Desert journey of revelation
The following book review appeared in today's Miami Herald Tribune.
Desert journey of revelation
Poet provides a fascinating look at a world of haunting beauty and colorful characters.
BY IKE SEAMANS
DESERT MEMORIES: Journeys Through the Chilean North.
Ariel Dorfman. National Geographic. 283 pages. $21.
Ariel Dorfman's chronicle of the vast, remote Chilean desert is
reminiscent of In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin's 1977 classic about that
vast, remote region in Argentina. Their styles are analogous, blending
anecdote, whimsy, history and nostalgia to paint an indelible picture of
two South American treasures.
Chatwin pursued ghostly legends of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and
other ''bandoleros norteamericanos'' who frequented Patagonia. Dorfman,
acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright and journalist, found no glamorous
ghosts in the Atacama Desert. He was on a mission to unearth ''the
multiple origins'' of his adopted homeland, where his parents moved in
1954 from New York. ''In the desert,'' he writes, ''secrets of the past
can be uncovered because in a place like this, they have never been
truly lost. They are merely waiting for the right hand, the right eye,
to bring them back to life.'' He has crafted nothing less than a love
story encompassing family, friends and nation.
Atacama is the world's driest desert, but it isn't a sun-baked
wasteland. It is dotted with mining towns and industrial cities, and for
10,000 years silver, iron, copper and nitrate have been extracted from
its fertile soil. The mid-19th century discovery of nitrate ignited a
boom, transforming Chile into a modern state that generated oligarchic
wealth for some and terrible inequalities for most. As a result, the
region became the cradle of workers' rights and labor organizations,
giving birth to the first Chilean democratic and socialist movements.
Northern Chile has nurtured every major modern political figure from
Marxist-inspired President Salvador Allende, for whom Dorfman once
worked, to dictator Augusto Pinochet who overthrew Allende in a 1973
U.S.-backed coup, forcing the author to flee for his life, unable to
return until 1990. (None of this is covered in this book). Dorfman
always ignored ''El Norte Grande'' because of ''blindness to its
pleasures and challenges . . . and a deep-seated prejudice against
deserts,'' which dissipated during this 2002 trek.
Dorfman tiptoes along the fault lines as he describes the haunting
beauty as only a poet can: ''[A] dizzying array of browns, grays and
terra-cottas . . . dunes of carrot-like pale red . . . seas of clay and
stones . . . drunk with shades and pigments and color.'' Guided by
colorful characters passionate about desert life, Dorfman transports
readers to copper mines that saved the nation's economy after the
nitrate industry collapsed and to such ghost towns as Pampa Union, once
filled with brothels, bars, opium dens and gambling joints, ``only
visited now by whirlwinds and shifting sands.''
Dorfman also had deeply personal motivations to initiate this journey of
revelation as he and his wife searched for her lost family history.
Angelica's ancestors arrived from Croatia in the 1880s to reap riches
from the desert. Despite an exhaustive effort, most of the saga remains
buried. In another poignant twist, Dorfman obsessively seeks clues about
the fate of close friend and fellow 1960s political activist Freddy
Taberna, a Marxist who was executed in a desert death camp for
machinations deemed harmful to Pinochet's dictatorship. His body has
never been found.
Those not familiar with Chile or Dorfman, now a professor at Duke
University, may be puzzled by his vague, off-hand references to Chilean
politics and his exile. Perhaps because the desert sojurn was only three
weeks, this brief memoir rambles tangentially and is uneven, skimming
the surface on some topics while fixating ad infinitum on copper and
nitrate mining, which only experts will appreciate. But overall, this is
a fascinating peek at a little-known place that ``engendered
contemporary Chile, everything that was good about it, everything that
Ike Seamans is senior correspondent for WTVJ/NBC6.