MANY READERS FAMILIAR with the Argentine-Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman know his 1991 play Death and the Maiden (La muerte y la doncella), which he co-adapted as a Roman Polanski–directed feature film in 1994. But Dorfman is also an accomplished essayist, novelist, and poet, to which such works as Widows (Viudas, 1981), The Last Song of Manuel Sendero (La última canción de Manuel Sendero, 1982), Last Waltz in Santiago and Other Poems of Exile and Disappearance (Pastel de choclo, 1986), and Konfidenz (1994) attest. Over the past two decades, Dorfman has focused on writing nonfiction, including the compelling book Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet (Más allá del miedo: El largo adiós a Pinochet, 2002). His latest work, the novel Darwin’s Ghosts, brings him back to the fiction milieu for the first time since Blake’s Therapy (Terapia) was published in 2001.

Before the story even begins, Dorfman teases that all may not be as it seems, writing,

Darwin’s Ghosts was inspired by a series of true events that effectively happened in the nineteenth century. However improbable they may seem at first glance, these have all been rigorously documented. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the same can be ventured about the narrator of this story and his fate.

The juxtaposition of historical fact and potentially unreliable narration puts the reader on guard immediately.

The plot hinges on a strange Polaroid taken of the protagonist, Fitzroy “Roy” Foster, in 1981 on his 14th birthday by his father. Instead of his own face appearing in the photo, Roy notes,

My face was another face, the face of a young stranger. The eyes of that man, his wild overgrown mop of black hair, his snub nose and high cheekbones, his thick aboriginal lips with barely a white hint of teeth flickering between them, his sultry enigmatic defiant look — oh if looks could kill …

The photographic result upends the household. Regardless of the camera used or the developing technique, Roy always appears the same, and he thinks,

It was clear that a plague — my mother was the first to use that word, my father avoided it, preferring the less medical term catastrophe — had indeed mortified our family, the question was what to do with me.

The Gregor Samsa–esque dilemma worries the family, for if word gets out, they fear Roy will be “sequestered by the government, picked apart by bureaucrats and researchers and medical personnel, displayed like a freak.” Suffering from constant apprehension, Mrs. Foster turns to anthropology and discovers a photo from 1857 in which one of the adolescents “shimmered with the faintest resemblance” to Roy’s “visitor.” She believes somehow a spell has been cast on Roy and that the photo is proof. After secretly meeting with a shaman intent on getting the “curse” removed, she decides to travel to Manaus, Brazil, in search of a miracle cure for her son, only to die in a boating accident.

Years pass, and on his 21st birthday Roy is surprised by a visit from his childhood sweetheart, Camilla Wood, who was privy to the photographs and has her own theory as to how it could have happened. A biology/physics wunderkind who works as a lab assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cam theorizes,

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 impressed them, pressed into them, expressed who they were. We encompass in some tangle of our DNA the silent documentation of an incessant, hidden past. We can travel back in time, Fitz — all we need is to go inside ourselves.

Cam tells a convoluted story about the subject of the photograph and how she learned of the “other’s” possible whereabouts while she was studying in Paris and found a striking carte postale (postcard), which she shows Roy. The information piques his interest about where his photographic doppelgänger may have been kidnapped from and taken to. But then Cam also gives Roy the corporeal present he’s been fantasizing about since his aborted 14th birthday. “There were many years to make up for,” Roy thinks. “Better late than never.” Their nakedness prompts Roy to suggest that Cam take a picture of him in the nude. The previous photos had shown the other’s face but not body, and the new Polaroid reveals that it “was him in the photo and not him. It was me and not me.”

Cam moves into the Foster house (she’s now a Foster child, pun intended), and she and Roy embark on trying to solve the mystery of the “other who is not the other.” It’s a mission that takes them through numerous anthropological investigations, including one that alludes to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). They discover that the “other” more than likely was part of the Selk’nam tribe (also known as the Onawo or Ona), an indigenous people who once lived in the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile that includes the Tierra del Fuego islands and who were systematically exterminated by the infamous Julius Popper and other gold seekers in the late 19th century.

While Roy tries to find out who is responsible for the Selk’nams’ deaths — a list of names that may include Darwin himself — Cam conducts research in Paris. There, she comes across the well-known French photographer Pierre Petit, the man, she says, “that we’re absolutely certain was on the other side of the lens when your visitor’s face was captured.” The mystery deepens when she discovers Petit was actually Roy’s great-grandmother’s great-grandfather.

If there is a downside to the novel’s complicated infrastructure, it’s the difficulty in keeping track of all the connections among the compendium of historical names — Bonaparte, Hugo, Berlioz, Gounod, Doré, Darwin, Popper, Sagan — that Dorfman invites into his narrative, and where all these characters fit into the grand design of the work. In a way reminiscent of Manuel Puig’s 1976 Kiss of the Spider Woman (but without the footnotes), the story tempts the reader to become so caught up in the ancillary tales that the story arc proper gets lost. Meanwhile, Cam’s excursions take her from Paris to Germany: in Hamburg, Nürnberg, Stuttgart, München, and pre-1989 Berlin she tracks down the identity of Roy’s visitor. The kidnapped Selk’nam was named Heinrich, or Henri, and in a lengthy letter to Roy, Cam writes,

The fate of Henri, his fate and yours, Fitzroy Foster, and therefore mine — was determined, as most of our fates are, from afar. From really far, in this case — from the extreme North of the planet and years before he was born.

Roy and Cam’s whirlwind treks and voyages to discover the who, what, where, and why of the “ghost” in the photo continue to spin through the story, which at times takes on a didactic tone. For example, while in Tierra del Fuego, the couple is schooled by their friend Frano Vudarovic on the Kaweshkar tribe, an indigenous people who live in Chilean Patagonia. After chiding Roy that he has been living in the past, Vudarovic says,

But the remaining Kaweshkar are concerned with the present. Like most people on this earth, they want health, education, access to goods and transportation and, particularly, security […] like you, they have understood that first you survive the most imminent danger, get rid of the shackles, so as to be free to pursue other goals and needs.

You can take Dorfman away from Donald Duck, but you can’t take Donald Duck away from Dorfman. That is to say, Dorfman’s 1971 critique of Disney comics from a Marxist point of view, How to Read Donald Duck (Para leer al Pato Donald), was a response to United States cultural imperialism not only in Latin America but everywhere else on the planet. Written nearly half a century ago, the book-length essay has social, political, and cultural underpinnings that echo throughout Darwin’s Ghosts: the plight of the Kaweshkar is no different from the plight of many other indigenous tribes in Chile (most notably the Mapuche) that have been exploited and massacred throughout the generations.

Dorfman’s perambulating narrative caroms from Navy SEALs and Guantánamo to Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader Jedediah M. Grant, infamous eugenicist Madison Grant, and circus entrepreneur Adam Forepaugh, who brought the elephant Topsy to Coney Island. Readers may marvel at the amount of research the author must have conducted for his “factional” novel, yet the interrelationships between these people can be confusing. Ultimately, though, Roy’s quest to discover and make amends to the “ghost” haunting his family’s bleak and often brutal history is resolved; and it becomes clear that Dorfman’s work is not just about violence, it’s about compassion and redemption, too.

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Mark Axelrod-Sokolov is a novelist, nonfiction and short story writer, and professor of Comparative Literature. He is the director of Chapman University’s John Fowles Center for Creative Writing and editor in chief of its literary journal Mantissa.