- Post-Pinochet: Dorfman (and McClennan’s) Quest for an Aesthetics1
Sophia A. McClennen’s new book is a much-needed study that introduces the life and work of Chilean playwright, novelist, cartoonist, essayist, cultural critic, and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman, who now teaches Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University, to a broader US-American audience. McClennen creates her argument based on a decisive event in Dorfman’s life, the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973, ending the presidency of the popularly elected Salvador Allende. Pinochet quickly dismantled institutions, installed an authoritarian regime, and sought to redefine the relationship between state and society. His regime’s brutal repression of popular unrest and its massive human rights violations earned international condemnation. According to McClennen, Dorfman harbored a “personal obsession with Pinochet” (270), and in an interview, Dorfman comments on the event as follows, “It was the moment in my life when everything changed, the moment of conception of the person I now am, how I became this person who’s bilingual, who’s multicultural, who’s hybrid” (qtd. in Postel par. 7). Dorfman, who had worked as communications and media advisor for Allende, was forced into exile and focused his subsequently published critical and creative works on the experiences of exile, tyranny, trauma, memory, and diaspora. As McClennen makes abundantly clear, his work revolves around the fundamental belief that art and politics are interconnected and that a literature of engagement asks readers to envision a future where hope, and not nihilism, is the appropriate response.
Dorfman’s prolific production of texts, his work in a broad range of genres, his consistent defiance of what Derrida calls “The Law of Genre,” and his incessant experimentation with rhetorical forms all turn a coherent assessment of his work into an enormous enterprise. Dorfman’s own words hint at the difficulty of this task: “My style isn’t at all unified. I’m full of [End Page 339] fragments and contradictions” (59). But McClennen’s strategy of contextualizing his work with biographical information leads to her identification of themes, techniques, and motifs that nonetheless connect the diverse aspects of his writing, all grounded in what she calls an “aesthetics of hope.” Her self-proclaimed method is to use his work as the basis for her development of a theory about art and life; in other words, she approaches theorizing inductively. The study is structured into six chapters, with the first three setting the scene for the analysis of specific works in chapters four through six.
The first chapter, “The Political Is Personal,” relates Dorfman’s biography both to inter-American exchanges and histories, specifically the crises in Latin American countries in the 1970s and ’80s, and to the history of his family’s multiple migrations, dislocations, and exile as they fled Eastern Europe and emigrated first to Argentina, and later on to the US and Chile. The chapter is organized, perhaps a bit schematically, around a series of turning points, milestones, epiphanies, and transformations, and ultimately demonstrates Dorfman’s maintenance of a bicultural identity after becoming a US citizen. The second chapter, “On Becoming a Storyteller,” focuses on the literary influences that have shaped Dorfman’s work. By distinguishing the notion of authorship, which has in the last few decades come under assault, from that of storyteller, McClennen places Dorfman within a tradition that is centrally concerned with social agency and responsibility, and community building. She then illustrates how he draws on a repertoire of generic forms and narrative techniques such as the picaresque, the baroque, the testimonio, and modernist fragmentation. The starting point of chapter 3, “An Aesthetics of Hope,” is Dorfman’s explanation in an essay entitled “The Latin American Aesthetics of Hope” that, McClennen summarizes, “literature should be utopian, it should reach out and engage its audience, it should resolve conflicts collectively, it should not simplify the complex problems of life, and it should engage directly with the power of the mass media” (62). McClennen illustrates that the two cornerstones of Dorfman’s aesthetics of hope are formal experimentation since “art with an aesthetics of hope engages in constant artistic renovation...