Nine years after fleeing his native Chile, writer and activist Ariel Dorfman learned that some of his most prized possessions had been destroyed; his considerable library was caught in floodwaters, and half of his books were lost.
Dorfman had to abandon his home in the country's capital, Santiago, nearly 40 years ago after a military coup overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende. In his new book, Feeding on Dreams, and in a piece for the The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dorfman reflects on being forced to leave behind things he loved.
He tells NPR's Neal Conan that the loss of his library weighed heavily on him.
"[In] the poverty of mind that is created by dictatorship," Dorfman says, "many of those books will not be available, and there will be something which will be irreparable."
On the home he left behind, which became a safe house for the underground
"We had not wanted to sell the house because my library was there. And while the library was there, we knew that somehow we were going back. It was like an anchor in the middle of the ever-shifting swamp of uncertainty of what exile does to you. You lose everything, but there's something to go back to. So while that was there, it was like something intact was part of my life waiting for me ...
"We had put a clandestine journalist into Chile to interview a member of the resistance against General Pinochet. And he came back, and we debriefed him. And all of a sudden, he begins to describe this house where he had met this leader of the resistance, and he says it's full of books. There are books even in the bathroom ...
"And he said, 'Do you know a house like that?' And I looked at my wife, and I nudged her under the table. 'Oh, no. We don't know anything.' And he was describing our own house. So it was very strange to see through his eyes the fact that our house was there, and that our library was, in fact, intact and still spilling over in all the directions.
"We said we can't sell the house now anymore, of course, because now we know it's being used by the resistance. They didn't have the grace to tell us that our house might be raided by the police and that my library might go up in smoke, along with the house itself and with people who are inside it."
On living in exile, hoping for change to come quickly
"Exiles always think ... tomorrow in Jerusalem or tomorrow in Tehran or wherever, and you say tomorrow in Santiago. But then we realized it's not even the day after tomorrow. Pinochet was very consolidated in power. And we realized that we just had to understand that it was impossible for us to continue living this penurious existence, and we needed to sell the only thing we had, which was this house."
On learning from his brother-in-law that his books had been lost in a flood
"I was consoled by this because, in a strange way, at that point, after eight or nine years in exile, I had ceased to believe in the library. They existed in my head. ... I would spend nights at home in the dark sort of trying to imagine the order of the different books. The classics here and Shakespeare here, and the books in Spanish here and the books, you know, where they were. All these books that I had accumulated, I put all my extra money, money I didn't have, I put all into that library. It was ... the aspiration that I had toward liberation; toward the life I wanted to lead. ... I wanted to read, read and lead ... and write.
"And so strange enough, by saying half your books are gone with the river and the others are sort of caked with mud, he made them tangible. He made them real to me. It's very strange, you know. You lose half of something, and then you realize the other half is still there. It really exists. And then when I went back to Chile in 1990, I was able to resurrect that part of the library, clean it up and put it away. It's still in Chile, by the way, a large part of those books."
NEAL CONAN, host: And now, we want to talk with the exiles in our audience about what you left behind. We'll speak in a moment with Ariel Dorfman, the writer and activist forced to abandon his home in Santiago after the coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende in Chile 40 years ago. In a new essay, he writes that yes, of course, he missed friends and family, Santiago and its mountains. He mourned the dead and a future that would never be, but maybe most of all, he missed his library, the books he'd accumulated over the years.
Exiles, what did you leave behind that still calls to you? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ariel Dorfman's essay in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" is based on his new book "Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile." And he joins us from the studios at NPR West. And, Ariel, nice to have you back with us again.
ARIEL DORFMAN: I'm so glad to be with you again, Neal.
CONAN: And there's a story you tell in your essay about learning that your home in Santiago had been used as a safe house by the underground. This was, I guess, about a year after you left.
DORFMAN: Yes. This was a very strange experience. I mean, we had not wanted to sell the house because my library was there. And while the library was there, we knew that somehow we were going back. It was like an anchor in the middle of the ever-shifting swamp of uncertainty of what exile does to you. You lose everything, but there's something to go back to. So while that was there, it was like something intact was part of my life waiting for me. And then we start - you know, we had to sell this, because we're penniless.
