Ariel Dorfman 1942-
Argentinean-born Chilean novelist, critic, essayist, playwright, short story writer, poet, memoirist, travel writer, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Dorfman's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 48 and 77.
Dorfman is considered one of Latin America's most original social critics and fiction writers. He is best known for his essays, novels, and plays, in which he examines such topics as exile, life under authoritarian rule, the influence of popular culture on social and political values, and the interaction of power, language, and ideology. A world renowned political activist, Dorfman has garnered considerable attention for his outspoken opposition to cultural imperialism and political repression. His most recognized work, Death and the Maiden (1991), graphically explores the lasting impact of military aggression and torture on the individual.
Born in Buenos Aires, Dorfman was two years old when his family was forced to flee to the United States due to his father's opposition to the Argentine government. Dorfman spent the next ten years in New York City, where his father worked for the United Nations, before the family settled in Chile in 1954. After completing his education at the University of Chile, Dorfman became a naturalized Chilean citizen in 1967. A year later, while working as an activist, journalist, and writer, he published his first book, El absurdo entre cuatro paredes: El teatro de Harold Pinter (1968), a critical analysis of English playwright Harold Pinter. Following the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, Dorfman was again forced into exile, living intermittently in Argentina, France, the Netherlands, and the United States. As a contributor to English and Spanish journals and a frequent guest on television news programs, Dorfman remained an active participant in Chile's political and social affairs. He returned to Chile in 1990 after Pinochet relinquished his position to his popularly-elected successor Patricio Alywin. Dorfman eventually settled in Durham, North Carolina, where he has taught at Duke University since 1984. He has frequently contributed essays, articles, and stories to a variety of periodicals, including Harper's, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, and The Washington Post. Dorfman has also held teaching positions at such universities as the University of Chile, the Sorbonne, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Maryland. An internationally acclaimed literary figure, Dorfman received the New American Plays Award from the Kennedy Center for Widows (1988) and the Sir Laurence Olivier Award for best play for Death and the Maiden.
The interaction of culture and politics is a recurrent theme in Dorfman's nonfiction. In Para leer al Pato Donald (1972; How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic) and Reader's nuestro que estás en la tierra: Ensayos sobre el imperialismo cultural (1980; The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds), Dorfman argues that such forms of popular literature as cartoons, comic books, children's stories, and the magazine Reader's Digest subliminally promote capitalist ideology and encourage passivity. Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction (1991) presents critical analyses of a selection of contemporary Latin American authors—such as Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jose Maria Arguedas—noting the themes of political violence and repression prevalent in their works. Dorfman's 1998 memoir, Heading South, Looking North, chronicles his maturation as a political activist and author, while addressing the complex nature of language and identity. Dorfman reflects on how his bilingualism has affected his life and his relationship to the United States and Chile. Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet (2002) offers a journalistic account of the lengthy legal trial of the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, examining the politician's rise to power and the numerous abuses that took place during his tyrannical reign.
In Dorfman's fictional works, he often emphasizes the long-lasting impact of political oppression on the human spirit. Published the same year as Pinochet's overthrow of Allende, Dorfman's first novel, Moros en la costa (1973; Hard Rain), explores the appropriateness of writing in the midst of mass murder, exploitation, and poverty. The short stories in Cría ojos (1979; My House Is on Fire) present a series of vignettes describing how individuals retain a sense of hope while living under a repressive military regime. Viudas (1981; Widows) centers on the struggle between an autocratic government and thirty-seven women who suspect that their missing husbands were abducted and killed by the authorities. Although Dorfman set the novel in occupied Greece during the 1940s to avoid government censorship, he changed the setting to Chile when he adapted the novel for the stage in 1988. Similarly, Dorfman portrayed a people's battle against an abusive power in La ùltima canción de Manuel Sendero (1982; The Last Song of Manuel Sendero), a complex novel containing multiple strands of labyrinthine narrative voices. The novel combines storylines told from several unusual perspectives, such as unborn fetuses who refuse to enter a world filled with violence and fear, two exiled Chilean cartoonists, and the characters within the cartoonists's comic strip. Dorfman utilized an analogous technique in Máscaras (1988; Mascara), wherein he incorporates the monologues of a voyeuristic photographer, an amnesiac woman with multiple personalities, and a plastic surgeon whose operations provide politicians with the faces the public expects.
A drama addressing morality and justice in post-Pinochet Chile, Death and the Maiden is set in an unnamed country recently returned to a democratic government after an era of fearsome repression. The protagonist, Paulina, is the wife of a lawyer asked to serve on a commission investigating the crimes under the previous government, including Paulina's rape and torture. Through her husband, Paulina meets the man she believes raped her—she was never allowed to see his face during her imprisonment. She kidnaps the man and places him on trial for his crimes in her own home. Dorfman later collaborated with Rafael Yglesias to adapt Death and the Maiden for a 1994 film by noted director Roman Polanski. Told almost entirely through dialogue, Dorfman's novel Konfidenz (1994) chronicles the ambiguous relationships between several individuals associated with a London political movement. In the play Reader (1995), the author concentrates on the issue of censorship and how it affects individuals and history. The lead character is a government censor who commits his wife to a mental institution after she espouses anti-government opinions. Based on a true-life event, Nana y el iceberg (1999; The Nanny and the Iceberg constructs a narrative around a terrorist's attempt to blow up an iceberg submitted as an exhibit from Chile to the 1992 World's Fair. Stylistically, the novel is presented as a suicide note e-mailed from the protagonist, Gabriel, to his girlfriend. Inspired by the nonfiction work by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, Dorfman's play Speak Truth to Power: Voices from beyond the Dark (2000) combines the testimonies of torture survivors with statements from some of the world's leading social activists, including the Dalai Lama and Václav Havel. In Blake's Therapy (2001), Dorfman examines the corruptive power of corporate culture on the lives of individuals and the lure of voyeuristic entertainment. The plot centers around Graham Blake, the chief executive officer of a corporation called Clean Earth, who has not been able to sleep in three months due to a crisis of conscience. His associates arrange for him to come under the care of Dr. Tolgate, an immoral psychologist who treats executives plagued with moral dilemmas. Tolgate places Blake in total control of a poor Puerto Rican family, allowing Blake to play God and discover his true nature. In 2002 Dorfman published In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poems from Two Languages, a retrospective collection of his poetic works throughout his career.
Critical scholarship on Dorfman's oeuvre has been varied, with scholars alternately focusing on his atypical narrative structures and his firm emphasis on promoting social justice. His early critical works, How to Read Donald Duck and The Empire's Old Clothes, have been praised for their insights on a rarely studied topic, though some have faulted Dorfman for failing to place his analyses within a firm social context. Scholars have frequently placed Dorfman within the tradition of such experimental Latin American novelists as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. His novels have been acclaimed by critics for their innovative narrative forms and complex thematic material. For example, Mascara has won acclaim for constructing a unique political allegory, which drew comparisons to the works of Franz Kafka and Günter Grass. However, many reviewers have derided Dorfman's fiction, arguing that his works feature convoluted plots and overwritten narratives. Though Death and the Maiden has unquestionably been Dorfman's most popular work, it has also received a diverse and conflicting range of scholarship. While some have lauded Death and the Maiden's powerful evocation of the emotional impact of torture, others have complained that the play is dramatically inert and overly polemic. The recurring political and socially conscious themes in Dorfman's works have been widely debated by commentators. His supporters have argued that Dorfman's texts present an unified vision that reject all forms of political repression, while his detractors have asserted that such political posturing interferes with the emotional truth of his narratives.