Ariel Dorfman on the relevance of Death and The Maiden for today.
‘It happened yesterday but it could well be today. A woman awaits the return of her husband as the sun goes down. The dictatorship that plagued her land has just fallen, and everything is uncertain. The woman is full of fear, gripped by a secret terror that she only shares with the man she loves. During the night and the day that follows she will have to confront that fear, she will bring to justice in her living room the doctor she believes is responsible for having tortured and raped her years ago. Her husband, a lawyer in charge of a commission investigating the deaths of thousands of dissidents under the previous regime, must defend the accused man because without the rule of law the transition to democracy will be compromised; if his wife kills that doctor, the husband will not be able to help heal a sick and wounded land.
…its main drama is echoed in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Thailand, Zimbabwe and now Libya. In fact, because torture became widespread after the criminal attacks on New York on 9/11, because the most powerful nations in the world, and particularly the US, justified or were complicit in egregious abuses of human rights in order to make themselves feel safe, because they unleashed terror to fight and avenge terror, it could be ventured that the core dilemmas of Death and the Maiden are more relevant today than they ever were.
I’m thrilled that Death and the Maiden has not aged over these 20 years, that it still moves people to tears, confronts them with a tragedy that has no clear solution, that it speaks to our world today with the same passion it embodied yesterday. I’m thrilled that the relations between men and women that I explored, the intricacies of memory and madness, the aftermath of violence, the uncertainty of truth and narrative, continue to capture the imagination of so many. Thrilled, yes, but it is also sobering to realise that humanity has not managed to learn from the past, that torture has not been abolished, that justice is so rarely served, that censorship prevails, that the hopes of a democratic revolution can be gutted and distorted and warped.
I can’t help but ask if 20 years from now I will be writing this phrase all over again: this story happened yesterday, but it could well be today.
Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden
Paulina has been living with the secret of the details of her torture for fifteen years. References to her youth reveal her to be a spirited, passionate and politically astute individual. She describes herself as ‘wild and fearless, willing to do anything.’ At the beginning of the play she is isolated in her own terror, agitated by the unfamiliar, until the opportunity to put her torturer on trail is for her the chance to speak.
‘And I can speak – it’s been years since I murmured even a word, I haven’t opened my mouth to even whisper a breath of what I’m thinking, years living in terror of my own…’ 2.1 p.25. She has lost all trust in the world and those in it, living in a state of perpetual anxiety as a result of the repeated beating and rape during her torture fifteen years ago. As she confronts Roberto, whom she believes to be her torturer, her language becomes base and her actions threaten take on those of her torturers.
A human rights lawyer, Gerardo is ruled by intellectual analysis of any given situation or person. At the play’s opening he has been chosen by the President of the new government for his Investigating Commission into ‘human rights violations that ended in death or the presumption of death.’ 1.1.p.5. His task to mediate between the torturer and tortured is stretched to the limit by playing various roles of husband and lawyer simultaneously.
He claims he has a wife, two sons and a daughter. He professes to ‘ happen to like to help people, – I’m a doctor…’ 1.1.p.10. Roberto rescues Gerardo from a punctured tyre at the roadside, takes him home and then returns with Gerardo’s spare tyre. Has he found himself embroiled in a macabre domestic or has destiny delivered him into the hands of his victim?
Pinochet dictatorship (adapted from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/country_profiles/1222905.stm)
1970 – Salvador Allende becomes world’s first democratically elected Marxist president and embarks on an extensive programme of nationalisation and radical social reform.
1973 – September 11th Gen Augusto Pinochet ousts Allende in CIA-sponsored coup and proceeds to establish a brutal dictatorship.
1988 – Gen Pinochet loses a referendum on whether he should remain in power.
1989-90 – Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin wins presidential election; Gen Pinochet steps down in 1990 as head of state but remains commander-in-chief of the army. Ariel Dorfman publishes Death and the Maiden
1994-95 – Eduardo Frei succeeds Aylwin as president and begins to reduce the military’s influence in government.
1998 – Gen Pinochet retires from the army and is made senator for life but is arrested in the UK at the request of Spain on murder charges.
2000 March – British Home Secretary Jack Straw decides that Gen Pinochet is not fit to be extradited. Gen Pinochet returns to Chile.
BBC NEWS | World | Americas | Chile torture victims win payout
The Chilean government has offered lifelong pensions to more than 28,000 people tortured by agents of Gen Augusto Pinochet’s military government.
President Ricardo Lagos made the offer as an official report was published on the internet detailing abuses committed between 1973 and 1990.
Mr Lagos said the report, based on survivors’ testimonies, proved that torture had been state policy.
The document says the victims included some 3,400 women and even children.
It lists 18 major types of torture, including suffocation, electric shocks and repeated beatings.
Many of the crimes were carried out by the Chilean army and police.
Mr Lagos said: “The report makes us face an inescapable reality – political imprisonment and torture constituted an institutional practice of the state, which is absolutely unacceptable and alien to Chile’s historical tradition.”
He said many thousands had suffered in silence but had finally come forward to tell their story.
He said nothing could make up for what the victims had suffered – but he said he would ask Congress to approve pensions worth about $190 a month.
This figure represents about 93% of the Chilean minimum wage.
Gen Pinochet has never faced trial. But a Chilean judge is due to decide in the next two weeks if he is mentally fit to defend himself against allegations of human rights abuses.
There has been no reaction from the general himself to the publication of the report by the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture.
However, his former spokesman, Gen Guillermo Garin, told the BBC World Service’s World Today programme: “The investigation has failed to prove people were really tortured.
“This issue is now being exploited for political purposes, and will simply reopen old wounds that have already healed.”
The document says many victims were arrested from their homes in the middle of the night and taken to one of 800 detention centres.
It says one favourite tactic was to force detainees to watch other prisoners being tortured or even killed.
Some 12% of the torture victims were women and almost all of them said they had suffered sexual abuse.
The victims included children and 88 of those detained were 12 years or younger.
The report concluded that aside from broken bones and injuries, most of the suffering was psychological.
The personal files of the torture victims will remain secret for the next 50 years unless individuals choose to release them.
Earlier this month, the head of the Chilean army, Gen Juan Emilio Cheyre, accepted institutional responsibility for past abuses.
Here are excerpts from General Augusto Pinochet’s letter to the Chilean people which he described as his “political testament”.
I have been prevented from going home to my country and I am living through the hardest and most unjust experience of my life. The country knows I never sought power. That is why when I exercised it I never clung to it and when the moment came to hand it over I loyally did so. Everything I did as a soldier and ruler was done with my thoughts fixed on liberty for the people of Chile, on their welfare and on national unity.
|Pro-Pinochet supporter demonstrating in London|
At the end of my life, in spite of my fatigue and the suffering produced by so many injustices and misunderstandings, I want to say that even when I still must face greater adversity, my spirit will never feel defeated.
I have been the object of an artful and cowardly politico-judicial machination, which has no moral value.
Whilst in this continent, and specifically in the countries which are condemning me via spurious trials, communism has murdered many millions of human beings this century, I am being prosecuted for having defeated it in Chile, saving the country from a virtual civil war.
I am absolutely innocent of all the crimes and of the actions irrationally attributed to me. However I fear that those who are doing so never have been nor will be prepared to agree and accept the truth.
I have never wished the death of anyone, and I feel a sincere grief for all the Chileans who have lost their lives during these years.
I love Chile above all things and not even the most painful circumstances will keep me from repeating from a distance once and a thousand times with all the strength of my spirit, Viva Chile.