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Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey

Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey

3.5 2
by Ariel Dorfman

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In this remarkable memoir, Dorfman describes an extraordinary life, torn between the United States, South America, and his Jewish heritage, between English and Spanish, between revolution and repression. Interwoven with the story of how Dorfman switched languages and countries--not once, but three times--is a day-to-day account of his multiple escapes from death


In this remarkable memoir, Dorfman describes an extraordinary life, torn between the United States, South America, and his Jewish heritage, between English and Spanish, between revolution and repression. Interwoven with the story of how Dorfman switched languages and countries--not once, but three times--is a day-to-day account of his multiple escapes from death during Pinochet's military takeover of Chile in 1973. Combining eight vignettes of his life before 1973 with eight scenes from the coup, Dorfman filters these events through an engaging, hybrid consciousness.A beautifully written and deeply moving auto-biography by one of the "greatest living Latin American writers" (Newsweek), Heading South, Looking North is at once a vivid account of a life as complex and mysterious as the fictional characters Dorfman has created, and an enthralling search for a permanent home, a political cause, and a cultural identity.

Editorial Reviews

Rob Spillman

Even if we weren't in the midst of a deluge of pointless affliction du jour memoirs by young mid-list novelists, Ariel Dorfman's moving, poetic exploration of his search for a geographic and linguistic home would stand out for its reminder of the power of language and the possibility of living life to the historical and intellectual hilt. Dorfman, a prolific writer of novels, plays (Death and the Maiden) and essays who now teaches at Duke University, is best known for How to Read Donald Duck, his groundbreaking 1973 attack on U.S. cultural imperialism, written when he was a cultural advisor to the liberal Chilean government of Salvador Allende.

Structurally inventive, Heading South, Looking North alternates chapters about the dangerous days after the CIA-led Pinochet coup in 1973 with chapters about his wild family history. Itself worthy of a book, the Dorfman family odyssey reads like a shadow history of the 20th century. His grandparents, Eastern European Jews who barely escaped the Czarist pogroms, fled to Buenos Aires, where Vladimiro Ariel Dorfman was born in 1942. His father, a communist teacher, was expelled from Argentina after the Peron-led fascist coup in 1945. In New York City, Vladimiro forswore Spanish, refusing to speak it even to his parents and insisting that everyone call him Edward, and lived an all-American, baseball-loving childhood until 1953. That's when Sen. Joseph McCarthy personally insisted that Dorfman's father, who worked at the United Nations, be shipped off to a remote post in Santiago, Chile. Dorfman's cultural confusion only increased as he continued to write in English while thinking about Chilean politics in Spanish. He was soon making a name for himself with his revolutionary lit-crit essays and vocal political agitation.

