Sunday, September 23, 2012

Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile - Ariel Dorfman

This review was first published in Upside Down World here.
Ariel Dorfman was thirty-one years old and working as a cultural advisor to President Salvador Allende when Augusto Pinochet's military coup abruptly destroyed the socialist revolution. The actions of the dictatorship created a reign of macabre realities which would split Chilean narratives into opposing memory camps. Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile (HMH Books, 2011) is an eloquent memoir which fluctuates between reflections on death and exile - the meaning of not having died next to Allende in the presidential palace La Moneda, and Dorfman's own exile, a decision enforced by Allende’s advisors and which very possibly saved his life, yet which has assailed Dorfman with a tenacious need to question his own role and actions within that particular era of Chilean history.

The book moves rapidly from one event to another, disrupting chronology whilst creating an intense discussion of contrasts – death and exile, the revolutionary and the exile, the desaparecidos and the exile, language and exile. Exile becomes a single constant which, as time passes, exudes a certain inevitable detachment from the reality that is Chile. There is no reconciliation with the revolutionary past in exile – an issue which Dorfman struggled against for many years in various countries as he futilely sought to aid the Chilean resistance from abroad during the first years of exile in Paris and Amsterdam.

El pueblo unido – the people united in a socialist revolution under the banner of the Unidad Popular disintegrated in exile. A hierarchy developed within the exiled community, leading to strife within the movement struggling to develop a resistance movement against Pinochet. Dorfman recounts how his family had been promised an apartment in Paris by Carlos Iturra, author of the famous hymn Venceremos, at “solidarity rental rates.” The family moved their belongings to the apartment, only to discover a few days later that Iturra had received threatening phone calls from dictatorship sympathisers. The location was presumably unsafe. However, upon collecting their luggage from the apartment, it became evident to the family that the hierarchy of the Communist Party had negotiated with Iturra to reside in the apartment. Iturra was, at that moment, organising a vacation in the Alps for children of Chilean exiles. The sense of a community united in a revolutionary stance had deteriorated.

“Exile destroys children along with the parents.” Dorfman recounts how his children, Rodrigo and Joaquin struggle with identity and history in exile. Whilst the eldest, Rodrigo, gradually eliminates traces of Chile in his art, Joaquin seemingly fails to absorb the Chilean identity. Dorfman describes how the Andes Mountains feature prominently in Chilean children’s artwork – a characteristic which holds no fascination for Joaquin, born in exile. However, both sons are affected by the consequences of dictatorship and exile. Rodrigo has imbibed a rebellious streak which leads him to a return to Chile and subsequent filming of protests. Joaquin is haunted by the stories of the desaparecidos and the terror inflicted upon Chileans, such as the story of Rodrigo Rojas – a young man who, along with his girlfriend Carmen Gloria Quintana, had been doused with paraffin and torched. Their bodies were dumped in a ditch – at the exact location where three dissidents were discovered with slit throats only a year earlier. Dorfman admits an inconsistency between the lies designed to protect children from the horrors of the dictatorship and the children’s absorption of the truth.

The ramifications of exile flow into metaphorical prose. Dorfman distinguishes between various facets of exile – the actual departure from Chile, and the indefinite aspect – which lead the author to hold on to a library inside their house in Chile which was being used as a safe house for the MAPU, instead of acquiring new books. Exile created contradictions, ambiguity and barriers, as Dorfman realises that the revolutionary who joined the struggle for a socialist revolution, who was present when Allende saluted the people a week prior to the military coup, had distanced himself from his compa├▒eros in Chile. After a long process in which he persisted in identifying with the resistance in exile and aiding the movement, Dorfman’s evolution veers towards the intellectual writer whose memories and stories are festering within an increasingly permanent exile and the still imagery of the revolutionary past.

Dorfman struggles with the truth as the exile commences in Buenos Aires. Narrating the case of Victor Jara, he tells of how a writer described Victor having his hands cut off by the lieutenants – an erroneous statement which portrayed how legends mingled with truth to construct a false reality. Another experience of false memory is Dorfman’s recollection of a photograph of him taken a week before the coup in front of La Moneda. His memory is of him in revolutionary stance, fists in the air. When the photo resurfaces, Dorfman discovers a pensive version of himself next to writer Antonio Skarmeta. The illusion of el pueblo unido had vanquished the actual memory – exile implants images in the mind of the exile and constructs an alternative reality.

It is not only actual memories that abscond from the exile. Pinochet’s reign contaminated language and society by referring to torture as ‘excesses,’ whilst the dictatorship was described as a ‘regime.’ The euphemisms contributed toward the cycle of impunity and infiltrated social circles where new alliances were being forged, with some former socialists seeking to gain elite status by liaising with the right wing – a phenomenon which Dorfman states was blatantly portrayed in the social pages of newspaper El Mercurio.

