After Pinochet, a paean to remembrance

Tim Frasca is a journalist living in Chile who is researching and writing about Latin America's response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Ariel Dorfman's polemics do not often err on the side of excessive subtlety, but his new book prudently avoids over-explaining its suggestive title. The terrorism he refers to is the regime sort implied in the original coinage -- the French Jacobins' Reign of Terror -- rather than the Russian anarchist version based on the bomb and the revolver. Specifically, he catalogs Gen. Augusto Pinochet's terror, which peaked in the mid-1970s and cowed the population of Chile during its privileged-class counterrevolution.

In the midst of what could be called "horror fatigue," after so many revelations of the unthinkable around the world, Chile's 3,000-plus disappeared seem to pale into a sort of minor nightmare. But Dorfman's framework -- an account of Pinochet's 1998 arrest for human rights crimes and the subsequent legal maneuverings that led to his freedom -- is a sobering corrective. He argues that at least 150,000 Chileans were subjected to torture just during the first year of Pinochet's rule (1973-1990), while many thousands of others were active accomplices -- in a country of barely 10 million at the time of the coup. Dorfman's mix of current history and personal anecdote is a bracing reminder that an entire nation was not only successfully terrorized but also violently split into factions.

There is much grand irony and juicy detail in Dorfman's account of Pinochet's fawning servility, his "deep cunning under a mantle of gray invisibility" prior to the takeover. Any potential rivals were quickly marginalized or ousted. But the military's fiendishly clever tactic of "disappearing" political enemies boomeranged when certain British law lords found that kidnapping is an "ongoing crime" until the bodies are recovered and that Chile's amnesty did not protect him. Did Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher realize, when they signed the international Convention Against Torture in 1988, that one day judges specializing in commercial disputes would consider it a contract that had to be fulfilled? More infuriating is Dorfman's account of how the Chilean embassy in London was used for the rah-rah squads of wealthy Chileans who flew to London to support the aged dictator and demand a boycott of Scotch whiskey but turned away Chilean parliamentarians -- including slain President Salvador Allende's daughter -- who came to defend the arrest.

Dorfman does not shrink from his discomfort in seeing former opponents of the regime, including his own friends, "trapped" into arguing Pinochet's case and eventually succeeding. (Released by the British government on health grounds in 1999, Pinochet also escaped trial back home on a bogus "senility" defense.) At the same time, he cites the government's worn and false excuse -- that the country was in danger of "coming apart at the seams" and couldn't endure the trauma of a Pinochet trial -- for pulling out all the stops to save Pinochet's neck.

Dorfman liberally sprinkles faith-based asseverations that these "reformed" left-wingers are eagerly "coaxing the armed forces back into their barracks," implicitly recognizing that any such retreat is a strategic decision by the generals which they can promptly reverse if they so choose. On the other hand, Dorfman is aware of the attraction of Chile's wealthy elite for his friends in power, as well as the "weakness and craven timidity" with which they have handled the military throughout the transition.

But these nuances are less unsettling than another aspect of Dorfman's paean to remembrance, decency and justice. His anecdotal style leans toward self-absorption and unfiltered stream-of-my-consciousness, too often pausing to clarify that it-was-Tuesday-no-it-was-Wednesday, loading up more details of his personal life, thoughts and acquaintances than are either interesting or relevant. We need to know that Dorfman once took a call from Pinochet in La Moneda before the coup, but not that he can remember being "oh so clearly charmed by the beauty" of a friend's baby or the fact that both lawyer Garces and judge Garzon's names start with G-A-R.

Dorfman's emotional hyperkineticism also makes for overheated prose. Stylistically, he has a better ear for the quick quip ("If foreign friends have intervened in our affairs, it is because we have not intervened in them ourselves") than the evocative lyric. His fervid tone can slip into the unseemly, as when plumbing Pinochet's mentality for motives ("Penetrate into the fierce circle of your crimes and ask forgiveness.... You could help our shared motherland take one more step in the arduous, tentative task of reconciliation"). Despite the long Latin American tradition of writing from inside the brains of dictators (Roa Bastos in "I, the Supreme," Vargas Llosa on Trujillo, Garcia Marquez in "Autumn of the Patriarch"), there is something grotesque about pleading with the enemy to react. As Dorfman asks, "Can we resist the addictive relationship with a dictator?"

The urge for "exorcising" Pinochet, says Dorfman in a speculative coda, may be really a personal need to banish the writer's own proximity to evil acts, to "punish in him what we fear we might also be horribly tempted to do." Of course, those directly brutalized by the regime have every right in the world to hate the man addictively or to resolve it through the 12-step program, if they so decide. But living in this circus-like atmosphere for the last two decades, I would say most decent and concerned Chileans are far removed from the vehement soul-baring, the need to "strip our past naked," that Dorfman insists upon. Chileans grasp the horrendous truth, and it no longer leaves them as "trembling and troubled" as it does Dorfman.

We are painfully aware of the limits of justice and the massive, ongoing impunity, not just of Pinochet's minions but also of the entire system he left behind, including whole swaths of its current beneficiaries. We are witness to the daily scams and the collusion of today's democrats with yesterday's terrorists. And yet, surprisingly often, our reaction is one that simply would not occur to Ariel Dorfman: We laugh. They are in charge, but they are still ridiculous.

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