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In Chile: The Lingering Stench of Fear : MY HOUSE IS ON FIRE by Ariel Dorfman; translated from the Spanish by George Shivers with the author (Viking Press: $17.95: 167 pp.; 0670 82021 0)

January 28, 1990|Margarita Nieto | Nieto is a free-lance writer.

In the aftermath of the political changes that have swept across Eastern Europe and Asia during the last six months, two images stand out: the horrifying massacre in Tian An Men Square and the joyful reunion of a once-divided people dancing on the Berlin Wall. As mute reminders of the universal meaning of oppression and freedom, they symbolized the power of political actions in human terms. Yet, the dramatic poignancy of these two events also served to underplay the conflicts between repression and political choice that recently affected our own hemisphere, in Latin America.

While less dramatic than the political changes in Eastern Europe and Asia, the free elections held in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay in 1989 were significant as an initial step toward reclaiming political liberties that had been lost not to Communism but to the tyranny of military dictatorships shamefully supported by the United States.

Like Tian An Men Square and the Berlin Wall, the Latin American elections are only the most overt signs of a deeper conflict in the political culture between decades of oppression and hopes of freedom. As he did in his earlier novels--"Mascara," "Widows" and "The Last Song of Manuel Sendero"--Ariel Dorfman captures the essence of this conflict in these 11 short narratives.

Ranging from neo-realistic descriptions and dialogues of the Chilean environment to quasi-Kafkaesque situations, these stories always reflect the omniscient presence of a repressive military state. That awareness, curiously enough, also is the basis of the inherent literary problems in them.

Writing on the recent Chilean elections in an article published in the December issue of Harper's entitled "Adios, Mi General," Dorfman, who was exiled from Chile in 1973 and only permitted to return 10 years later, speaks of Pinochet's "strangely ethereal, almost unreal" presence in his own life and in the Chilean life in general. It is a presence that transformed Chile from a democratic country to one tormented by fear and authoritarianism. And it is a presence that threatens to cast its shadow over Chile's future.

Although Patricio Aylwin, the candidate of a coalition of opposition parties, won the presidential elections, Pinochet will have left Chile strapped by a series of constitutional, economic and military changes that will take years to repeal. Moreover, he has announced that he will remain as commander-in-chief of the army for another eight years.

It is under this aura that "My House Is on Fire" conceives a world in which even the most innocent victims can no longer remain untouched. In the title story, "My House Is on Fire," perhaps the most successful in the collection, a child narrator describes his sister and himself hiding under a blanket playhouse. Through the narrator, the reader becomes terrifyingly aware that this male child knows and fears what his baby sister has not yet grasped: that their parents' lives depend on their silence; that this game is not child's play but a game of life and death.

In "Family Circle" and "The Reader," contemporary political reality is even more closely woven into the plot. In the first story, a young man returns home on military leave fearing his father's contempt. The family's economic straits and their effect on the older man's loss of authority and self-esteem are results of the father's punishment for his political ideology. The result is a confessional climax of shame and confrontation between father and son, who has been assigned to guard duty at the maximum security prison where his uncle is being held a political prisoner. The son asserts that ". . . if somebody tries to escape, I'll shoot him. I'll shoot him full-blast."

In "The Reader," Dorfman utilizes unfolds a double plot. A conscientious and respected editor (read: censor) for a publishing house struggles allows publication of a manuscript that he knows will not only cost him his job but also his freedom. The twist is that the novel being read is a foretelling of the story.

But the internal struggles of these characters caught among duty, compromise and morality are never fully developed. We know from the beginning that Lucho, the young man, is compromised, that Don Alfonso, the censor, is finally going to confront the truth. Rather than take action, they tell us what they will do. It seems that the expediency of the political thrust of the story does not allow for the reader's participation.

Yet despite their unevenness and a sometimes awkward translation, Dorfman's gift for language is revealed in his next-to-last story. A poetic and conflictive sense of despair and triumph in the narrative voice echo the breathless escape of a young man outwitting his assassins: ". . . Theo escaped into the darkness like a wondrous animal endowed with more arms and legs than he knew what to do with, flowing in the river of himself and the stretcher, fleeing beneath the blue stars far from the barking dogs and the faraway fury of the inquisitors, fleeing impossible, impossible, driven by the words with which the colonel would have to inform Mama. . . ."

In moments such as these, Dorfman's mastery as a storyteller makes reading these stories most worthwhile.

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