The women who still wait

Visiting author Ariel Dorfman tells how writing Widows mirrored his struggle to come to terms with Chile’s terrible past

CHILE and South Africa are linked by their experience of tyranny. The parallels come especially to mind with the current visit of Chilean playwright and novelist Ariel Dorfman, who is speaking at the Grahamstown Festival and other venues.

Dorfman was driven from his homeland in 1973, at the start of the dictatorship of General Ugarte Pinochet. In the years that followed, thousands of Chileans “disappeared” – dragged from their beds and murdered by the police. Dorfman, famed for his play, Death and the Maiden, spent 20 years writing another novel and play, Widows – the story of the women who kept searching for their missing menfolk.

IT was 1976, and in the three years since General Ugarte Pinochet seized power in Chile I had wandered over Latin America and Europe, finally settling in Holland. It was there, in Amsterdam, that the story first came to me.

I was working on a painful series of poems about the missing, the men and women who, snatched from their homes by the secret police in the silence of the night, are never heard of again, their bodies denied to their relatives as if they had never existed.

As I wrote, I could feel myself being turned into a bridge through which the living and the dead were trying to communicate. By allowing the voices of the disappeared and their families to speak to each other I was also finding a way of returning to the country where my own body – and the words I was writing – were forbidden.

I was placing myself imaginatively in that place I had escaped to so I could be a channel for the voices that seemed to be taking possession of my throat.

One night I was visited by an image, almost a hallucination: an old woman by a river, holding the hand of a body that had just washed up on the bank. And the certainty that this scene had happened before, that this was not the first time the river had yielded a dead man to the arms of that old and twisted woman.

I wrote all night, the same poem over and over again, trying to hear that woman I had invented and who nevertheless seemed to have a life of her own.

I spent those long, dark European hours trying to drag that woman out of the darkness inside me, the darkness on the other side of the world where she lay trapped in oblivion and indifference. And by dawn a new poem, almost like a new-born child, was there on the table where we ate our meals.

So. It was done. The old woman had been given a voice, she was free to roam the earth in that poem and speak her lines. I had done my job. Now it was up to her to do hers.

Except that the old woman was not content with this. As the years went by, I could not rid myself of the certainty that there was more, much more, to her story than what I had written, that in the poem I had merely grazed the outer skin of that pain, of that fierce determination of hers. She wanted a further destiny and she would not rest until I had given it to her.

Perhaps she would never have been successful – after all, I cannot dispense that sort of service to every one of the crazed literary creatures who mill around inside me – if she had not formed an alliance with another obsession of mine: the need to be published in my own country, to reach the audience the dictatorship was denying me.

I was particularly worried about the young people back in Chile and in other countries of Latin America who were suffering the same tyranny, the same armies imposing death and defeat.

And I began to wonder if I could not write a novel dealing with the disappeared, telling the story of that old woman and that river and those bodies and that captain, but using a pseudonym, disguising my name and perhaps even the country where this was happening.

A great deal of the horror of Chile was after all enhanced by the fact that this sort of tragedy and this sort of resistance had occurred before in history, that we seemed to be repeating, 40 years after the Nazi experiments, some of the same endless sorrows and iniquities.

What if I were to make up a Danish author who, living under the German occupation of his country, had written this story, a fictitious author who would himself be a missing person? What if that story about an old woman by a river in a place like, say, Greece, had been lost and was now being published for the first time? What if that novel, supposedly written by that Danish author, happened to be translated into Spanish and sold in Chile? How could the authorities of my country object? How would they know I was the real author?

Some time in the summer of 1978, I began to write that novel which I called, from the very beginning, Widows. And in the months that followed my thoughts turned to those in the real world of real frontiers and real censors who could help me fool the dictatorship in Chile.

My primary partners in this wild scam turned out to be two fellow writers. Heinrich Bll, the German Nobel Prize winner who had helped Alexander Solzhenitsyn smuggle his manuscripts out of the Soviet Union, was delighted with the opportunity of assisting a Chilean writer smuggle his manuscript into his own country.

