Argentine-Chilean-American novelist, playwright, and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman’s memoir, Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile
(2011), focuses on a singular, transformative event in Chile: the 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, during which Marxist President Salvador Allende committed suicide to escape certain torture, humiliation, and execution, and his constituents were forced to flee for their lives. For the two decades that followed, Chile was governed by a committee of military dictators called a junta. The committee suspended Chile’s Constitution and systematically persecuted suspected political dissidents, leading to the death or disappearance of more than 3,000 citizens. Dorfman’s memoirs recount his experience as a young dissident caught in the maelstrom of conflict and peril while holding out hope for the return of Chile’s democracy. After hiding out for years in Paris and Amsterdam, Dorfman found refuge in America, returning only briefly to his homeland when the democratic government resumed. The memoirs have been lauded as a chilling reminder that human rights and freedoms come with an incalculable price, and cannot be taken for granted even in the developed world.
Dorfman begins his memoir by contextualizing Chile in the 1970s international politics. Once a major copper-producing hub and thriving nation, it became overshadowed by political turmoil between Marxist and fascist ideologues who fought to seize different arms of government. Dorfman was involved in the creation of the optimistic but ill-fated and brief Allende government. Soon after its creation, it was overthrown in Pinochet’s coup. In the years that followed, Dorfman lived in exile, suffering the anguish of being divided from the country he loved. When he finally returned, in 1990, he kept a diary; he refers to these writings in the text, pointing out how alienated he felt upon returning and finding the place unrecognizable in many ways. Dorfman also took a trip to Chile in 2006 to film a documentary, A Promise to the Dead
. This documentary, and its originating memoir, Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey
, express his ambivalence about growing apart from a place he once loved.
Dorfman also pays tribute to the victims of the fascist government that persisted from 1973 to 1990. Thousands of people were killed or “disappeared” just for expressing dissent, and tens of thousands more were tortured. Dorfman suffered from survivor’s guilt, a burden that he partially relieved by working to reinstall democracy in Chile, risking his life yet again. Dorfman laments that violent struggles for democracy continue to happen throughout parts of the world believed to be fully emancipated from fascist regimes and dictators. Dorfman thanks his wife and parents for supporting him during his periods of intense anguish. Not all of his memories are bitter: he describes joyful family reunions that gave him hope for his nation’s future.
Dorfman’s memoir is unchronological: near the end, he turns to his early childhood and the stories of his ancestors. His earliest memories are of America—a country where he did not imagine he would someday become a citizen. When he was a baby, his father moved the family to New York from Argentina for work. His parents later returned to Argentina, a place no safer than Chile. Dorfman’s Jewish ancestors were exiles in the Trotsky era. They fled Odessa and Kishinev to escape the pogroms. His grandfather never made it out alive. At the end of his memoirs, Dorfman asserts, “We are all exiles.” By this, he means that we all depend on the continuous renewal of strong democratic norms in order to coexist peacefully. Ironically, only by losing this peaceful coexistence did Dorfman realize its fragility and value.