Ariel Dorfman was born in Argentina and raised in the US and Chile. He first gained public attention with his book How to Read Donald Duck, a provocative critique of how American imperialism and values, as filtered through innocuous-seeming cartoons, affect the mentality of people in developing countries. This pioneering work in critical cultural analysis was banned and burned in Chile and embargoed in the US for a number of years. Dorfman has since written novels, poetry, essays, and, most notably, the play Death and the Maiden. His life and career demonstrate a sensitivity to the themes of liberation, repression, and exile — themes he takes up in his idiosyncratic new book, The Suicide Museum.
Billed as a novel, The Suicide Museum has the feel of a memoir, with Dorfman serving as the lead character. Exiled from Chile after the 1973 coup that toppled the socialist government of Salvador Allende (in which he served as a cultural advisor), Dorfman meets a reclusive and mysterious billionaire who calls himself Joseph Hortha. Hortha becomes Dorfman’s patron, supporting his efforts to call attention to the depredations of the Pinochet regime in Chile. In the late 1980s, after Pinochet loses a referendum to remain in power after sixteen years of dictatorship, Dorfman returns to Chile. Hortha reaches out to him with an intriguing project: to find out what happened to Allende in the coup. The public story put out by the Pinochet regime was that Allende died by suicide as the military closed in on the presidential palace. Supporters of Allende, including Fidel Castro, maintained he was murdered in the palace attack. Still others said he died fighting.
Why this matters so much to Hortha, who is not a Chilean, is one of the murkier elements in this long and sometimes talky narrative. He provides Dorfman with a rationale, which is tied to a plan to create a museum about suicide. Hortha hopes that it will shock humanity into confronting its own imminent environmental suicide. Dorfman, for his part, finds the connection strained; but learning what happened to Allende will allow him to resolve the guilt he feels, having survived the coup while his beloved leader and several companions perished. So he reluctantly undertakes the quest. After interviewing many witnesses with contradictory stories, which are among the most stirring and moving parts of the narrative, Dorfman eventually comes to a conclusion about Allende’s death — but for his own reasons, he prevaricates in his final report to Hortha. Hortha seems satisfied, even though the answer undermines his plan for the museum.
While The Suicide Museum is not specifically focused on Jewish themes, it locates Hortha’s backstory in the Holocaust — he grew up as a hidden Jewish child in a Dutch Christian home — and homes in on the larger theme of environmental destruction, the ultimate Holocaust. Dorfman’s background lies in the secular Jewish tradition of radical engagement and activism, and his passion for social justice is evident. Interweaving narratives of Allende’s death and Hortha’s childhood, Dorfman poses questions of truth, guilt, memory, responsibility, and commitment — all of which bear thinking about.