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Will the Duendes Prowl in Santiago?

The assembled heads of state must not forget who they represent in the relentless march of modernization.

April 17, 1998|ARIEL DORFMAN | Ariel Dorfman, the author of "Death and the Maiden," recently published a memoir, "Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). He holds the Walter Hines Page chair at Duke University

Just a few words of warning to the presidents of the Americas as they gather this weekend in my homeland, Chile: Beware of the duendes.


Chilean folklore knows them as elf-like creatures operating at night, good-natured gremlins who like to play practical jokes on humans and must be appeased from time to time before they do more mischief. Though nobody I've ever met in Chile--or in any other Latin American nation--has ever actually seen one of these elusive imps, their capacity to cause damage in our everyday existence should never be underestimated.

My latest encounter with the duendes occurred during a recent visit to Chile, where I no longer live. One Sunday, I noticed that Elba, my mother-in-law, instead of actively perusing the newspaper and muttering imprecations against Gen. Augusto Pinochet, as she is wont to do, was walking around our living room in some agitation. She had lost her reading glasses, it turned out, and soon the whole family--my wife, our two sons, our U.S. daughter-in-law who had come down with us to explore Chile--were all poking in corners and overturning cushions. Only after half an hour of fruitless probing did Elba tell us to call off the search.

"It's no use," she said. "The duendes did it. Last night I didn't leave them their milk. Tonight I'll set out a dish and tomorrow, you'll see, we'll find the glasses."

My mother-in-law's plan worked. By the next morning, the milk had disappeared--not, I am sure, because of any marauding Chilean cats--and the glasses, of course, were found tucked into the folds of a sofa where I myself had ineffectually looked several times. It was not the first, and probably will not be the last time that the duendes miraculously returned an object they had borrowed, perhaps in order to remind us not to forget their existence.

I fear the presidents may forget them at their gathering in Santiago. They will justifiably celebrate the recent democratization of the continent, they will talk about hemispheric security and free trade zones, they will proclaim that the frenzied pursuit of profits and the newest technology and the integration of their economies into the global system is the only solution to the recalcitrant ills of Latin America, that the past must be left behind in order to resolutely advance into the consumerist future, and all the while I can imagine the duendes nearby, listening and watching these deliberations with dismay and perhaps preparing a mysterious retribution.

The duendes' anger at the summit, I expect, does not stem from a stubborn resistance to progress: As their temporary and unelected spokesperson, I am certain they would welcome more hospitals and schools and roads and less hunger and ignorance and violence. What worries the duendes--as far as I can tell, that is, and if I am wrong, may they rise from the night and repudiate me--is that the accelerated modernization of Latin America has been done without the real and active participation of the vast people of the hemisphere, without taking into account their beliefs and culture and solidarity and suffering, and by exalting a greed and competitiveness that directly contradicts the value system that duendes have been trying to teach humans ever since the dawn of time.

The actions of these demonic and yet ultimately benevolent creatures suggest that we can placate them only if we act gratuitously. Gratuitous, not in the common sense of unnecessary, but in the original meaning of the word: something given for nothing, for which you do not expect a payback, a return, a dividend. The duendes hide our belongings, wreak havoc with the harsh order of our daytime routines, because we have forgotten to pour some milk into a dish and quench their thirst, to remind us of so many others out there in the darkness, so many invisible others we should be feeding and heeding, caring for, embracing into our lives. They are telling us to be wary of a society that does not have space and time for the unpredictable, the compassionate, the magical.

I may believe myself to be the transitory representative on Earth of these mischievous underground creatures, but I am not mad enough to suppose that the presidents will set a place for them at the summit banquet table or order their ministers of finance to include the duendes as an item in their next budget, under the heading "tenderness" or perhaps "exorcism." The presidents are far too engaged in Important Matters of State.

So how will the duendes react to their exclusion?

All I can hope is that on Sunday morning, each and every one of the heads of governments that rule the Americas will be unable to find his reading glasses, will be unable to read the treaties he is about to sign, will desperately send his entire cabinet off on a scrambling, barren search for the missing spectacles, and then, at night, when nobody is looking, when no reporters are around, it is my stubborn hope that the most powerful men in the hemisphere, with simultaneous heartbeats and in all humility, will set out some milk at the foot of the bed and perhaps, who knows, even sleep well for the first time in many years.

Let us hope that the duendes have not given up on the presidents of the Americas in their blindness and now do not even deign to play tricks on them.

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