Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile

  • By Ariel Dorfman
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 352 pp.

This book, the cleansing of a political exile’s soul, forces readers to contemplate disturbing truths.

Chile’s major export is copper, but in the 20th century her most famous exports were political exiles, among them Ariel Dorfman, author of Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile. Dorfman, a prolific writer who is best known in the U.S. for his drama Death and the Maiden, tells how his dream as an exile was to return to live in Chile, and why he decided, after what he thought was a permanent return there in 1990, to leave Chile and live in the United States, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.

The structural backbone of this book consists of passages from the diary Dorfman kept during the six months he lived in Chile starting in July 1990. Interspersed with these are accounts of his years in exile which began in 1973, when the Allende government which he had worked to bring about was overthrown by the coup that brought Pinochet to power. Portions of the book also deal with his trip to Chile in 2006 to make the documentary film, A Promise to the Dead, based on his 1998 memoir, Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey. Both his diary and his story of the filming call forth memories of the Chile he loved and had to leave, and include accounts of what happened there while he was away.

To some degree, the book serves as a tribute to those who were exiled, killed, tortured, or disappeared under the Pinochet regime, as Dorfman recounts dozens of their stories. He tells of his own survivor’s guilt that led him to work to rally his fellow exiles and their supporters to bring democracy back to Chile. He also pleads for a means to go forward, beyond the enmities that have divided not only Chile, but other countries around the world. He wants wrongs to be acknowledged and suffering to be remembered, but empathy and trust to prevail. “Writing this book has been my therapy,” he says, and one can imagine Dorfman on the couch, pouring out a stream of fury at the betrayers of his hopes for Chile; paying grateful tribute to those who supported him, especially his wife and his parents; reminiscing about reunions and telling of his hopes and dreams for the future. He does not wish to speak to an impassive listener, however. As he puts it, he does “whatever is necessary to get it out of my system and onto the page, into the lives of readers, so I can be cleansed and they can be disturbed.”

This stream of consciousness can cause some confusion and raise questions that do not get answered, as Dorfman sometimes tosses in a tidbit that fits the moment he describes, but which he only partially explains. For example, Dorfman writes that he came to New York from his native Argentina as an infant because of his father’s work, and that because of McCarthyism, his father was forced out of his job and consequently brought the family to Chile. Somehow, his parents wound up in Argentina again, apparently prosperous, yet we never find out when or why. Exile seems to be a family tradition, as Dorfman notes that one grandmother, who had been an interpreter for Trotsky, had to flee Odessa twice, and that the other had to leave Kishinev (now Chisinau) to escape the pogroms that had killed her husband. More details of his father’s story would have been welcome, not only to clarify why he lived in Argentina, which was no safer than Chile for a leftist, but because Dorfman writes of his parents so lovingly that one would like to know more about them.

Language is one of the important subjects of this memoir –– as it relates both to Dorfman’s bilingualism (he lived in New York City from the time he was a little over 2 until he was 12, and went to graduate school at Berkeley) and to his love of the written word. Quotations, literary references and bits of popular culture abound: everything from Aeschylus to Woody Guthrie, a screed against the Paris of Dorfman’s exile years that is flavored with many of the romantic songs about that city, even some of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy pours out. A line from Aeschylus provides the book’s title, and each section of the book is preceded by a quotation from Ovid, Dante, Brecht, and Neruda, all exiles at some time in their lives, and, from Robert Frost, the famous definition of home as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

How that place came to be the United States is the story of Feeding on Dreams: specifically, what made Dorfman decide that the country he holds responsible for undermining Allende’s government could become his home, and why he is unrepentant in his choice. In telling that story with verve and passion, Dorfman succeeds in making sure that his readers are disturbed, and while he may be cleansed, it is very unlikely that he will ever get it out of his system.

Alice Padwe has previously reviewed fiction set in prehistoric times, and has edited all sorts of books from college texts to spy thrillers.

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