Fact-Based Novel 'Darwin's Ghosts' Explores Righting Ancestors' Wrongs

Jun 9, 2018
Originally published on June 10, 2018 2:13 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The writer Ariel Dorfman - born in Argentina, raised in Chile, now living and teaching in the U.S. - is known around the world for his art and his activism in behalf of human rights. His signature work, "Death And The Maiden," a 1990 play about an encounter between a woman and the man she believes raped and tortured her, has long been a touchstone for people reckoning with the impact of dictatorship. Similarly, his many works of fiction grapple with difficult questions about politics, history, and memory.

Now he has a new novel that speaks to those themes. It's called "Darwin's Ghosts." The main character is Fitzroy Foster, a boy living in Massachusetts. On his 14th birthday, his father snaps a Polaroid to document the occasion. But as the image develops, the face on Fitzroy's body is not his but that of a stranger with a very different appearance. The strange phenomenon continues as Fitzroy grows up and eventually leads him to start searching for answers, a journey which leads him to uncover a family history of racial exploitation and oppression.

And Ariel Dorfman is with us now from WUNC in Durham, N.C., where he is the Walter Hines Page research professor emeritus of literature at Duke University. Professor Dorfman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ARIEL DORFMAN: I'm so glad to be on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I think we're going to consider all things in this novel.

MARTIN: Well, I think we are. So how on earth did this idea come to you?

DORFMAN: You know, it - I was sitting one day trying to get one of these passes that you have for homeland security to go in and out of the country without any trouble, you know. And I was thinking, while I waited, what if when they take my photograph, another person comes there and takes over my face? How can I explain it? Imagine if you, Michel, were there and all of a sudden you woke up and there's something on your face. I mean, there's a different - there's a stranger there.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the premise is fantastic. But many of the issues that you raise are actually rooted in historical fact. I mean, in the course of the novel, we discover that the man in Fitzroy's photos is actually an indigenous man who was kidnapped from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, in the 19th century - was imprisoned in a human zoo. Now these are real things, you know, human zoo. So I'm wondering how that idea got connected to the - this idea that came to you while you were sitting in that chair getting photographed.

DORFMAN: Well let's see, I mean, one year after I was sitting in that chair and I'm still turning it over my head. I came across these photographs of these aboriginals - Native Americans, really. And I began looking at one - one of them really, really haunted me. These people were in fact abducted. They weren't abducted only from Chile and Argentina, which is what we finally find out though I shouldn't be telling the audience about this but doesn't matter. They were taken from Africa. They were taken from Asia. They were taken from Australia, and they were exhibited in zoos. I mean, as if they were animals, they were caged. Millions of people went to those zoos and looked at those people.

Today, we would think, no. To cage somebody inside a zoo and treat the person, our fellow human, as if they were an animal, no, that couldn't be. But in those times, it seemed to be the most natural thing to happen. And I was very interested in the idea of the innocence. The idea that here are all these people who look at something terrible that's happening and don't realize it. And that of course is very relevant to our time.

MARTIN: Do you feel that - well, in fact, let me just read a passage, which again, doesn't give - you're giving a lot away. So I don't really feel guilty anymore of giving away...

DORFMAN: OK, give it away all you want.

MARTIN: You say that he learns that - there's a passage in here which I want to read which impresses - has impressed a number of people who've read the book. It says that each human contains within himself, within herself, all their ancestors, a trove of what was seen and heard and smelled and touched, residues of certain experiences that drastically impress them, pressed into them, expressed who they were. We encompass in some tangle of our DNA. You know, now for some people that's going to be a very...

DORFMAN: A silent documentation...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DORFMAN: ...Of an incessant hidden past.

MARTIN: But, well, for some people that is a very inspiring and uplifting message. I mean, it is a source of great strength for some people. But there is a very human tendency to want to only look at the part where everybody was kind of triumphant and good and not look at the parts that were, say, hateful and oppressive and that benefited from other people's, you know, suffering. And I think that that is kind of something we're grappling with now, aren't we? I mean, with...

DORFMAN: ...We are.

MARTIN: ...All this we talk about monuments and memorials and what should happen to them. So let me ask you, do you feel - and some of these confrontations about memory have become very violent and very ugly. And so I'm wondering as a person, you know, you teach at Duke, for example, which is grappling with this in its own way. Do you feel encouraged by the kinds of conversations that are now happening, or are you discouraged by them?

