|Ariel Dorfman chronicles his life after the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende. (Les Todd)|
Yearning for home, Chilean finds transformation in exile
‘All I ever wanted was to come home,’’ renowned Chilean writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman writes in the opening of “Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.’’ From the moment the young leftist was forced to flee for his life in December 1973 following the coup against President Salvador Allende, his “one devouring obsession’’ was to return to Chile. But when Dorfman finally returns to his homeland 17 years later, after struggling in absentia for its freedom, it is so different from the country he has safeguarded in his dreams that it no longer fits his idea of “home.’’ “Feeding on Dreams’’ chronicles those years in exile and Dorfman’s attempts at reconciling with his beloved country.
Dorfman, whose body of acclaimed fiction and nonfiction includes the internationally staged play “Death and the Maiden,’’ chronicled his early days in Chile in his first memoir, “Heading South, Looking North,’’ which was the basis for the Oscar-nominated documentary film “A Promise to the Dead.’’
“Feeding on Dreams’’ spans the decades of displacement that followed and provides a compelling, profound portrait of shattered expectations and transformation. He observes, “[W]e live in times when, in some twisted sense, we are all exiles, all of us like a motherless child a long way from home, times when we are threatened with annihilation if we do not find and celebrate the refuge of a common humanity, as I believe I did during my decades of loss and resurrection.’’
“Feeding on Dreams’’ dwells a little too much on Dorfman’s self-identity as a writer and the act of writing itself - or lack of writing, as when survivor’s guilt triggers a writer’s block of nearly two years, shutting down his mission to keep the resistance alive through language.
In addition to his personal confessions, Dorfman movingly tells the stories of those he meets along the way, those he remembers from his past, stories of terror, rage, heartbreak, generosity and resilience. As he recalls, he comes to recognize the convoluted machinations of politics and the vast complexities of the human spirit. One of Dorfman’s most painful realizations was that not all of his compañeros would be able to hold on to their passion and compassion through the miseries of exile. Dorfman traces the almost crippling stress on his wife and his two sons created by his family’s frequent uprootings - to Buenos Aires, Havana, Paris, Amsterdam, Washington, and finally Durham, N.C., where he teaches at Duke University.
“Feeding on Dreams’’ is not a heated page-turner, but a work to savor for its remarkable moments and extraordinary language. Dorfman has a stunning gift for metaphoric lyricism. The memoir bounds back and forth in time through a maze of memories. It’s a little like shuffling through a box of scrambled snapshots, having the photographer muse poetically about each one. It’s a bit repetitive, and it can be tricky to keep track of some of the basics - wait, what happened when? Readers might find themselves frequently consulting the book’s timeline at the end to get their bearings.
Dorfman admits it’s a structural challenge. “Life may unfold chronologically for the body and for bureaucracies that keep track of such things as births, marriages, deaths, visas, tax returns, expulsions, and identity cards,’’ he writes, “but memory does not play this game in quite the same way, always manages to confound the desire for tidiness.’’ Yet he includes the chronology at the end for those of us craving a sense of order. “[H]ow could I, of all people, deny to those who wander in the desert a stable glimpse of stars that can perhaps guide them to a safe haven?’’
Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.