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Book Review / Memoirs

A Battle Between Language, Politics

HEADING SOUTH, LOOKING NORTH, A Bilingual Journey, by Ariel Dorfman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 282 pages

June 22, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Among the many treasures and tragedies that the conquistadors brought to the continent that became known as South America were the Spanish language and the balcony. There is a moment that Ariel Dorfman describes in his memoir "Heading South, Looking North" that was captured in a famous photograph of Nov. 4, 1970: Salvador Allende is waving a handkerchief from the balcony of La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, to an unseen crowd of hundreds of thousands who have gathered to celebrate his inauguration as president of Chile.

Over the next few years, Dorfman was to find himself in company with Allende on that balcony, as part of his short-lived government. But on that particular day, Dorfman was in the crowd, a white, Argentina-born Chilean, raised in his Wonder Bread years in the United States by Jewish parents of Russian origin. And yet, that day, the photograph he remembers is the moment when he turned his attention from Allende's speech and saw his destiny in the people surrounding him.

"The story of their lives had never been told," he writes. "Their words had belonged to somebody else. That was going to change. . . . I believed for one transparent moment that I could merge with el pueblo, I believed that their story and my story could be told simultaneously, I believed that a time would come when no distance would separate us, when our stories would be the same story."

The result was "How to Read Donald Duck." Writing in Spanish, Dorfman argued that Walt Disney had corrupted the hearts and minds of el pueblo more decisively than any art of David Rockefeller or Henry Kissinger. Although the book catapulted Dorfman into the front ranks of Allende's intellectual compan~eros, he made few friends among el pueblo, the ordinary people, whose ducks and bunnies Dorfman had mutilated. Writing in Spanish did not guarantee him understanding.

The fate of the intellectual, the artist, is to be an eternal Cassandra, misinterpreted and misunderstood. Dorfman's bilingual journey has given him the chance to be misinterpreted in twice as many ways. Throughout the memoir, as Dorfman recounts troubles with schoolmates, teachers and his own conscience, his ambivalence over language was key to the development of his identity.

Born in Argentina in 1942, Dorfman arrived in New York with his parents three years later. A bout of pneumonia put him in the hospital, and when he returned home three weeks later, he had replaced the sick air with the English language--"I did not speak another word of Spanish for 10 years." At which point, after a move back south to the volatile clime of Chilean adolescence, Dorfman rejected English just as completely.

But as he demonstrates so effectively, the bilingual battle is not just one of language but of politics. The battle between north and south has found its way into much of Dorfman's work. The terrors of political oppression are never allowed to rest in some comfortable "south" far away from "northern" folks like us. Time and again, most recently in his novel "Konfidenz" and his chilling play "Death and the Maiden," high European arts--the Germany of Goethe, the music of Schubert--force us off of our northern balconies into the lives of these people, this pueblo.

In an age of religious literalists and shortsighted monolinguists, of creationism and Proposition 227, we are fortunate to have a writer who can speak--in Spanish or in English--with such clarity of vision.

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