The book is also replete with stories of people from Chile. Carlos - the carpenter who hid Allende’s poster behind the boards in his workshop until Pinochet was arrested in London. Patricia, the wife of a right wing thug who used her husband’s status as a cover to transport Allende supporters to safety in a car gifted to her husband by DINA. Susana Weiner, who worked as a courier for MAPU, played a role in saving the lives of dissidents, including Dorfman, and was entrusted with transcribing notes describing torture in detention centres and smuggling them out of Chile. Their experiences, combined with the stories of the detenidos desaparecidos and President Patricio Aylwin’s initiative during the transition to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged Dorfman to contribute towards furthering the struggle, resulting in two particular publications written in exile.

Widows (1978) is a novel which deals with a group of women who refuse to hand over a body which washed ashore. As the novel was published, the first desaparecidos were being discovered in Chile. In the memoirs, Dorfman describes the act of disappearing people as an aberration on existence. “Disappearance was an outrage against the chemistry and structure of life itself. The bodies of the missing were wrenched out of the normal progression of existence ...” The outrage of the discovery contrasts sharply with another discovery of bodies in 1990, where younger Chileans born after the coup were less interested in the process. According to Dorfman, this discovery was a disruption in their lives which necessitated excavation and destruction of a football pitch.

Death and the Maiden (Penguin Classics) [Mass Market Paperback]
However, in his renowned play entitled Death and the Maiden, Dorfman shows how torture survivors were side-lined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Paulina – a torture survivor whose husband is a lawyer working on behalf of the Commission, kidnaps the man she believes to be her torturer and subjects him to a trial, appointing her husband as her oppressor’s defence lawyer. Paulina insists she wants the truth – a truth which till now wallows in impunity as torturers and victims walk side by side on Chilean streets, depriving torture survivors of their right to justice and the opportunity to inscribe their testimonies.

Dorfman describes how torture tarnishes universal expression such as music. The last scene features Paulina listening to Schubert in a concert – the music played during her torture session. The reconciliation with her favourite music was brought about after the confession was extracted from her torturer – the right to truth as opposed to sacrificing one’s self for the better of the democratic transition.

In the fragments of Dorfman’s diary of his return to Chile in 1990, the author grapples with the realisation that his experiences and that of the Chilean nation have diverged so greatly, it is impossible to nurture the dream of returning to live in Chile. The fragile transition, which sought to reconcile, rather than call for justice in order to avoid disruptions in the process, differed greatly from Dorfman’s vision of returning to the people united in a collective struggle. Exile further split the left wing memory camp, as those who remained in Chile looked upon exiles with certain resentment, contrasting the suffering they had endured with the relative comfort of escaping the horrors of the dictatorship.

Dorfman, unable to harmonize the experience of different memory camps on the left, decided to seek refuge in the US and later become a citizen of the same country which had conspired with Pinochet to overthrow Allende. He states that the desire to return was vanquished by the necessity to adjust, bringing to an end a previous personal conflict concerning language. Renouncing imperialism during the years of Allende’s presidency and the first years of exile also meant renouncing the English language, which Dorfman was familiar with since childhood, having lived in the US when his father and the family fled from Argentina. Throughout the course of exile and the subsequent return to Chile, Dorfman realises that language as a universal medium holds the power to navigate political borders and memory. Also, in Dorfman’s own words, acquiring US citizenship meant “I will never again go into exile.”

Personified by writers such as Milan Kundera, who Dorfman describes as “the saddest man I have ever seen,” and Antonio Skarmeta, author of Il Postino, who predicted Dorfman would never return to live in Chile, exile became the ultimate choice of survival, creating a refuge within another complex realm of loyalties.

Whilst the book might have benefited from a more chronological order, and the metaphorical prose might seem daunting for some readers, Dorfman has masterfully created a narrative so intricate and yet simple in its message. He lays bare the complexities of memory, made easier to follow once the reader acknowledges that memory knows no chronology but is rather a series of events that profoundly impacted the rememberer’s life, and the act of remembering is a process of cunningly implanting additional images and obliterating others. Most importantly, Dorfman furthers the split memory narrative by adding the memory of the exile, the desaparecidos and the torture survivors to the usual general divide between the supporters of Allende and those of Pinochet. As compromising as it may seem, Dorfman acknowledges the importance of embracing ambivalence in order to construct a narrative which berates, glorifies and wallows in despondency. The book emanates the turmoil of Dorfman’s complicated yearning to regain Allende’s years, and his unrepentant decision to seek shelter in a nation known for its oppression, in order to avoid repeating his own history.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: Selected Writings of V.I. Lenin

Revolution, Democracy, Socialism: V. I. Lenin
Get Political Series
Pluto Press, 2008

This review was first published in Irish Left Review here.

