REBECCA CHACE: How did the idea for this book first come to you? Has this novel really been gestating for 30 years, as the “character” Ariel says?
ARIEL DORFMAN: First of all, you should not believe anything the character Ariel says, because he is an unreliable narrator. I’ll put it like this: for the character Ariel, the novel has been gestating for 30 years because he promised not to tell the story of Joseph Hortha, the other main character in the novel, until 30 years had passed. In 2020, he is free to begin writing the story.
Because the novel is set in 1990.
The author of this novel happens to bear a certain resemblance to the character, and he has been thinking of several different story threads for much longer than that. What I mean is that the narrator of the novel, the character Ariel, tells us that the novel begins when he meets the billionaire businessman, Joseph Hortha, and the main story, then, is the relationship between these two men, among other things. But for the author of the story—myself, the writer Ariel—there was the question at the core of the book: did President Salvador Allende commit suicide in the 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet or was he murdered?
And this has been on your mind for a long time because of your personal history with Allende and direct connection with the day he was overthrown.
Yes, because after the coup, I automatically presumed and proclaimed—as it appears in the novel—that Allende had been murdered. The military was saying he committed suicide, and they lied about everything else, so I wasn’t going to believe them. Also, it made the tale we were telling the world a bit murky to agree that he had committed suicide, right? What we proclaimed is what I call the deposed king story, a heroic president who fights to the end and then is murdered. We all wanted to tell the story that worked best against the dictatorship. But when democracy returned to Chile, and that was 30-some years ago, it became possible to ask questions—or at least to acknowledge questions about Allende’s death that would have been, let’s say, transgressive before that.
It could have undermined your own writing against Pinochet from exile?
While the dictatorship is there, you don’t have even have the breathing space to do that. Or at least I didn’t. Others might have. So, when I began to ask these questions, I’d already written a couple of phrases like “I returned to Chile to find out if Allende had really committed suicide.” That’s how a novel would start. And it didn’t work. I couldn’t figure out who the protagonist was. I had lots and lots of ideas, and different possibilities. But it was—I think your word was gestating, that’s a very good word. Understand that the way in which I work is that something percolates, but I also had many other projects going on inside me. There were several novels I wanted to write, and never would. One was the “embassy murders” novel.
The outermost circle in the structure of this novel is the thriller that takes place in the Argentinian embassy in Santiago where you, along with many others, fled during the coup to seek asylum or at least temporary safety.
I never started the embassy murders novel, but I thought about it while I was in the embassy.
Oh, yes, I mean, I thought of the possibility. What if there was a serial killer inside the embassy, and a detective who was also hiding there was trying to solve these murders? I brought the outline of it back in The Suicide Museum because the character of Ariel had to have some sort of creative project, and I felt that it was important to have a fictitious detective who knew much more about investigating a murder than this narrator—Ariel—who was totally inept at it.
I mean, if you sent me to investigate a murder, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. I would be totally taken in by the murderer and would happily drink tea with him and be poisoned. I can write people but I can’t read them.
I also think it raises the stakes for the character Ariel, because he’s struggling with this “embassy novel” and not getting anywhere, and he feels like he’s going to be unmasked as the terrible detective that he really is, as he investigates the death of Allende for the billionaire, Joseph Hortha.
Yes, and when I began to think about The Suicide Museum, I began to think that maybe the person who investigates Allende’s death is myself—because, after all, I’m the one who can’t figure this out. To figure it out, I have to figure out things in my own life.
You really did return to Chile with your family after Pinochet was overthrown in 1990, after 17 years of exile, isn’t that right?
Yes. I went back to my country hoping to return forever. But in the novel, I decided to create Ariel the character, and model him on this real-life Ariel speaking to you now, with all of his baggage and guilt. Chronologically, it’s exactly what happened to me. I mean, the book is full of incidents that really happened to me. The question is, can I then find a way of making this work as a novel? Because if it’s a faux-memoir, it’s not historically true. I myself, Ariel Dorfman the real-life person, did not go back to investigate the death of Allende. I went back to Chile for other reasons.