Heading South, Looking North adroitly reexamines the quandary of withdrawal vs. engagement. Dorfman felt forced to choose between the life of an artistic nomad and accepting his home as a place worth risking one's life. "Latin America, I felt, could solve the dilemma of the modern artist, merge the intellectual and the social, the vanguard and the masses, the heroism of the writer and the heroism of the people." With refreshing and clear-eyed honesty, Dorfman reflects on his successes and failures, and in a rare feat manages to resonate intellectually, historically, poetically and emotionally. Heading South, Looking North is easily one of the most memorable memoirs in years. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The details of this artfully constructed memoir by a Chilean novelist probably best known in this country for his play Death and the Maiden are dramatic, but what makes the book remarkable is its continuing meditation on language and its role in forging identity. When Dorfman was born in Argentina in 1942, his Jewish parents, who had fled Russia, named him Vladimiro in honor of Lenin. In 1945, they moved to New York City, where their son (who adopted the name Edward) refused to speak Spanish and became a believer in popular American culture, even rooting for his father's enemy, Pern, because as long as Juan and Evita remained in power, the Dorfmans would never return to Buenos Aires. In 1955, under pressure from Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Dorfman's father left his job at the U.N. and took his family to Chile, where "Edward" attended an English school. After college, he went north again in 1968 to study at Berkeley and returned to Chile in 1970 to be part of Salvador Allende's socialist government. Three years later, Allende was dead, the country was in the midst of a military putsch and Dorfman was fleeing for his life, back to North America. In alternating chapters, the author relates what happened when Allende was overthrown and the story of his own life and how it was shaped by the language he was speaking. Dorfman at times seems more concerned with writing a "literary" work than with telling a story, but as the book goes on, the self-conscious flourishes diminish and the result is an astonishing portrait of the shaping of a life. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Chilean expatriate Dorfman, who now teaches at Duke University, is perhaps best known in this country as the author of the play Death and the Maiden. He is a prolific writer of international stature who moves freely among forms producing novels, plays, essays, poems, and, now, an extraordinary memoir of his extraordinary life. His work is structured in chapters that alternate between "the discovery of death" and "the discovery of life and language." The first thread takes place in Chile in the fall of 1973 with the coup against Salvador Allende, when Dorfman says he himself should have died but did not. The second thread follows Dorfman's life chronologically up until that point. Though jolting at first, the effect of this dual structure is to create in the reader the jarring sense of the discontinuities in Dorfman's tale of multiple exiles, switches in languages and cultures, and the relentless forces of history on the life of one individual. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO
Alan Riding
Intensely personal and often moving, this is the story of a life battered by political vagaries, confused by competing languages and, eventually, held together by a need to write. -- The New York Times Book Review
NY Times Book Review
A fascinating memoir of the search for a home and an identity by a writer several times exiled (from this country, among others), first for his parents' beliefs, then his own.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Dorfman's (Konfidenz, 1995, etc.) memoir shakes up the term Latino, as he plots the course of "a hybrid, part Yankee, part Chilean, a pinch Jew, a mestizo in search of a center," who becomes an outspoken Chilean exile campaigning for the self-determination of the Americas. Dorfman's family history is driven by exile. His Eastern European grandparents fled pogroms and Nazi persecution and met in Argentina, where a young Ariel was born and lived until his father was forced to leave for the US after protesting the political purge of an Argentine university. Ariel became a staunch Yankee, rejecting the language of his immigrant parents, until his father became a victim of McCarthyism and was forced to leave the US for Chile. There Ariel spent his high school years reading imported comics and dreaming of returning to New York. But at 18 he was swept up in the anti-US sentiments of the Latin American left in the early 1960s, and decided to stay, becoming a Chilean citizen in order to get involved in a democratic-based political revolution. When Salvador Allende became president in 1970, Dorfman took a government post as a literary trailblazer for the people. He oversaw a campaign to translate international classics into Spanish and publish them cheaply, and co-authored a popular polemic on US cultural imperialism. Yet it is not until the coup that ousted Allende, that Ariel felt a true bond with Chile's poor, as he went into hiding to escape the widespread arrests and torture of Allende supporters. Alternating between Chilean political events in the early 1970s and his own life story, Dorfman (who now lives in North Carolina and teaches at Duke University) reflects on thefailure of Allende's socialist experiment, which he ties to his own destructive propensity to put people in the enemy camp. Still, Dorfman's account is slow going through the first half but picks up greatly once the dangers he faced become clear, and he has sharp insights into Chile's political situation.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.26(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.63(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I should not be here to tell this story.

It's that simple: there is a day in my past, a day many years ago in Santiago de Chile, when I should have died and did not.

That's where I always thought this story would start, at that moment when history turned me, against my will, into the man who could someday sit down and write these words, who now writes them. I always thought this story was meant to start on that morning when the Armed Forces of my country rise against our President, Salvador Allende, on the 11th of September of 1973, to be exact, and the death I have been fearing since I was a child enters my life and, instead of taking it, leaves me to survive: I am left here on this side of reality to remember what ends forever that day in me and in the world, still wondering why I was spared.

And yet I cannot bring myself to begin there, that day I should have died.

There is one last night of reprieve, that is when I really need this story to start: the night of September 10, the night before the coup. By tomorrow at this time Allende will be dead and I will be in hiding, by tomorrow I will have had to accept a future in which I am alive and far too many others will have been killed in my place. But not yet. Tonight I can tell myself, against the overwhelming evidence screaming at me from inside and outside, that there will be no military takeover, that Chile is different from other Latin American countries, all the comforting myths about our democracy and stability and reasonableness.

Perhaps I am right. Perhaps I should not be poisoning my last moments of peace. From the next room, my six-year-old son, Rodrigo, is calling. Angelica has already tucked him in. Now he clamors for his bedtime story. Perhaps I am right to crush the sudden sick thought that snakes up from my stomach. This is the last time I will ever see him, the last story I will ever tell him, la ultima vez. Perhaps I am right to turn a final blind eye to reality.

It is not the first time I will try to cheat death, pretend it does not exist.

As far back as I can remember, there it was. I see myself then, awake in my bed for hours thinking about death, my eyes wide open in the dark of our apartment in New York, a child lost and found in the first exile of his life, terrified, trying to convince death to let him go. If I had known that many years later death would indeed let me go and that what I did or did not do, thought or did not think, would have no effect on whether or not I survived ... But back then in 1947 I didn't even know that it is dying we should fear and not death. Oh yes, there were monsters out there, under the bed, inside the soft light breathing from the hall, dripping in the bathroom, always scrambling away as I turned my head, just out of sight, behind me, ready to pounce, and yet, even so, that's not what really threatened me, the monsters. I was five years old, perhaps less, and I absurdly assumed that the pain they would inflict on my body when I died would somehow be swift, somehow be merciful. No, what I could not bear was the aftermath of death itself, its loneliness, that I would have to be alone forever and ever.

