The Chronicle Review

My Lost Library: Books, Exile, and Identity

Duke Photography

Ariel Dorfman in the Duke U. library, holds a copy of Julio Cortázar's masterpiece, Rayuela (Hopscotch). The book was given to him by the author when Dorfman arrived in Paris, having lost his copy when he fled Chile in 1973.
September 18, 2011

In the ninth year of my exile, one sullen day in the winter of 1982, the phone rang in our house in Bethesda, Maryland. When I heard the voice on the other end of the line, I tried to control my panic. I had learned by then that whenever anyone called me or my wife, Angélica, from my forbidden country, Chile, then in the throes of General Pinochet's dictatorship, it had to be bad news.

The worst moment of each call was, paradoxically, before I got the alarming news about death or disappearance or torture. In the split seconds between identifying the voice in Chile and that voice speaking up and identifying the victim, a sense of dread would spread inside, a growth heavy with a soon-to-be-answered question: Who is it this time? I filled that momentary void with faces and possibilities and sufferings, and, worse still, hoped that it would be someone I did not know, somebody else's friend or mother or comrade, and almost immediately berated myself for that hope, as if only my pain mattered amid so much pain in the world. That whirlwind of moral confusion lasted only those scant seconds, but it tainted what I then heard. It left me exhausted and bereft even before I was told anything concrete.

The caller that day in the winter of 1982 was Santiago Larraín, a member of the resistance whose task was to clandestinely collect and transmit information about repression in Chile, so I couldn't help wondering whether this was some personal tragedy, whether his wife, Mafalda, was in trouble. ... But the initial, customary words ("Ariel? Tengo malas noticias. I've got bad news."), were followed by a surprise.

The victim was not a human being. It was my library.

Over the past week, Santiago explained, torrential rains had made the Mapocho River breach its banks, carrying with it houses, bridges, and roads, as well as a shed next to their home, up in the hills, where he and Mafalda had generously offered to store a hundred boxes of my books.

"You've lost half your library," Santiago said. "I'm so sorry."

"Half my library? La mitad?"

"Yes. We still have fifty boxes, I think. Some of the books are damaged, caked with mud. We're trying to dry them out, but a good many seem to be in fine shape. A bit musty, maybe, but probably retrievable."

And that's when the exchange took an even stranger turn.

Something close to exhilaration overwhelmed me, and I spent the next minutes comforting my friend, as if it had been his library rather than mine that had been wrecked—not allowing myself, uncharacteristically, a morsel of self-pity.

After I hung up, I sat there for a while in our home in Bethesda, musing about this lack of sentimentality regarding the library that had formed the cornerstone of my life. Was it because those books had vanished for me before that telephone call, had been taken from me forever, in effect, the day I had been forced to flee Chile after the 1973 military coup? Was it that I had already mourned their disappearance during the bleak nights of banishment as I reviewed the exact ethereal order in which certain favorite tomes were lodged on a shelf, and they had begun to fade from my life when, day after day, I was unable to open one page, consult one note, look up one scene from Shakespeare or Cervantes I had earmarked? Was it that Santiago Larraín's call had made me realize that, in spite of all that longing and love, I had ceased to really believe in the existence of that library anymore, that I had given it up for dead, that I never expected to hold in my hands even one of those books again?

So maybe my bizarre sense of animation came from gratefulness. Yes, I was grateful to that river for savaging my most prized possessions. It was as if inside that much larger, more destructive flood of history that had exposed my life and left me naked, this Chilean rising of the waters had rescued the library, had oddly made it tangible for me once more. Instead of bewailing the half that had been lost forever, something in me rejoiced at the resurrection of what I had given up for dead.

And yet, even if the library had turned into a ghostlike mirage, a phantom I could not touch, verses I could not read or essays I could not meditate on, it had determined, in great measure, our first years in exile.

We were in the most dire need during the period immediately after the coup. Having escaped death in Chile and possessed by the need to give all I could to the struggle for democracy in my land, driven as well by the guilt of having survived the onslaught, I had accepted without reservations—and without any sort of financial aid—the assignment from the leaders of the opposition to General Augusto Pinochet to settle in Paris, where the resistance had decided to install its main network of press and culture abroad.

Without a job, and with no health care for the family, precariously residing in a series of rotating apartments loaned by friends from the world of solidarity, wary of the police because I was in France on a phony student visa, supplementing my scant income from my books with Angélica's babysitting and English lessons given to youngsters with atrocious Gallic accents, I knew that it made sense for us to sell our bungalow on Vaticano Street back in Santiago, a house that had been my parents' gift to the newlyweds.

