to actually bring back to life (Lazarus compensation) the victims of outrageous violence and give them a second chance to live as if they’d avoided the violent moment, Jannah deeply moves the Actuary with her commitment to love at all costs, and despite the horror meted out to her. She discovers that Jannah’s modus vivendi is “They can kill me but they cannot kill my love.” For a worn down Actuary, this is tonic for the soul.

Listening “at some point in time, from some point in the Universe,” the Actuary hears the dying brutalized woman’s last thoughts, and barely believes what she hears:

Nothing ever really dies.

She thinks: they will cast me into the ocean and I will baffle them by becoming food for fish and swim into some child’s mouth and fuel her as she skips and learns and laughs…

She thinks: they will throw me into some ditch and I will escape their rage by welcoming the worms as they churn me into mud…

The garden, the garden, it does not abandon her in her hour of need.

Finally, one of these creatures can love unconditionally, at least one of them knows amor fati.

This radicalizes our Actuary and she becomes a Chimera — “what we call the Actuaries who fall in love with one or more of their charges.”  This has echoes of Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, where an angel observer (no second chances) falls for a highwire circus performer, her physical grace and metaphysical thoughts pushing him over the edge, and he becomes human in order to feel as she feels, especially the love part. But the comparison ends there.

The Compensation Bureau, like his other recent short novel, Cautivos, is tangled up in blue, as the Bard from Duluth would put it. In Cautivos, Dorfman imagines, essentially, being a fly on the wall of Miguel Cervantes’s cell wall during interrogations by Inquisition types (on false charges!) mollifying them with boffo Homeric tales and working his mind toward the creation of his eventual masterpiece, Don Quixote.  There seems no end to our torment of each other, and words out of language that only humans own seems, often, to amplify the problems we face together, rather becoming the avenue down which we move toward our common enlightenment.

The Compensation Bureau is no tonic for our blues, but it qualifies as a warning to Look Up and see the stars and know our place before it’s too late. And Dorfman writes with love. The book is worth a read.

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