You know, we haven't got a home. We're living off charity. So let's sell it. And then, all of a sudden, we realized - the crazy thing is we realized because a journalist - we had put a clandestine journalist into Chile to interview a member of the resistance against General Pinochet. And he came back, and we debriefed him. And all of a sudden, he begins to describe this house where he had met this leader of the resistance, and he says it's full of books. There are books even in the bathroom.
The bathroom has a large portrait of Bob Dylan with his hair on fire. And there were books even in the kitchen. You know, there were books everywhere. And he said do you know a house like that? And I looked at my wife, and I nudged her under the table. Oh, no. We don't know anything. And he was describing our own house. So it was very strange to see through his eyes the fact that our house was there, and that our library was, in fact, intact and still spilling over in all the directions.
So we - in a sense, we said we can't sell the house now anymore, of course, because now we know it's being used by the resistance, even, of course, they didn't have the grace to tell us that our house might be raided by the police and that my library might go up in smoke - along with the house itself, right, and with people who are inside it.
CONAN: In the end, several years after that, you found yourself still in exile, this time in the United States, in even more dire economic straits and now more than, well, eight or nine years after...
CONAN: ...the coup, it was not realizing that it was going to be reversed tomorrow.
DORFMAN: You know, I've been, you know, exiles always think like the old thing, tomorrow in Jerusalem or tomorrow in Tehran or wherever, and you say tomorrow in Santiago. But then we realized it's not even the day after tomorrow. Pinochet was very consolidated in power. And we realized that we just had to understand that it was impossible for us to continue living this penurias existence, and we needed to sell the only thing we had, which was this house.
So we sold the house when we were in Washington, and then, these box - the books were all boxed by my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law and sent to a dear friend who lived up in the hills of Santiago. And I thought at least, you know, it's boxed there. He'll take care of it. And he put it in this - you could call it a - sort of a hutch next to rabbits and chicken coops and things like that. So I suppose they weren't going to read the books. And then one day, he calls me up on the phone, and he says, Ariel, I have really bad news. Tengo malas noticias, in Spanish, he said.
And I thought, oh, my gosh, it's - that somebody's died. Something terrible is happening. And it wasn't terrible that something had happened, fortunately, to any human being - the - always, the phone brought bad news, in that sense.
DORFMAN: It always came through, you know, your heart would sink and think, my gosh, who is it this time? Who I've got to contact, what life I got to save. But in this case, he said, you know, the river flooded, and it took half your library, and I said, half my library. And strange enough, I was consoled by this because, in a strange way, at that point, after eight or nine years in exile, I had ceased to believe in the library. They existed in my head, but I had gone through - I would spend nights at home in the dark sort of trying to imagine the order of the different books. The classics here and Shakespeare here, and the books in Spanish here and the books, you know, where they were. All these books that I had accumulated, I put all my extra money, money I didn't have, I put all into that library. It was my sort of the aspiration that I had towards liberation, towards the life I wanted to lead, the peaceful life I wanted to read, read and lead, right, and write.
And so strange enough, by saying half your books are gone with the river and the others are sort of caked with mud, he made them tangible. He made them real to me. It's very strange, you know. You lose half of something and then you realize the other half is still there. It really exists. And then when I went back to Chile in 1990, I was able to resurrect that part of the library, clean it up and put it away. It's a - it's still in Chile, by the way, a large part of those books.
CONAN: It's interesting, you write, I went on to indulge my fantasy – there was a boy who helped you named Miguel - with all the Miguels remaining behind with me: Miguel de Cervantes and Miguel Angel Asturias and Miguel Street by Naipaul and, of course, Michel de Montaigne. What did he say, my Michel, about poverty and the mind?
I shuffled through the cold to the almost-full library and found the essays perched close to Eluard and Rabelais. I opened the volume until I came to the phrase underlined by a furious pencil that once had been mine. Poverty of goods is easily cured. Poverty of the mind is irreparable. And at that moment, you realized, well, you had changed as your library had changed.
DORFMAN: I had changed very much. You know, there was this little boy called Miguel who was working with his father. He was a mason. And the incredible thing was that he had not had a chance to have a library like mine. Because of the Pinochet dictatorship, his fate would be to be uneducated. He was not going to be able to grow up to have these books or the possibility of these books, you know? And in fact, I was in - at the L.A. Library last night reading, and I was thinking about all the Miguels in Los Angeles and all the Miguels in the United States who should have a chance to go to the library and have their own identity cards even if their parents are undocumented, that they know they have the desire of that and the possibility of that.
