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Book review: Heading South, Looking North by Ariel Dorfman

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Today Ariel Dorfman is recognized as one of Chile’s most important literary figures; the voice of the leftist Allendista revolution and one of the most vehement and outspoken critics of Pinochet’s regime. But he started life out as an Argentinean, born to Russian immigrant parents and brought up in exile in New York. He first set foot in Chile at the age of 12 and until he was about 18 he despised everything about it; yearning instead to return to the United States which he saw as home.

Heading South, Looking North is the memoir of a self-proclaimed “hybrid, part Yankee, part Chilean, a pinch Jew, a mestizo in search of a center,” from his birth in 1942 in Argentina until the day he eventually flees Chile, via Argentina, in 1973 to a life of exile in Europe. The memoir deals, both on a personal level and with reference to the global politics of the time, with identity – particularly as it relates to language and nationality.

Large tracts of the memoir are dedicated to the two languages vying for Dorfman’s pen and tongue. As a child he completely rejects Spanish, refusing to answer his parents unless they speak to him in English. As a teen and twenty-something he speaks Spanish with his friends and fellow revolutionaries but still writes in English. And then, once the revolution is in full swing, he repudiates English entirely, branding it the voice of the oppressor. Fortunately, in later life he has learnt to accept that the languages can coexist – something which is of great benefit to English-speaking readers as we are not forced to access his memoir via a translation.

Dorfman explores his own nationality and his family’s preordained history of exile at length and often reflects unsentimentally on his position of privilege. He comes from a wealthy, educated family and is perfectly willing to acknowledge that when he goes home at night he returns “to who I was, an intellectual educated in traditions and tastes and codes that most of the people in that plaza [i.e. his fellow revolutionaries] did not have access to.”

But Heading South is so much more than the memoir of one man. It paints a vivid picture of the political climate of the time, not only in Chile and the United States (where much of it is set) but also in Latin America as a whole. It gives particular insight to the Allendista revolution in Chile (at the time the only peaceful revolution the world had ever seen) but it also gives a fascinating background to the surge of revolutionary emotion throughout the continent, when the millions of marginalized and disenfranchised peasants and workers came to realize that they did not have “to bow their heads and lower their eyes so as to survive.”

Every single chapter refers – either backwards or forwards – to the Allendista revolution. Dorfman was heavily involved in the political struggle which brought Allende to power, and he served as a cultural adviser to President Allende until that dark day when American-backed troops stormed La Moneda, the presidential palace, resulting in Allende’s suicide and the torture and murder of thousands of his confidantes, supports and sympathisers in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

Dorfman, should have died on the night of the coup - he was supposed to be on duty at La Moneda but he unwittingly swapped shifts with a colleague. He knows that Fate intervened to save him, and he sees it as his responsibility to tell the story of the revolution. He has done this tirelessly, not only in this memoir but also through his journalism, fiction, essays and plays. It is to his immense credit that he looks back on the years that were ‘the best years of my life’ not only with nostalgia but also with a critical eye as to what went wrong – this ‘post mortem’ is one of the book’s most fascinating and enduring themes, especially when seen in the light of world politics today, and in particular the dark winter which has followed the Arab Spring.

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Snipers look on as La Moneda is bombed.

Dorfman refuses to differentiate between politics and writing, instead saying that all writing should “engage the major dilemmas of the community.” Heading South certainly does this, and it does it with the assured, convincing prose which is so sorely lacking in most political autobiographies. It is at once a ‘good read’ and an important political and historical artefact, and I cannot recommended it highly enough.

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