In fact, the furthest thing from my mind was to stir up trouble about the past. No, I wanted to live for the future. I found out that the past was not dead at all. It was weighing down on us terribly, because the trauma had not been overcome. But I was thinking as well about a couple of other things when I was writing The Suicide Museum. I had been meaning for a long time to write something about the children who were saved from the Holocaust in Holland, because one of my best friends was saved, and he told me many stories, some of which find their way into the novel. Parallel to that was my obsession with what is happening with the planet. There was some sense in which the idea of Allende’s suicide and the idea that we are committing suicide as a species began to come together.
All that becomes really clear by the end of the novel.
I thought, Do I dare? Do I dare to mix genres in this way? Because it’s an enormous risk. I hate to say it, but it could have been a disaster. It isn’t; at least I hope it isn’t. Yet, I felt it was exactly right. Because in some sense, the unreliability of the past, for the narrator, and the way in which the past is reinterpreted by both of these characters, and the other characters, means it’s all up for grabs. And I had no idea what I was doing. I never know what I’m doing. I just forged ahead anyway.
Then, at the end, you introduce two completely believable characters who are each convinced about what happened to Allende, and truth itself becomes subjective, if it’s based on memory.
It’s not just subjective; it’s ethics. Pain is not subjective. The suffering we have gone through and the evil that has plagued our land, the hypocrisy, the lies, the cruelty—that’s true. I wanted to be able to write a novel about how unreliable the past is, and at the same time bring out everything that is not unreliable. For instance, we are marching towards extinction. Right?
And that’s not relative. That’s true. That’s a fact.
But what gave you the idea of a suicide museum? I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’m with Angélica—who, in the novel, says to her husband, the character Ariel: This Hortha guy is just rich and crazy. Did this idea just come to you in a blinding flash, that a suicide museum could convince people not to engage in climate suicide?
Hortha’s idea is that, if he’s able to create this museum, he can change the paradigm through narration. He feels that, instead of a scientist, he should have been an artist. He thinks that he can change the consciousness of humanity with a museum, something like a gigantic “happening.” It came to me when I decided that somebody had to send the character Ariel on a mission, and it had to be somebody with a lot of money, and he had to have real ambitions. It can’t be just any project. It comes to him in a flash when he’s reading about the fact that we are committing suicide through the destruction of the planet.
And Hortha’s mother died in the Holocaust, and his wife, also a survivor, died by suicide.
Yes, and I began to read about suicides in history and in novels, and I became a real expert on that. This is the farthest thing from me—I’m a vitalist, an optimist. I would never commit suicide—but I thought, well, here’s this mad scientist, sort of a genius, and clearly everybody knows there’s no suicide museum. So I can make believe.
It also seems like a lot of the bond between the character of Ariel and Joseph Hortha is connected to Hortha’s guilt about becoming a billionaire plastics manufacturer, and Ariel’s guilt about not having been in the presidential palace on the day of the coup when Allende was killed—just as you yourself were not, due to a combination of luck, circumstance, and choice. You really have had a kind of novelistic life, which is so interesting because of the way the story layers in the novel. The survivor’s guilt that you’ve dealt with and written about in your other works is the same feeling that drives the character Ariel in this novel. And then the guilt that Hortha feels as a survivor of the Holocaust is one of the things that brings them very close by the end.
They’re also doppelgängers in that sense. They’re each other’s alter egos. So there’s some tension between them. Also, Ariel is lying to him all the time.
Yes, he’s running away from him from the very start. He’s really a fabulous writer in that sense.
There’s a great deal of complexity in their relationship. If you had asked me if they were joined by guilt while I was writing it, I would have said, “Maybe?” I don’t know. There’s a lot I discovered after having written it.
Since the story is narrated by the character Ariel, I was inside his head more. So, even though I could see that he was lying, I could also sense his desperation, and the reasons for his avoidance. Hortha was much more of a mystery to me.
I really liked creating a character that complex, giving him these twists so he keeps revealing more and more of himself as we go forward in the book. He’s a man who’s been hiding since he was a child saved from the Holocaust. And he hides from us, the readers. I don’t want to say too much, but toward the end it’s revealed what he is capable of. I think it’s chilling. I really wanted to do that. I wanted to the take this character to the very edge of his existential crisis.
