My Lost Library

Ariel Dorfman

In the ninth year of my exile, one sullen day in the winter of 1982, the phone rang in our house in Bethesda, Maryland. When I heard the voice on the other end of the line, I tried to control my panic. I had learned by then that whenever anyone called me or my wife, Angélica, from my forbidden country, Chile, then in the throes of General Pinochet’s dictatorship, it had to be bad news.

The worst moment of each call was, paradoxically, before I got the alarming news about death or disappearance or torture. In the split seconds between identifying the voice in Chile and that voice speaking up and identifying the victim, a sense of dread would spread inside, a growth heavy with a soon-to-be-answered question: Who is it this time? I filled that momentary void with faces and possibilities and sufferings, and, worse still, hoped that it would be someone I did not know, somebody else’s friend or mother or comrade, and almost immediately berated myself for that hope, as if only my pain mattered amid so much pain in the world. That whirlwind of moral confusion lasted only those scant seconds, but it tainted what I then heard. It left me exhausted and bereft even before I was told anything concrete.

The caller that day in the winter of 1982 was Santiago Larraín, a member of the resistance whose task was to clandestinely collect and transmit information about repression in Chile, so I couldn’t help wondering whether this was some personal tragedy, whether his wife, Mafalda, was in trouble. … But the initial, customary words ("Ariel? Tengo malas noticias. I’ve got bad news."), were followed by a surprise.

The victim was not a human being. It was my library.

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My Lost Library 2

Duke Photography

Ariel Dorfman in the Duke U. library, holds a copy of Julio Cortázar’s masterpiece, Rayuela (Hopscotch). The book was given to him by the author when Dorfman arrived in Paris, having lost his copy when he fled Chile in 1973.

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