And I was thinking about that the loss of a library is not the loss only of the library. It's the loss of the ideal that someday those libraries will be available for all the people of Chile and all the people of the world. I mean, my vision of the world is a world where everybody has access to the library. Everybody, we belong to this – after all, the library is where all that was written ever, from the very, very memorial times, everything that ever will be written digital or not comes together and jostles together in one mind, the gigantic mind of the wondrous, glorious humanity that we are.
And that somehow, when there is poverty of that sort, the poverty of mind that is created by dictatorship, many of those books will not be available, and there will be something which will be irreparable, like what may have happened to this child. You know, the child went off a big tip, some books that I gave him very reluctantly. I don't like to get rid of my books, but he really needed some books.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DORFMAN: And then I thought to myself, he's gone, and I won't see him again, and where - what's going to happen to this boy? What happens to all the lost children? So there's a lost library and there's the lost children, and someday, I can only pray, you know, that there will be no more lost libraries and no more lost children.
CONAN: We're talking with Ariel Dorfman about the library that he left behind when he went into exile. Exiles, what did you leave behind that still calls to you? 800-989-8255, email, firstname.lastname@example.org. And Nico(ph) is on the line with us from San Francisco.
NICO: Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call, Neal.
CONAN: Go ahead.
CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead.
NICO: Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CONAN: Nico is obviously having a difficult time hearing us. Can - one more time. Can you hear us? I guess not. I apologize.
NICO: Yeah. I was breaking up for a second.
CONAN: Can you hear us now?
NICO: Yes, I can. Thank you. You're probably overdosed on stories about Iran, but I miss my piano, which my family, as we left in 1978, left behind, and I never took up piano again after that and it sort of faded away until about four or five years ago. But I think back to all the joy I had playing piano in the back of the house in a special room we had, and it's gone, so...
CONAN: What was the tune that was your favorite?
NICO: I don't recall any particular tunes. I was a going to a music school, and I had private lessons, and it was just an escape. It was a fun instrument. It was a fun room to be in. The house is gone, of course, and everything else in it, but my most important memory of that house was the piano that I left behind.
CONAN: And you will - you expect never to see it again.
NICO: The house was later occupied by people who had lost their home during the war between Iran and Iraq in the '80s. So they occupied the house at some point. I have no idea what happened to everything that was inside.
CONAN: Nico, thank you very much for the story. We appreciate.
NICO: Bye-bye. Thank you.
DORFMAN: You know, Neal, it's extraordinary that there are things you can't take with you. You know, you can't take the biggest objects, like a piano, but you can always take the memory of them, and I think Nico has that memory. And in some sense, I think at times, we just have to deal with the fact that that's how life turns out.
CONAN: Let's if we can go next to - and I'm probably going to mispronounce this - Panahpour(ph) in Richmond, Virginia. Correct me on the pronunciation, if you would.
PANAHPOUR: It's Panahpour (unintelligible).
CONAN: Please, go ahead.
PANAHPOUR: Yeah. Thank you for taking my call. My thing is I left Liberia in 1990 during the civil war, and came to the United States and been in school, but one of the things that, like your guest, I left my books in the house. And when I went back last year to visit my brothers and my families - my parents are dead - but my brothers, they had kept my books because they knew how much they were important to me. So I was able to get some of the books and bring some of them to the United States. So I just wanted to share that because, like you were saying, the memories that you have of those things stay with you, and I'm just an example of that.
CONAN: And books - I'm not a musician like Nico, but like Ariel, I read a lot too. Books helped define who you are. They are the people you learned to explore the world with.
PANAHPOUR: Exactly. Exactly.
CONAN: Which particular volume meant the most important to you?
PANAHPOUR: Well, among those books, (unintelligible) the ones that were important to me were ones that I can't say on the air, but like "The Communist Manifesto" and those kind of...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Ariel, I think you had a couple of those books too.