If we resisted putting on the market the only thing of value we still owned, the only thing that could relieve our economic distress and tide us over until the time when the dictatorship would fall and we would return triumphantly to our liberated land, it was because of the library.

Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world. During democratic times, before the military takeover, I had poured any disposable income into that library, augmenting it with hundreds of volumes my doting parents acquired for me. It was a collection that overflowed in every impossible direction, piling up even in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It was a daily comfort, in the midst of our dispossession in exile, to imagine that cosmic biblioteca back home, gathering nothing more lethal than dust. That was my true self, my better self, that was the life of reading and writing I aspired to, the space where I had been at my most creative, penning a prize-winning novel, many short stories, innumerable articles and poems and analyses, in spite of my own doubts as to whether literature had any place at all in a revolution where reality itself was more challenging than my wildest imaginings. To pack the books away once we fled from the country would have been to acknowledge our wandering as everlasting. Even buying a book was proof that we intended to stay away long enough to begin a new library.

"We need a French-Spanish dictionary," Angélica would say to me as we roamed the outdoor bookstalls along the rue de Sebastopol. "Look, here's a used one, not in bad shape."

"I have six in Chile," came my unwavering answer, embellishing my predicament as usual, but not inflating the number by that much—four maybe, four in Chile that I had rarely opened, and none in France, where we would have needed to check a dictionary several times a day. How do you say in the language of Camus and Foucault that we were fucked?

Nous sommes foutus, that's how, that's what we were, one phrase we had learned, heard too many times over.

That the books would be waiting for me in Santiago gave me one certainty, one anchor, in the ever-shifting swamp of exile. A certainty that was not delusional, as so much is when you are far from home. A certainty that I gleaned from an eyewitness, a messenger who came from Chile.

In August 1974, I had arranged for Jean-Pierre Clerc, a journalist and friend from Le Monde, to visit my country and secretly interview one of the leaders of the resistance, Jaime Gazmuri, the secretary general of the MAPU, the revolutionary party I belonged to. The international media had been full of depressing tales of death and agony leaching out of Chile—not a bad tactic to isolate the dictatorship and get it condemned in all manner of diplomatic bodies, but missing had been news of how, underneath the conspicuous country of terror where Pinochet seemed to exercise total control, a second country of defiance was growing. Le Monde knew that it would be a scoop to speak with someone who was resisting under the shadow of the death squads. But the editors also wanted to know if we could guarantee the safety of their correspondent.

"Jean-Pierre is as safe in Santiago as he would be in Paris," I said. "We have hundreds of cadres dedicated to making sure the secretary general of our party is secure." It was a bluff, a blind leap of faith. I had no idea if this operation involved three militants or the hundreds I had invented.

It turned out that Jean-Pierre completed his mission brilliantly. The interview was published on September 11, 1974—the first anniversary of the coup—on the front page of Le Monde and then syndicated worldwide. Rereading that report all these years later, I'm impressed with Gazmuri's foresight. He might be clandestine himself, our party leader said, but the way to overthrow Pinochet was mostly above ground. The resistance would start occupying—no matter the cost—the surface of the country, strangling the dictatorship with thousands of initiatives, exercising democracy in everyday life and activities until we won our freedom back.

A few days after Jean-Pierre's return from Chile, he invited us to his home for a debriefing session.

It was good to see Santiago again, if only through Jean-Pierre's eyes, the bizarre normalcy that suffused the city as if nothing were amiss, no torture chambers, no secret police. A woman from our party had contacted him, set up a rendezvous. Wedged into the back seat of a car, where he wore opaque glasses that blocked his vision, he had to change cars three times before arriving at his destination.

Jean-Pierre would stop once in a while to depict a member of the network and then ask us, "Is this anyone you might recognize?" We would press him for more details. My eyes would meet Angélica's, wondering silently if maybe that person could be ... and then we both let the name dangle, did not dare mention it, but her eyes and my eyes were saying yes, it was somebody we knew.

"As for Gazmuri," Jean-Pierre said, "I've been asked by your comrades not to describe him. He's changed his appearance significantly. But let me tell you this. Pinochet doesn't have to get him—cigarettes will do the job. He smoked nonstop during the three hours of our interview. Must have gone through several packs."

"Can you describe the house?"