There’s so much in this book that did happen, and he’s such a convincing character that I wondered if it really happened to you. Was there really a Joseph Hortha? I have to admit that I googled him. Of course, I couldn’t find him.
You’re not the first to do that. And it’s very possible. It’s possible I did meet him, but if I did, he probably has an assumed name. Everybody in this novel is fictitious and everybody is real in some sense. And in my acknowledgments, I thank the real and the fictitious identically.
I loved your acknowledgments.
I said to Angélica, “I’m going to write the strangest acknowledgments ever known to literature. I’m going to thank the characters along with the people who are real.” The novel is playful, really. I wanted to write a novel that plays tricks even though it’s very serious.
Which speaks to the ambiguity of whether Allende died by suicide or not. In the book, the character of Ariel tells Angélica what he thinks is the truth, but what do you yourself, the real-life Ariel, think happened?
I would rather not answer that question. If people want to know, they should read the novel, and they will reach their own conclusions. I need to be very clear about the fact that I can’t undercut the character Ariel by taking positions that would clarify what he’s done. Right or wrong. I need to separate myself from him in that sense. I have to respect the character. It’s a complicated maneuver, but it comes with the territory.
At the very end of the acknowledgments, you make a connection between the death of Allende and what he stood for in terms of the fate of the Earth. That strikes me as you, the real-life Ariel, speaking directly to the reader without the mask of a character—is that right?
I play around a lot in the epilogue, but in those last four or five pages, I needed to ground it in my own beliefs. Allende’s death is a dilemma that has been plaguing us since almost the start of the novel, but how does it speak to us today? Why does it matter? It matters because of his vision of love and solidarity. People taking destiny into their own hands is exactly what we need to hear today in relation to climate change. So, let’s gather hope from Allende. But it’s up to us to decide whether or not to follow his example.
One could say that this is the first time that I take an imaginary Chile, the Chile that was supposed to be and never was, and test it against reality. I take myself as a character and I force him and myself to test how real this imaginary Chile that I’ve been hoping for really is—and I find it wanting. And yet, at the same time, it isn’t wanting at all because it is a stream that runs deep and I keep seeing hope there. There are always elements of rebellion, of imagination, of dreaming a different, better future where we’re not hurting one another. It’s a burden I put on the country, and it’s not fair to the country at all.
But it’s a great thing as an artist because it’s connected to your own life so directly. It’s almost like the world set you up to be a novelist.
Well, it set me up to say that the only way in which I can continue to live significantly is by creating imaginary worlds. But if we destroy humanity, there will be nobody to mourn us. There will be no ritual, there will be no passing down. So, we are really betraying future generations. We’re killing the future, and that’s a grave responsibility. For someone who’s as obsessed as I am with listening to the past, I hope that the future will listen with us. Not necessarily to me personally—I’m trying, you know, to throw my little pebble into the lake and have it ripple out somehow. But if we destroy this planet, then there is nothing left at all, and I think that’s a terrible betrayal of the future.
You have been named the “Ambassador of Memory” in Chile.
I’m laughing because it’s a funny name to be given. It’s beautiful too. I’m very influenced by a novel by John Berger, Pig Earth (1979), in which the characters ask themselves, toward the end of the novel, when the dead will rest or be at peace. And Berger says that they will be at peace when there is justice on Earth. I believe very much in those words. The way you honor the dead is to make the future better. Now we’re making the future worse, and that’s a betrayal of the dead, a betrayal of ourselves.
Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean American author, born in Argentina, whose award-winning books in many genres have been published in more than 50 languages and whose plays have been performed in more than 100 countries. A prominent human rights activist, he worked as press and cultural advisor to Salvador Allende’s chief of staff in the final months before the 1973 military coup, and later spent many years in exile.
Rebecca Chace is the award-winning author of four books: Chautauqua Summer (1993), Capture the Flag (1999), Leaving Rock Harbor (2010), and June Sparrow and the Million Dollar Penny (2017). She has written for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Yale Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Literary Hub, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other publications.