"But will you be there?" I asked my mother, clinging to her, trying to blackmail her into never leaving. "Will you be close by, when I'm dead?" And she would answer something that was only partly a lie: Yes, she would be there. And afterwards, when the lights had been dimmed and she was gone and I thought about my death and the very thinking dragged me deeper into the pit of its terror, death was precisely the moment when I would not be there to think it, when I would be abandoned by myself, by the one person I could always count on never to turn off the light and walk away down the hall to another bedroom. That's what I will do to you, death said, you'll be so alone that not even you will be able to accompany yourself, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it. just as I was spiraling myself into madness, my mother's words would swim back to me; she had promised to be there in the midst of that nothingness, and if she was there others might also find a way, and that's how I could commence the slow ascent back to the surface of sanity, conjecture death as a vast empty space filled with horizontal bodies in coffins, none of them able to touch each other but secure in the knowledge that the other silent bodies were there, millions of us, each with our own stories, our own beginnings, our own endings, a brotherhood of the dead defeating my isolation, the first time I conceived humanity as something wondrous and healing, a hint that if it could not escape death, a community might at least provide consolation against its outrage. And because my parents had told me that God did not exist, I prayed to that humanity every childhood night, asking it to allow me to awaken every hundred years to take a quick look around: the afterlife as a screen watched by a silent eye, eternity as one movie every century, the dead as intermittent voyeurs of the living.

That is how I managed to soften myself into sleep in the United States in those days before I found out that another language can keep us company as if it were a twin. Later, as an adult--in fact, now--I discovered a more ingenious way of draining the slime that thoughts of my mortality secrete into my mind. Now if I can't fall asleep at night, I'll banish the saw-buzz of language, say, English, that's keeping me awake, and switch to my other language, Spanish, and lazily watch it erase the residues of dread from me as if I were a blackboard.

But that was later, that is now. My first insomnia struck at a child who had condemned himself to being monolingual in English, who had repudiated the Spanish he had been born into, that boy I used to be who could not conjure up another tongue to save his soul. All I could do to swindle death at that very early age in the City of New York was to make up stories in the night, colonize the emptiness with multiplications of myself, hoping somebody out there would hear me, accompany me, keep me alive after I had died.

What that child could not conceive, of course, is that his adult self would, in fact, survive his own death several times over, that a quarter of a century into the future this day in September of 1973 was awaiting me--and that the language in which I would try to make sense of the series of connected miracles that spared me would be Spanish and not English. By then, by the time I was an adult of thirty-one, I had renounced and denounced the language of my childhood America as imperial and Northern and alien to me, I had fiercely and publicly reverted to my original native Spanish and proclaimed that I would speak it forever, live forever in Chile. Forever. A word that I naively cast to the winds at the time, a word that this wanderer in love with the transitory that I now have become knows he should be wary of. I hadn't learned yet that when other, more powerful people control the currents of your life, very few things are forever.

It is that sort of lesson I will have to learn as of tomorrow, when death catches up with me and makes me face the fact that my imagination can no longer protect me or my country.

I am now going to postpone that moment for one last time, crossing to Rodrigo's room to offer myself and him a final delusion of our immortality. But before I console my son with a story, just as I consoled myself as a child long ago, I will make a call. That call. If I had understood then its true significance, how it was warning me of what was about to befall me, befall all of us. But I would not have heeded it, did not know what to look for.

It is a call to La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, where I have been working for the last two months as a cultural and media advisor to Fernando Flores, Allende's Chief of Staff. Today, so many years later, as I write this, it seems obvious that to accept a minor post of dubious utility in a foundering government was an act of folly. But that is not what I felt then. Then I saw it as my duty.

As a child I had imagined a fictional community as the best answer to death and loneliness--and it was that persistent hunger for a real community that had now led me here, to this revolution, to this place in history. Needing to prove my loyalty to a country I had chosen and a cause I had adopted as my own and that could only materialize if everybody who believed in it, myself included, was ready to give up their life. And I had therefore purposefully, recklessly, joyfully sought out the most dangerous spot in the whole country to spend the last days of the Chilean revolution--the spot I am neurotically calling right now, even now on my night off duty, to find out if my services are required. They are not. Claudio Gimeno, a friend since my freshman year in college, answers. He's in a good mood, I can conjure up the shy grin of his buckteeth, his wide black eyes, his sallow, angular face.