"Unpretentious, with only a front yard, I think, not very large, though I could barely see through the window, but there was the most wonderful, what do you call it, jacarandá tree outside the front door. And the room where Gazmuri was sitting on a couch, it seemed like a library. In fact the whole house was like a secondhand bookstore. There were books everywhere, not a wall without a bookcase. Even in the kitchen—the woman who acted as our hostess, a dark-skinned woman, slender, with long black hair, matched by eyes of the same color, well, she invited us into the kitchen to have some coffee—even there I found books." He looked at us quizzically. "Maybe you've been to that house?"

Angélica touched my foot under the table.

"I don't think so," she said.

"Tell them about the bathroom," Jean-Pierre's wife chipped in.

"Oh, the bathroom. It was painted all in orange. With a gigantic poster of Bob Dylan, the one with his hair like a rainbow in flames."

"Not anywhere I've been," I answered. "I'm sure I'd remember a bathroom like that one."

We had painted that bathroom orange ourselves one hilarious Sunday in Santiago, and the hostess in our own home was none other than Angélica's sister Ana María, and the woman who had first contacted our journalist friend seemed to be Antonieta Saa, Angélica's cousin—both of them were involved, we knew, in underground activities. But we had not an inkling until then that Ana María, who was living in our bungalow on Vaticano, was leading a double existence, like in one of those movies from occupied France during the Second World War. It worried us, naturally, but at the same time it took some of the edge off our tribulations in Paris to think that our house was being used by the resistance.

And now Angélica and I had another reason for not selling the house. It was not merely to save my library—or my idea of it, in fact—but our distant contribution to the resistance.

Several years later, when our circumstances became even more drastically difficult, when we were stranded in the States, again without work and again without permanent legal status and by then ready to admit that Pinochet was not going to fall tomorrow or the day after, and that we needed some modicum of stability after seven years of wandering in Europe, the house was sold and the books were boxed and, eventually, that call had come from Santiago Larraín with news of the death and resurrection of my library.

It was not until 1990, when the return to democracy in Chile allowed us a return that we thought would be permanent, that I was reunited with the remainder of my books, began to unpack the boxes in the house we had bought in Santiago.

How often, during the years of roving, had I not dreamed of the day when I would hold in my hands the first book of my lost library, place it back on a shelf, turn and reach for the next one, untouched during all those years, thumb it, read a couple of lines, glide into those pages and find a note scribbled in the margin by my younger self, and then look up as if roused from a delirium, the next volume calling for rediscovery, how often had this future been evoked?

But the rendezvous with mi biblioteca did not quite turn out the way I had imagined,

True, reading from here and there in my library was like taking a trip in a time machine. Every volume I dug out of its box, saved from the soldiers and the deluge, offered me an expedition to the past, a geological inquiry into the layers of the life I used to live, a way of communing with the eyes and mind of the boy, and the adolescent, and then the young man who slipped into the covers of this novel or that treatise on philosophy, meeting old friends again. Madame Bovary and Alyosha Karamazov and Aeneas and Joseph K and Gilgamesh and Electra and that old fool Polonius accompanied me once more, though not quite as when I last left them; since we were last together I had learned something about dead bodies and betrayals and ethical distress. To read Dante in Chile in 1990, after having tasted the bread of exile, could not be like yesterday, when I believed I'd live and die in the country of my choice.

I remember picking up a volume by Julio Cortázar, pausing at one of my favorite stories, "La Autopista del Sur," which I read before I ever met him, before we ever sat down to listen to Bessie Smith in his apartment near Les Halles, before the day he confided in me that he was leaving Ugné and had fallen in love with Carole, before we stepped together into the sea of Zihuatanejo. I skimmed through that story again, remarking on my scraggly annotations in the margins, the same handwriting then, at the age of 24, as now (some things, amazingly, stay the same), and the shock of recognition: Cortázar subjects a group of voyagers, returning by car to Paris one evening, to a colossal traffic jam, one that lasts for over a year, asks what would happen if they had to live in their vehicles and endure winter and hunger, reduced, as were the earliest humans, to nothing other than their bodies and their solidarity. What would they discover about themselves once some mysterious force threw an apocalyptic monkey wrench into the cogs of civilization, making us question where we are going and why and with whom? Cortázar's prophecy, itself springing from the nostalgia for the primitive and ghostly that informs the vision of so many antibourgeois artists from the Romantics onward, informed my critique of Chilean society and the forced march to modernization that Pinochet had inaugurated, turning us into a greedy nation of consumers with little sense of the common good. Cortázar had taught me that there persisted a mythical, magical Chile lurking underneath or behind or beyond the everyday, haunting the ordinary, challenging the conventional. And yet, nearby, in that lost, submerged library, my annotated Marx and Descartes, Asimov and Sarmiento, also awaited me inside books that proclaimed the need to tame nature. I had also been formed in that other tradition, the one that underscores the importance of science and progress.

