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Ariel Dorfman Mourns His Lost Library In 'Dreams'

<p>Ariel Dorfman has written internationally acclaimed works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, including the best-selling memoir <em>Heading South, Looking North.</em></p>
Led Todd

Ariel Dorfman has written internationally acclaimed works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, including the best-selling memoir Heading South, Looking North.

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."

Interview Highlights

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."

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