Ariel Dorfman

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International exile is the condition that shapes the life and work of Ariel Dorfman, the writer born Vladimiro Dorfman who survived the political upheavals of the twentieth century. His father, Adolfo Dorfman, was born in 1907 in Odessa to a well-to-do Jewish family who emigrated to Buenos Aires in 1909 to escape creditors. The writer’s mother, Fanny Zelicovich Vaisman, was born in 1909 in Kishinev, where her grandfather had been murdered in the pogrom of 1903. The family emigrated to Argentina when Fanny was three months old.{$S[A]Dorfman, Vladimiro;Dorfman, Ariel}

Always leftist and rebellious, Adolfo had joined the Communist Party by the early 1930’s, and when his only son was born in 1942, he named him Vladimiro, after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. A year later, a military coup toppled the Argentine government and brought Juan Perón to power. When the military commanders took over the Universidad de la Plata, where Adolfo taught, he resigned after submitting a scathing letter denouncing the Peronistas’ repression and ignorance. Adolfo fled to the United States, and in February, 1945, his wife, daughter, and son joined him in New York. There, the young Vladimiro caught pneumonia and was surrounded in the hospital by English speakers. On his release three weeks later, he refused to speak any language but English.

The year 1945 produced another trauma. His mother, depressed by the difficult circumstances of life, was overwhelmed by the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April and broke down completely. His father placed her in an institution and his children in a foster home. The Dorfman family was reunited on her release. Adolfo worked at the United Nations in the Council for Economic Development, but by 1949 Russia had detonated a nuclear bomb, and the Cold War was escalating. By the early 1950’s Senator Joseph McCarthy, head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, called the United Nations and told officials there to “get that troublemaker Dorfman out of here.” Adolfo left immediately to serve the United Nations in Santiago. Eight months later, when Vladimiro finished high school and had changed his hated name to Edward (although not legally), the family of expatriates reunited again in Chile.

The young Dorfman attended school in Chile, studying in Spanish while longing for the United States. He attended the University of Chile, taught classes, and fell in love with Anjelica, the woman who would become his wife. Still tormented by his dual identity, Dorfman, his wife, and the first of his two sons went to Berkeley, California, in 1968. Disillusioned with the movement protesting the Vietnam War, the family returned to Chile, where Dorfman threw himself into the democratic movement that brought Salvador Allende to power in 1970. He became cultural adviser to the president’s chief of staff and wrote a book, How to Read Donald Duck, that suggested the cartoons featuring that character were a tool of imperialist domination.

On September 11, 1973, came the defining event of Dorfman’s life. He heard on the radio that a military junta had overtaken Chile, murdering Allende and establishing General Augusto Pinochet Ugarto as head of the government. Dorfman would have expected to be summoned to the national palace in case of such an emergency, but for inexplicable reasons, he was not called, which saved his life. Forced into exile for many years, he has divided his time between Santiago and the United States since the restoration of democracy in his homeland in 1990. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, and has taught at Duke University since 1985.

Dorfman deals with the Pinochet coup in many of his subsequent works, including The Empire’s Old Clothes, Widows, The Last Song of Manuel Senderos, Máscaras, and My House Is on Fire. Death and the Maiden, his play that deals with the aftermath of terror and torture, won the Time Out award as best play of the year and the Sir Lawrence Olivier Award as Best Play of the Year in 1991. Director Roman Polanski made the play into a film of the same name, released in the United States in 1994. In addition to his many books, Dorfman is a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Nation.

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