Those books contained, therefore, the metaphors and paradigms and characters from which I could never be expelled, a vast imaginary that would always be mine. It was there that I had learned a long time ago, in the boundless pages of that library, to become cosmopolitan—Diogenes was alive in the passage where he invented that word derived from cosmos and polités, a citizen of the universe, someone who does not have to fear exile because, gloriously homeless, he belongs only to his thoughts and to what is eminently human. I wondered if that was why I had gone back to Chile. To dust off the pre-Socratics, to dip again into the classics, to recall that Socrates, according to an essay by Montaigne, said he was not from Athens but from the world. To acknowledge that when I first read those words I didn't ­really understand them as I ultimately did after decades of roving, so much made more sense now, that on the same day that I could visit the women of the desaparecidos, the disappeared, protesting that even though democracy had returned to Chile, their husbands were still missing, still without graves, on that very afternoon I could return home and read of Antigone's determination to bury her brother.

But the collected plays of Sophocles were not just spiritual passports to the universe. They were also, alas, inside an object to be disinterred, hefty and material and, above all, dirty. The words inside might shine, but the pages that carried them were caked with the dust of their own transitory funeral. I couldn't read Euripides or Plato until I'd wiped down the books in which they resided, where they had established their residence, unless I'd cleaned up the residues left behind by time and the river. Yes, Thomas Wolfe was also here, I'd read him before I had an inkling that I'd establish myself for so long in the North Carolina where he was born, the state where I write these memories, remembering that I told myself wryly that I wouldn't be able to look homeward with his angel until my muscles and fingers had done some exercise.

Though not alone.

About four hours after I had started on my labors, I came down with an asthma attack. The previous evening I had already been left dizzy by the noxious smog of Santiago, the third time in as many weeks. The return to Chile in 1990 was not only the joy of devouring the empanadas and seafood of my adolescence, not only the familiar slang in the streets and the even more familiar smiles of my family and friends. It was also the mad miasma in my lungs, the crushing headaches, the substandard gasoline, the buses belching fumes, the misguided industrialization of decades exacerbated by the anything-goes dictatorship and the public indifference to the environment and, of course, the mountains that I loved and missed so much, the mountains hemming in that foul air, exacting revenge on the descendants of the conquistadores who came to despoil and celebrate the legendary valley of Santiago.

The heaving beast in my lungs had subsided by the time I awoke the next morning, but the spores in the books ferreted their way into me soon enough, so that by noon an allergic reaction endangered the Great Rescue. At that rate, of a few minutes of work a day, it was going to take me, I thought, more weeks to clean up my library than it had taken Tolstoy to write about the battle of Borodino, maybe longer than Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, which I was itching to read again in the Constance Garnett translation. I would glance at a description of Pierre watching the slaughter and then sneeze, read another line about Pierre's yearning for Natasha and then dab my eyes, and so it would have continued if salvation had not come at the hands of a spindly 12-year-old lad with a shudder of unruly black hair and clean olive skin.

Miguel was at our house with his father, a stonemason summoned by Angélica to cover the exposed bricks in my youngest son Joaquín's bedroom so tiny spiders and bugs wouldn't creep out and attack our boy, who also happened to be 12. Miguel should have been in school, but I suspected that he'd been pulled out of the system, that his dad wanted him to start working—not that he was much good as an apprentice, as the kid kept floating away from the masonry job to contemplate me pounding the soil away from a binding and then absorbed in one of William Blake's poems and then un estornudo and a similar operation with Rilke, and I can't remember now quite how or when it happened. It would have been narratively appropriate if it had been when I was trying to salvage Oliver Twist. All I know is that Miguel suddenly appeared with a rag, given to him by my wife. Concerned by my health, she had instructed Miguel to sit down on one of the boxes on the red-tiled terrace of our patio and make himself useful. And so he began taking out books, scrubbing each one at a clip 10 times faster than anything I could accomplish, weighted down as I was with asthma and curiosity and my hankering for a repetition of the pleasures of le temps retrouvé.

