The Sui­cide Museum

  • Review
By – September 4, 2023

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.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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