Magazine article The Spectator

Loyalty and Betrayal

Magazine article The Spectator

Loyalty and Betrayal

Article excerpt

A riel Dorfman's new autobiography shows how political upheaval has forced nomadism on the people of this century. Dorfman, best known for his play Death and the Maiden, was born in Buenos Aires, in 1942, to a mother and father whose parents had fled revolution in eastern Europe. In 1945 Peron forced his communist father to remove the family to the United States. Later McCarthyism moved them on again, this time to Chile. Dorfman's own exile from Chile came with Pinochet's coup in 1973, and occupies the heart of this book.

Dorfman has experienced more than his fair share of identity crises. His father named him 'Vladimiro', in honour of Lenin. As a boy in the United States, he opted for 'Eddie' - more acceptable in the playground. But this was too American a name in 1960s Chile, where he changed again to the poetic 'Ariel'. In Chile, the teenage Ariel rejected English as a tool of imperialist America and rediscovered Spanish as the language that would make him 'whole'.

As well as an autobiography, Heading South, Looking North is an essay on the nature of language and identity. Dorfman argues that one moulds the other, and to some extent his point is made by the way this book is written. Spanish is an indulgent language which tolerates the lengthy and somewhat flowery exploration of ideas. English, demanding precision, can reduce these to rambling. He may be bilingual, but Dorfman writes as a Latin American, in long sentences which sometimes go verbless, or jump tenses.

To be fair, this untrammelled style conveys a passion and anger which more careful prose might dampen down. Dorfman writes with painful honesty about the failures of his youth, about the doomed Allende presidency - which he served as a cultural adviser - and about the dangers of power.

I didn't really care if [our opponents] were scared. The truth is that we came to enjoy their fear, the thrill that power over them and over destiny gave us. …

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