 He ended up being my assistant until I finished cleaning and classifying all the books in the week it took us to clean up the library, a bright kid, quickly able to organize like-minded books in piles that I could then reaccommodate in relative order on the wooden boards of my rapidly filling study. It was not a strict division of labor in which the boy sweated away and I read select stanzas lounging on a couch, because I also got my fingernails filthy, but it was my aide-de-camp who bore the main burden of that toil, though I don't doubt that he was happy as he plugged away, especially when the talk turned to the books themselves.

Besides making more money in those hours than he'd earn for the rest of the month (his father probably didn't pay him at all), Miguel was receiving the rudiments of a literary education, otherwise denied to him by the accident of his birth. He was avid for the stories embedded under the covers, which I transmitted to him from time to time as he wiped away the grime with fruition. Miguel would nod, frowning with concentration when I recited some lines from Neruda or told him a fable by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges whose work I loved in spite of his having been decorated by Pinochet, Borges who wrote about a library as infinite as the universe but never once conjured up a child scrubbing his Ficciones on a sunny day in winter, never once stopped to think that the intellectual delectations of eternity and avatars could be denied to a boy like Miguel because of what that very general inflicted on my country, never realized, my dear Borges, that if there had not been a coup and Allende, our democratic president, had not been overthrown, Miguel would inhabit a nation where his future, as a reader and as a worker, would have been diametrically different.

I did not expect to be using the services of anyone like Miguel. In fact, I had said as much at a dinner five or six days before I had started that campaign to retrieve my books. Our host, Antonio Skármeta, author of Il Postino and one of my closest friends, upon hearing of my latest tribulations (I had spent a whole morning flitting to offices scattered across the city in order to retrieve a package from my editor at Viking in New York), suggested that if he and I and maybe another writer pooled our resources, we could share a "junior" who could run our errands and would be better off working for us than begging on the streets or selling asparagus one day and trinkets made in Hong Kong the next. I launched into an Arielesque tirade about our fraudulent service society, its roots in the semifeudal past, why we assumed that so many of the poor were automatically supposed to do our bidding—and added that I wouldn't pander to such exploitation. My years abroad had taught me to unshackle myself from this sort of bond. A prodigious speech, but less than a week later, I had engaged my very own private helper.

Though not for long. The library cleansing finally came to its end, and I found myself sending Miguel off with an extra-large tip and some books. And then, disturbed though I might have been that this was all I could do for him, I went on to indulge my fancy with other Miguels remaining behind with me: Miguel de Cervantes and Miguel Ángel 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 Essais, perched close to Éluard 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," words I had already designated as notable from Montaigne years before I had lived through a revolution and a military takeover and all those years of exile.

When I had first read that line, memorized it, repeated it to myself, I actually believed it was possible to cure the pandemic of poverty, and yet almost two decades later there I was in a Chile brimming with kids like Miguel, there I was in my devastated country, returning because it was the place where I was close enough to understand the stories and distant enough to write them, there I was, hoping to add more works of my own to that library, hoping that I could carry on the only struggle left to me in that land, wagering that the poverty of our nation's mind was not as irreparable as my dead Michel de Montaigne, now rescued from a sullied river, once wrote.

Six months later I had left Chile again, this time of my own free will, this time for good. I have puzzled often how I could have spent 17 years trying to go back and then, when I did indeed return, I forced myself to leave. It is still not clear to me if it was the country itself that had changed too much or if I was the one who had been so drastically altered by my exile that I no longer fit in, but whatever the cause, it left me forever divided, aware that my search for purity, simplicity, one country and one language and one set of allegiances was no longer possible.

It also left me with two libraries: the one I had rescued back home and the one that I have built outside Chile over the years and that is already so large that not one more new book fits in the shelves. I have had to start giving hundreds of books away and boxing many others in order to donate them to Duke University, where I teach. But no matter how many I get rid of, it does not look likely that there will ever be space to bring my whole Chilean library over.

And yet, I had already lost it once when I left my country and then regained half when that phone call came in 1982, and rescued what was left yet again in 1990 and can dream therefore that perhaps, one day, I will unite some books from Santiago with the thousands of books bought during my long exile. I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me, I can only hope and dream and pray that I will not remain divided forever.

Ariel Dorfman is a novelist, essayist, playwright, and professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University. This essay was written especially for The Chronicle Review based on his book Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, due out this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To see a video of Dorfman talking about the book, visit