Hailed as essential reading for activists in the Occupy Movement, Lenin’s Revolution, Democracy, Socialism (Pluto Press, 2008), expounds upon the necessity of the working class achieving independence through political struggle in order to assert its supremacy and triumph over imperialism. Conscious of capitalism as a global phenomenon, Lenin’s writings reflect a revolutionary internationalist approach. Rather than affirm the reiteration that capitalism is unwavering, Lenin states that the conditions created by capitalism lay the foundations for a working class revolution.
“This struggle of the working class against the capitalist class is a struggle against all classes who live by the labour of others and against all exploitation.”
In his Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social Democratic Party, Lenin highlights the cycle of oppression brought about by industrial development: wealth gain for landowners resulting in poverty and displacement of peasants. The necessary emancipation of the working class against oppressor powers must be carried out by the workers themselves, hence the necessity of education in class consciousness. Class consciousness is defined as a struggle against capitalism, an affirmation of an international working class which is able to disseminate the perils of exploitation brought by private ownership of land and labour.

The reversal regarding capitalism’s stronghold on society sets the scene for Lenin’s activist base. Indeed, the writings in this book may be read as a treatise on activism leading to international revolution. Education, class struggle and activism are portrayed as necessary elements to consolidate the strength of the working class in its fight against capitalism, as opposed to “individual revolutionary ventures”, which diminish the effectiveness of the struggle against capitalists. Individual agitation which is not amalgamated into the workers’ movement has the tendency to separate socialism from the working class, weakening the struggle to the point of futility. A socialist movement needs to create its own political independence - this is achieved when the proletariat becomes conscious of its own struggle through education and organised individual agitation through a collective socialist political activity.

Lenin speaks of a social democratic movement, defined as a combination of the working class movement and socialism. Social democracy represents the workers’ movement and safeguards their political and ideological independence. Whilst imbuing the proletariat with socialism and political consciousness, Lenin views social democracy as the means through which a revolutionary party can be created in order to increase activism from the spontaneity of the working class movement.

Organisation of the struggle is a vital point for Lenin, who makes the distinction between revolt and strikes. Whilst a revolt is perceived as the reaction against oppression, strikes demand meticulous coordination resulting in widespread conscious struggle. If the proletariat is educated and trained in political consciousness, freedom and revolutionary activity, class political consciousness is achieved, described by Lenin as the “relationship of all classes and strata to the state and government, the sphere of interrelations between all classes.” Drawing upon the failure of the Russian’s peasants uprising in 1902, Lenin argues the failure was due to a lack of conscious political aim.

Another reversal of capitalist strategy with regard to democracy in this collection of writings paves the way for a more explicit international discussion of imperialism. In a bid to defame the concept of socialism, capitalism constructs a definition of democracy which alludes to freedom and achievement. The reality of a system which exploits and oppresses its citizens; hence the necessity of creating elusive human rights in recompense, is concealed by the illusion of freedom which it constantly imparts. Capitalists fear and therefore distort the definition of democracy, as its true nature would result in socialism. Lenin is adamant that the working class are educated and embrace the obligation of referring to, and associating their struggles with other historical struggles. Revolution cannot be isolated from history in the wake of capitalism’s expansion to a global empire.
“Wars cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and socialism is created.”
Lenin distinguishes between wars of aggression and wars of defence. In wars of aggression, civilians are deceived by manipulating national ideology and patriotism in order to consolidate the capitalist stronghold. A war of defence is a war against imperialism, instigated when powerful nations fabricate history and current events in order to manipulate civilians into dependence. In the light of this theory, war is perceived as necessary, legitimate and progressive. Lenin finds fault with pacifism, deeming it perilous for socialism as it allows counter-revolutionary progress to annihilate the socialist struggle. Citing Marx and Engels “No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations”, Lenin argues in favour of internationalism in war to unite the working class against imperialist powers.
“… the socialists of the oppressed nations must unfailingly fight for the compete unity of the workers of the oppressed and oppressor nationalities.”
Contrary to imperialist intervention, which glorifies war and occupation as a necessity to ‘protect civilians’, Lenin deftly exposes plundering of natural resources as the sole reason behind imperialist wars. “Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism” - the concentration of production, the seizure of natural resources, the dependence relationship between government and banks, as well as colonial policy are factors exploited by imperialism in order to consolidate its tyranny over civilians and nations. Thus, the duty of the socialist proletariat is to wage war upon imperialist motives and to remain conscious of internationalism.
“A proletariat that tolerates the slightest violence by its own nation cannot be called a socialist proletariat.”
US imperialism has, throughout history, increased its efforts to eradicate socialism and provided aid to countries whose violation of human rights is disregarded and indeed, praised. In Power and Terror: Conflict, Hegemony and the Rule of Force (Pluto Press 2011), Noam Chomsky quotes Colin Powell as saying “Colombia meets Washington’s human rights standards.” Despite the initial dissonance of such a statement, Chomsky exposes imperialist aims of providing humanitarian aid to oppressive nations. Lenin’s earlier awareness of imperialist oppression describes how the conquest of world hegemony by powerful nations blamed socialist struggle for any destruction. Socialists must emancipate themselves from imperialist slavery by annihilating the resistance of the exploiter powers.

Faced with “worldwide slaughter of nations for the division of profits”, Lenin argues that world revolution is imperative. Revolutionary aid should be given to people who have not yet educated themselves in revolutionary struggle and class consciousness in order to propagate ideological triumph and political freedom.