In the years to come, he will be there, in a vision. Each time I imagine my death, I will invariably picture myself in a chair, hands tied behind my back. I am blindfolded--and yet, in that picture, I am also, impossibly, watching myself, and a man in uniform approaches and he has something, a stick, a pair of electrodes, a long needle, something blurred and piercing in his right hand. In that vision which still assaults me unexpectedly at any time, anywhere, the body about to be hurt beyond repair is the body of Claudio Gimeno. He is naked in that chair. That is his body, but it is my face he wears. My face, because I had been assigned that turno, that stint, I was the one who should have been at La Moneda standing guard the night of September 10, I was the one who should have received the news that the Navy has just disembarked in Valparaiso, it should have been my hand that puts the receiver down and then with a heavy heart dialed the President and informed him that the coup has begun. It is Claudio who will receive that information in the next hours, merely because last week I had wondered, rather offhandedly, "Oye, Claudio, hey, would you mind coming to La Moneda next Monday, yes, September 10, it's the night I've been assigned, and I'll take your shift on Sunday, September 9, what do you say?" And without giving it a second thought, Claudio had agreed.

So now I am here at home and he is at La Moneda and we are talking on the phone. No premonition of how chance is playing with us startles our conversation. On the contrary. Claudio tells me that things are looking up, there may be a way out of the crisis that is fracturing the country and has paralyzed it, a democratic and sovereign way of avoiding what seems an imminent civil war. Allende will announce tomorrow that he will submit his differences with the opposition to a plebiscite and will resign if the people reject his proposals. I'm as relieved as Claudio. Neither of us recognizes this peaceful resolution of the political impasse for what it is: a mirage, an outcome that Allende's enemies, moving in for the kill, will never allow.

We are, nevertheless, in a position to understand that, in a sense, the military takeover has already happened.

Just one week ago, Claudio and I, along with another aide, had been ushered into a musty secluded room in the Presidential Palace by Fernando Flores. The Minister wanted us to listen to an old Mapuche Indian woman who had come to Santiago from the south of the country to denounce her husband's torture and death. She was one of hundreds of thousands of peasants who had, for the first time in their lives, been made owners of their land by Allende's government. A group of Air Force officers had raided the family's communal farm in search of weapons and, when none was found, proceeded to tie the woman's husband to the blades of a helicopter. While the old man went slowly round and round for hours, the men in uniform had smoked cigarettes, taunted him, sardonically suggesting that he ask his President for help now, as the old man died they had forced him to call on his fucking pagan gods for help now, sus putos dioses paganos.

She had come to denounce this situation to the President. But the President could do nothing. We could do nothing. It was as if power had already been transferred to the military.

The old woman had looked at me, straight in the eye. "A lo largo de mi vida, "she had said to me. "In my life, white people have done many things to us, but never before something like this. They kept on telling my man that now they're going to take away our land." She paused. Then added: "They made me watch what they were doing."

I had looked away. I could not bear what she was seeing, the future she was able to anticipate because the past had already taught her what to expect. I had wanted so ardently to become a chileno, to belong; and what that meant, ultimately, was that what they had done to her and people like her for centuries they could now do to me. Maybe, in a flash, I had seen myself in her, I had imagined my body reduced to the defenselessness of that old woman, a foreigner in her own land; maybe, but I could not stand her visionary dress rehearsal of the violence that is about to invade the country, so that when Claudio, a week later, tells me everything is going to be all right, I am ready to believe in a miracle.

Not that we've got that much time to talk tonight. Claudio has work to do and I have a vociferous son demanding a story. When we say goodbye, nothing whispers that this is the last time we will ever speak to each other.

I hang up.

And go to comfort Rodrigo in the next room, off to tell my son that death does not exist, that I will be there with him, we can both delude solitude side by side one last time.

I do not inform him, of course, that real monsters are out there and that what they can enact on your body may be worse than death. That it is dying we should fear, the pain before and not the emptiness afterwards. That exile is staring us in the face, that soon he and I and his mother are going to leave this place where we gave birth to him and not return until many, too many, years have passed. I do not inform him that death and the fear of death inevitably lead to exile.

There will be time, tomorrow and the many days that will follow tomorrow, to discover this together.

For now, I say nothing of this to my son. Not a word.

What else can I do?

I turn out the lights and tell my son a fairy tale.

Meet the Author

Ariel Dorfman, poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright, is a Chilean expatriate who lives with his family in Durham, North Carolina, where he now holds the Walter Hines Page chair at Duke University.

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Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first few chapters are beguling and very interesting. The writing is fine enough but the editing is non-existent. It is a book of chapters that read like a monotonous drone on a bilingual upbringing. One third of the chapters or repetitive stories could have been left out and the book would have been no worse for it. When you enjoy the acknowlegements more than the book itself it's time to cut and run.