And a month later in Paris the Argentine writer Julio Cortzar, who had been like a brother to me in those years of exile, told me he would gladly and mischievously appear as the “translator” of the book into Spanish from the French.

All I needed now was for a publisher who brought out books in Chile, Argentina and Spain – and had originally shown some enthusiasm for the project – to give me the green light. But when the man read the manuscript, he demurred. He wasn’t ready, he said, to risk his whole enterprise on this sort of adventure: the military would quickly see through the ruse and he, his employees and investors would have to suffer Pinochet’s displeasure. There is nothing an army hates more than being made fun of.

So I was left stranded with my old woman on this side of the barrier of fear that still surrounded Chile. She had been unable to smuggle me back into my country. But, she suggested, the world was still there, as much in need of this story as Chile. We should circulate it abroad, wherever we could, until that remote day when Chile would be free to receive my words and hers.

I published the novel under my own name. It was no longer necessary to bother Bll and Cortzar. Several foreign editors suggested that I should now make the story more overtly Latin American and militant and denunciatory. Instead, I decided to preserve the framing device.

I did not want readers to feel that this was merely some exotic abuse in lands that they had barely heard of. I wanted them to ask themselves about the connections between my country and theirs, my present and their past, our present and their future.

Besides, I had discovered that my ability to pretend someone else had written that narrative had had a liberating effect on it.

This allegorical approach helped to solve an artistic dilemma that besieges many authors who deal with contemporary political issues: how to write about matters that have extraordinary documentary weight without being subjected to the grinding jaws of a “realism”.

This dilemma of how to tell a story that was historical yet which demanded freedom from that history would come back to haunt me in the story’s next embodiment, when, one day in 1985, I got a call from Judy James, then with the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, who thought it cried out to become a play and eventually a film.

The old woman inside me agreed. She wanted more people to see her life, to witness how she had not allowed death to dictate that life. She wanted to live again, this time on stage.

Thus began one of the longest and most arduous creative odysseys of my existence. The poem had taken a night to compose and the novel a year. The play was to bedevil me for almost a decade.

The play of Widows had many incarnations. Eventually it opened in Los Angeles in 1991 – 10 days after Death and the Maiden had its premire at the Royal Court in London.

As I watched the performance of Widows, there was something still missing, something the novel had possessed and that this play, for all its power, had not yet managed to achieve.

I had no idea what that missing something could be – only that I had now strayed too far from the original vision and that I had to find a way to get back to it.

My next few years were filled with Death and the Maiden. I found neither the time or the tranquillity to return to Widows.

And yet, for me, it was always there, demanding to find its voice and be complete. This secret dialogue with myself might well have gone on forever if an invitation had not come to stage the play at the Edinburgh Festival.

The major modification was to frame the play with a narrator who is himself an exile – who watches, witnesses and suffers the action from afar. I suspect that my decision to introduce this enigmatic male figure into the action, and then let him be swallowed by it, will be controversial.

Suffice it to say that I felt I needed someone like him to distance the tragedy, while paradoxically bringing it closer to us and our impure contemporary world. The exile that had been the origin of my relationship with that old woman had to be infiltrated back into the story.

Perhaps in its next incarnation – in Widows the film, which I am sure will eventually find its way into a world in dire need of its message – the narrator will again disappear, this time fused into the tender and alien lens of the camera.

I have left for the end the most important acknowledgment. I made up that old woman. I invented her and her family and that river and that captain who does not know how to deal with her. If she could come from my imagination, however, it was because she was inspired by real women who searched for real bodies in a real world more cruel and inhuman than anything I finally described in my fiction.

Democracy has returned now to Chile and to so many other countries where those widows resisted the military and demanded their men back. Democracy has returned, but many of those women are still waiting for the return of their fathers, their husbands, their brothers, their sons, many of them are still waiting for a river or a god to bring those bodies back from the dead.

And the bodies are also waiting, somewhere; still accusing the men who murdered them, still waiting for justice to be done, still demanding to be remembered by a society that is all too willing to forget.


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