DORFMAN: I did, indeed. No, but those books we had to burn after the, you know, after the coup, you would look out at the streets of Santiago and there were the chimneys. It was spring so that nobody was cold, but all the chimneys were spouting smoke because people were burning books. They were burning the books. And, in fact, they were even burning things like Picasso's "Red Period" or something like that because the red and the black. Because they thought they stand out because then the people would come and say, this is a red book. You are under arrest. And then there was a book called "The Cuba's Movement" - this is true - where somebody said, oh, you're with the Cuban revolution. No, no. It's "The Cubist Movement." It's...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DORFMAN: And they would take them prisoner, you know, and...
CONAN: It is funny now, but not so funny then.
DORFMAN: No, no, no, but there was smoke, and I always though that that smoke that came from different places of Santiago and mingled in the air was, in some strange way, like the incineration of the books but the books were speaking to each other as they floated away into the air. Yeah. So "The Communist Manifesto," I didn't find it when I came back because my wife had gotten rid of it.
CONAN: Panahpour, thanks for the call. We're glad your books back.
PANAHPOUR: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Ariel Dorfman. His new book is - well, his essay, "My Lost Library" is published in The Chronicle Review. His new book is "Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Enrique(ph) is next. Enrique calling from Boston.
ENRIQUE: Hi. How are you, guys?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
ENRIQUE: Thank you for a great topic. And I emigrated from Venezuela to Boston, and, you know, leaving behind, you know, that's a broad question. I left behind everything, you know, my entire - half of life, memories about places, about people, relationships. And a couple of them are really interesting for me. One was, my dad had a little - my parents had a little beach house in the west of the country, and it was like a little paradise.
And I have now two kids that were born here in the U.S., and I wanted them to share the joy of being in that house. And my parents, already - they're living here in the U.S. from, you know, from - after a few years - few years now. And my hope was to kind of take my kids to see and stay at the house and see and go to the beach and enjoy it the way I did when I was growing up, but then my dad informed me last year that he sold the house. So that was like, you know, my last kind of reason for going back to my country other than kind of visiting some friends, and I was kind of sad really. I was surprised to be depressed by that. I'm not really attached to things, but that was kind of really sobering for me, like kind of cutting the last (unintelligible) kind of thing.
And the second was - and I'm pretty sure, Ariel, that you know (unintelligible).
CONAN: Oh, yes.
ENRIQUE: I mean, he had that little book that we - it was given to us in high school called (speaking in foreign language), meaning your hand in the machine - I mean, machinery. I forget. I don't its translation. The point of the book - there was a quote there that says, any young man that hasn't been a socialist, hasn't lived life or something like that.
ENRIQUE: So I tried to retrieve that book, and I couldn't find it. And then I asked my mom, one of her trips down there, to pick up the book and that was the only book I have from library down there that still is in boxes somewhere.
DORFMAN: You know, when he said - excuse me. When he said that this was his little paradise, I had chills, and I thought, wow. That's a great title for all the books about exile because it's not the big paradise that you miss. It's the little paradises that you missed. It's the little things that make life worth living and that have been taken from you, and you just have to build another little paradise somewhere else.
ENRIQUE: Absolutely. And I think that the point is, you know, you can go to Cape Cod or go to any great beach here in the U.S., and there's a lot of good places, but your never going to see that rock, when you saw that little girl or, you know, that - when you were 14, you saw a 13 year old that really have you heart beat great.
DORFMAN: Oh, yeah.
ENRIQUE: And you know, that's gone. You're not - you'll never going to see that rock unless you go back to the country and be there.
DORFMAN: The tree where you stole your first kiss, it's gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ENRIQUE: Absolutely. Thank you guys, this is a great topic and, you know, it's – I think it will see a good (unintelligible) around immigration. I hope that it does.
CONAN: Enrique, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And, Ariel, we hope, eventually, you are reunited with all of your remaining books.
DORFMAN: Well, I'm hoping that some day, I will take part of the books from Chile and part of the books from the States, and then I will be whole or almost entirely whole, right? And I'll let you know then, and we'll do a program about the found library, the resurrection of the libraries of all the Miguels of the world.
CONAN: And a truly interesting stuff, how do you arrange it all? Ariel, thank you very much for your time.
DORFMAN: Thank you so much, Neal.
CONAN: Ariel Dorfman, his new book is "Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile." We'll see you again on Monday. We're going to be talking about mid-sized companies that might rescue the American economy. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.