DORFMAN: I think the conversations about the past are always necessary. I think it's very dangerous to get stuck in the past. You know, I mean, to say well we bring down a statue and that will end what happened. Because I think that the stone is not what matters. I think the soul is what matters. I think that the way in which we can transform that past by changing the future, by changing our attitude.

MARTIN: There's another kind of history and reckoning I want to discuss. I mean, your work in many ways - this is your signature work "Death And The Maiden" was made into a film, which was directed by Roman Polanski, who, as I think many people know, left the U.S. because as a 43-year-old man, he raped a 13-year-old girl and fled the country before he could be sentenced. So now all these years later, the academy has - the Academy of Motion Picture Arts has stripped him of its membership and has stripped him of its awards that he was honored with previously. Now that we're talking about, you know, memory and reckoning with the past, now I'd like to ask you, what are your thoughts about this?

DORFMAN: Well, you know, when "Death And The Maiden" opened, I had my pick of directors, and I chose Roman. And one of the reasons why I chose him is because he could be he could understand being a victim. He had watched his mother being taken away. He had lived under the Nazis, under the Communists as well. He had been persecuted himself, but he was also a victimizer. He was also a perpetrator and he was also, of course, as the third character in the film he was also a bystander. He'd also watch these things happening. He knew what it was to not take sides in relation to that.

So he could identify with all three of the main characters, and as an artist, I'm looking for somebody was able to do that. Now do I think that that he needs to pay and atone for that? Yes. I think that many, many artists, and I include myself in that, are not perfect. We are imperfect beings...

MARTIN: So...

DORFMAN: ...As I think...

MARTIN: ...You're saying...

DORFMAN: ...Most of us are.

MARTIN: ...You picked him in part because he was a rapist?

DORFMAN: No, no, no.

MARTIN: Is that what you're saying?

DORFMAN: No, I'm not saying that. No. I'm saying that he had experience - he had experiences which made him understand each of the characters. I didn't say, oh, let me find who the latest rapist is and let me direct the film. The film is about rape and we talked about this. We talked about...

MARTIN: You did.

DORFMAN: ...This.

MARTIN: I was interested in what he said...

DORFMAN: No, no...

MARTIN: ...About that.

DORFMAN: ...We talked about it. And he said, you know, I've paid my price. So, it's not that I chose Roman because he had raped a young girl, right? It turned out that the director who knew about telstraphobia (ph), knew about terror, knew how to direct actors, and could do this in a way that I felt was exactly the way it needed to be done, it turned out that he had committed an atrocity in the past.

MARTIN: From where I sit, it makes me wonder whether you just didn't take that very seriously as a moral question at that time.

DORFMAN: No, I took it as a very serious question because I'd had many of my friends who have been raped. I mean, once again...

MARTIN: What do you think about other people though who are very much a part of the public conversation now who - Harvey Weinstein, for example, has certainly made some extremely impactful films, has brought a number of women into - has made sure that they had roles, has elevated their careers in some profound...

DORFMAN: And stopped many...

MARTIN: ...Ways. And also...

DORFMAN: And stopped many others.

MARTIN: And stopped many others. And there is - I think the evidence is very clear that he is a serious...

DORFMAN: A serial...

MARTIN: ...Sexual predator.

DORFMAN: Right.

MARTIN: A serial predator and yet he has this whole body of work. So, I'm ask - I'm interested in you as an artist and as an artist who has willfully engaged with another artist who you acknowledge is a person who has committed a crime. What is your get - what is your thought about how should we - how should we think about this now? What should we do? I mean, is this an each individual - how should we engage with this question right now?

DORFMAN: I think it's a very disturbing and difficult question to answer. I don't have the answer. I would say, modestly, that in "Darwin's Ghost," I give some sort of a answer to - an answer to that, meaning there are atrocities that have been committed. There are terrible things that are committed. Now, what I would like is for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, if possible. If justice cannot be achieved, more important than justice, is that the person who has committed those crimes should repent of them and be able to change very significantly. If you don't believe in the redemption, then there's no way out.

On the other hand, we have to find a way of helping the victims because they're much more important than perpetrators. You know, I have felt terrible terrible hatred for the people who did terrible things to the country where I call my own really very often and this country as well. But I don't think - you know, I don't think that this is something that will - the hatred, the rage, can help you survive but they - it cannot help you to grow.

MARTIN: That is Ariel Dorfman. His latest novel, "Darwin's Ghosts" is out now. Ariel Dorfman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DORFMAN: Well, thank you for asking me about Roman. You know, because it's the first time anybody asked me about that and I've been dealing with this and I'm thinking about it, you know, very, very often. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.