Durham, North Carolina (Process).- It happened many years ago, but it could very well happen again today.
A woman by the sea waits at sunset for her husband’s return from the capital. The dictatorship that devastated her land has just fallen and everything is uncertain. She is afraid, prey to a terror that she will have to face and perhaps overcome during the next twenty-four hours, when she will judge in the living room of her house the doctor who she believes is responsible for having tortured and raped her. Her husband, a lawyer in charge of a Commission that investigates the deaths of thousands of dissidents under the previous regime, must defend the accused, defend him because without the rule of law the transition to democracy will be compromised, also defend him because if his wife kills That doctor, his career is over, will not be able to help heal that sick and deranged land.
When I wrote, in 1990, Death and the Maiden, the play that stages this story, the country where that woman, Paulina, waited for constantly delayed justice, was my own Chile or the Argentina where I was born. Or South Africa. Or Hungary. Or China. So many societies that at that time were torn by the question of what to do with the trauma of the past, how to live with enemies, how to judge those who had abused power without destroying the fabric of an inescapable reconciliation if a different future was wanted.
Today or tomorrow that imaginary drama could take place in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Thailand, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belarus. In fact, because torture became widespread after the criminal attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, because the most powerful nations in the world, and particularly the United States, justified or were complicit in egregious abuses of human rights in order to feel Surely, because they unleashed terror to avenge the terror they inflicted on them, one could venture that the central dilemmas of Death and the Maiden are more relevant today than ever.
It was not something I had anticipated, this planetary reach, when I originally wrote the play. My objectives – the immediate ones, the urgent ones, at least – were much more modest, if any author can be modest. Upon returning to my country from exile, seventeen years after the coup that overthrew the democratic government of Salvador Allende, I conceived that text as my gift to Chile’s turbulent transition. The dictator was no longer in power, but his influence, his disciples, his corrupting shadow invaded every aspect of political and economic life, every whisper, every attempt to establish an alternative to what had been. the government of him.
In such complicated circumstances, when too many fellow citizens preferred to remain silent, either in the hope of avoiding a repetition of the cruelty of the past or to avoid having to recognize their complicity with the old regime, it seemed to me a duty, as a writer, to reveal the perverse truth of what we were experiencing, forcing the country to look in a mirror that would show them the profound consequences of the dictatorship, what all those years of mendacity and fear had caused, the ways in which even our dreams had been twisted. Death and the Maiden plunged its finger into Chile’s wound by warning that the perpetrators and their accomplices remained omnipresent, smiling in the streets, drinking cocktails at parties, meeting us at school when we dropped off our children.
But the play also uncomfortably interrogated the democratic elite, asking what ideals of fundamental change had been sacrificed to ensure necessary political stability, a pact that required much forgetting. And the victims, silenced, neglected, postponed, for whom he felt so much sympathy? I also didn’t stop asking them annoying questions. Paulina, the woman who had been raped, tortured and betrayed, the woman for whom my heart beat with pain, was, at the same time, the most violent person on that stage, having to wonder if she was going to be like the men who kidnapped her. , perpetuating the cycle of death, remaining trapped in a past and an identity that did not allow her to escape the eternal desire for retribution.
I thought – how naive I was! – that my land would accept the need to air out its dirty laundry, to get out of the moral swamp in which we were wallowing. And I also thought it would be easy to get support for the assembly. My wife, Angélica, warned me that the work was too transgressive, that the country was not ready for this stark vision. In my new novel, Allende and the Suicide Museum, I detail in detail how right she was. Despite the efforts of the great actress María Elena Duvauchelle, who fell in love with the role of Paulina and put together, with enormous difficulties, a cast and crew to bring the play to the public, we never received help from the authorities of the new democratic government, nor a word of encouragement from those who had been my companions in resistance and struggle. And almost all members of Chile’s elite (those who, after all, attend the theater) despised my vision, ignored it, vilified it – the worst play ever written in Chile, according to one of the judgments issued.
I took both rejection as another sign that I didn’t fit in in the country I had been trying to return to for seventeen years.
Angélica and I left Chile with our children, no longer fearing for our lives, as after the 1973 coup, but fearing, this time, for our sanity in a country that lied to itself.
The work that my most distinguished compatriots did not appreciate was celebrated by the world, starting in London and passing through Broadway and a Polanski film and dozens of awards and thousands of performances in a hundred languages around the world.
And now, precisely in the year in which half a century is commemorated since the death of Allende and democracy in Chile, a revival of the work directed by Rodrigo Bazaes is going to premiere. It is the fourth – or perhaps the fifth – since that unfortunate initial premiere, but it occurs under very special circumstances. Although we have had 33 years of democracy and several commissions investigated the type of torture that Paulina suffered and reparation efforts were made towards numerous victims, many of the problems and wounds that Death and the Maiden outlined remain pending.
We have a wonderful Museum of Memory, but individual and social memories still differ drastically about what happened to us. There are multitudes – some surveys suggest that they represent 40% of the population – who feel nostalgia for a strong man like Pinochet to fix the crisis we are going through. We are as divided now as the three characters who risked their lives on stage were so many decades ago. And there they remain today: a woman who suffered atrociously, a man who wants to remedy this terrible situation but does not know how, and another man who declares himself innocent of all guilt. There was no consensus in 1990 and there is no consensus today in Chile, to the point that the right-wing parties did not want to sign a joint declaration of all political forces that proclaimed the absolute rejection of any military coup.
But Paulina is still there. Paulina continues demanding justice. Paulina does not accept being silenced.
How can it not be possible to listen to it at once?
And another question, which is not only for Chile. It is also for Argentina, where I was born and now faces the amnesia of the past.
How can it not be possible that we can say, together, that this devastating story happened yesterday but we swear that it will never be repeated tomorrow?
Ariel Dorfman is the author of “Allende and the Suicide Museum.”