Ariel Dorfman Essay - Critical Essays


Ariel Dorfman takes his subject matter from his experience with the cultural and political crosscurrents that cause much of the suffering of ordinary people, who often cannot speak for themselves and are disenfranchised, powerless, and segregated. They also may be “absented,” that is, forcibly “disappeared” by the ruling classes (including repressive governments), or even killed. Dorfman’s novels, short stories, poems, and plays often depict individuals caught in mysterious, ominous, and threatening circumstances that are manipulated by amorphous political powers, powers embodied in distant yet ubiquitous governing bodies. There is a certain kinship with the novels of Franz Kafka.

Dorfman’s memoir Heading South, Looking North takes its title from Dorfman’s own constant movement between the United States and South America, between English and Spanish, and between life and the threat of death. The narrative of his works often traces a character or a group trying to survive or at least circumvent some form of oppression. No doubt, much of his inspiration derives from his life in Chile under Pinochet, Argentina under Perón, and the United States under the thumb of Senator Joseph McCarthy or in the middle of concealed machinations of the Central Intelligence Agency. His own perpetual exile over so many years certainly contributed to a feeling of displacement and rootlessness.

In terms of style, all these experiences led him to adopt a multilayered structure to his novels, juxtaposing reflections, parallel action, surveillance, mystery, uncertainty, and distrust. What happens on one level has reverberations on another level. Almost always, some malevolent force operates at the most basic level. This appears, for example, in the voice at the other end of the telephone line in the novel Konfidenz, in the deceptions and betrayals in Mascara, the frightening distrust in the play Death and the Maiden, and even in the threats of the wolves in the children’s story “The Rabbits’ Rebellion,” published in book form in 2001.


Written in 1982, when Chile was still under the oppressive regime of Pinochet, Widows portrays the frightening mystery of “disappearing persons.” In several countries, including Chile, Argentina, and El Salvador, certain people were taken from their homes—often in the dead of night—by state police, and were never heard from again. Dorfman initially planned to publish this novel as if written by “Eric Lohmann,” a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Denmark. That fictional author disguised his true subject by placing the action of Widows in a fictional town in Greece under Nazi domination. The original plan was to publish the novel in Danish, with later translations into English and Spanish. When the publisher balked, Dorfman authorized its publication in the United States under his own name, but he retained the original “voice” of Lohmann. Sirgud Lohmann, the putative son of Eric Lohmann, contributed a foreword to his “father’s” book, explaining that it had been completed just before the Gestapo took his father away. Only much later, according to Sirgud Lohmann’s account, was the “Widows” manuscript discovered among other papers and periodicals in a trunk at Sirgud’s aunt’s home.

With this as a framework, the novel portrays a fictitious Greek town under a fascist regime whose orders are carried out by a nameless captain newly appointed to this command. His predecessor, Captain Gheorghakis, had been very efficient and managed to disappear thirty-seven men,...

(The entire section is 1487 words.)