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The Last Song of Manuel Sendero by Ariel Dorfman (Viking: $18.95; 450 pp.)

April 05, 1987|Judith Freeman | Freeman's forthcoming collection of short stories, "Family Attractions" (Viking), will be published in January

For years following his partisan activities in Republican Spain and subsequent return to Chile, the poet Pablo Neruda was preoccupied with his heritage: his Spanish roots, the Indians of Chile, the Spanish conquest, indeed the whole of Latin America and its exploitation, including Central America, which he once referred to as "the delectable waist of America."

Ariel Dorfman's novel "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero" is a continuation of the concerns, the lament, really, of his countryman Neruda. The lament is a song of exile, sung by one who has lost his home, whether literally through expulsion by an intolerant regime, or by witnessing the destruction of a spiritual base. Neruda and Dorfman were supporters of Salvador Allende Gossens, who was elected president of Chile in 1970 and was murdered three years later following a military coup. Neruda died 12 days afterward from a longstanding illness; Dorfman was exiled.

These are facts, often repeated, but one wonders if they are repeated often enough to make us remember. Certain countries--our own, for instance, or France, or charming, friendly Canada--are allowed to have their multiple lives, infinite stories available to writers who tell us of homey experiences, growing up in different regional and religious climes, while others--Chile, Poland, South Africa--have one dominant pressing tale to tell. In "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero," a revolution has broken out in Chile. The babies have rebelled and are refusing to be born until their conditions are met and the world becomes a more humane place. Among their demands: Freedom of food must be declared, weapons eliminated--the big arms, the ones that eat up the budget--and "Everybody has to take off his clothes," for reasons the fetuses think are self-evident. The unborn babies are capable of communicating with each other. They send encouragement through their interuterine network, even fall in love and debate whether they can be more effective in fighting oppression by continuing their strike or by descending the birth canal and working in the world. Finally, seeking light and air and the experience of the world, they are all born except Manuel Sendero, who, lodged in his amniotic bubble, continues to muse over the primary question: Can we struggle best from within? Or without? Shall we go in and try again?

The revolt of the fetuses forms only one part of the book. Intertwined are the "dialogues" of two Chilean cartoonists, David and Felipe, one an exile, the other a political prisoner now released. They're in Mexico collaborating on a cartoon strip whose main character is Carl Barks or Marx or Sparks and his octogenarian wife, Sarah, who, like her biblical counterpart, longs for a baby. The Barkses (or Marxes or Sparkses) are the targets of a sinister attempt by the totalitarian country (corporation?) Chilex to create the perfect man. Drawing on incredibly complex sources and a complex orchestration of voices, "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero" almost sinks beneath its load.

Almost. What saves the book is that finally, notwithstanding a certain frustration with the looping, refracted, run-on, dreamlike and fantastic prose, which makes it difficult at times to even distinguish who is speaking (the son of Manuel Sendero? The grandson? Manuel himself?), there emerge the voices of the exile (David) and of the man of conscience (Felipe), so honest and beseeching that they finally sound the siren song, and we are drawn further and further into the magic webbing of the layered stories. Make no mistake, this is a demanding book, but for those who make the effort it requires, the result is a ride on a parabolic roller coaster of timely and humanitarian thought.

The tale of Manuel Sendero is cautionary. "Your poor readers should realize," someone in the book says, "that what happened to us can happen to them, too. They can lose their country, not know how to get it back, search for it forever. One's country can be stolen in the blink of an eye." Ariel Dorfman, who spends half his time teaching international studies at Duke University in North Carolina and whose previous works include two books on the relationship between popular culture and politics ("How to Read Donald Duck" and "The Empire's New Clothes"), has finally, after 10 years of exile, been permitted to visit Chile again.

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