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Ariel Dorfman on his novel 'The Suicide Museum'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The mention of September 11, 2001, sets off many emotions around the world. But another September 11 is especially haunting for Chileans. A military coup on that day in 1973 overthrew President Salvador Allende, a socialist leader who died from gunshot wounds in the La Moneda Palace. Was President Allende shot by army rebels, or did he take his own life before he could be captured? Almost 40 years later, an international team of pathologists ruled that President Allende turned an AK-47 on himself. But the emotions and complications of that question are at the heart of Ariel Dorfman's new novel "The Suicide Museum." And a note to listeners - there will be mentions of self-harm in this conversation. The novelist Ariel Dorfman, who's also a professor at Duke University, joins us now from the studios of WNC in Durham. Thank you so much for being with us.

ARIEL DORFMAN: I'm very glad to be with you, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Who is the Ariel Dorfman who is the central figure in this novel?

DORFMAN: Well, I had been thinking for many years, in fact, decades, about writing a novel that dealt with investigating the suicide - or the murder - of Salvador Allende. And I couldn't figure out who would carry out this investigation until perhaps three, four years ago. I thought, no, the person who's got to do it is me, but it has to be a fictitious me. So I created an alter ego, an Ariel Dorfman who had the same wife, the same children, the same friends, the same chronology, but who, like somebody who's got lost in the multiverse, is having a different experience of that so that I could go and investigate the death of Salvador Allende.

SIMON: An enigmatic Dutch billionaire, Joseph Hortha, commissions the Ariel Dorfman of the novel to find out once and for all what happened. Why is the question so vital to him?

DORFMAN: We'll find out as time goes by that there are several secrets that Joseph Hortha carries inside him, but Hortha is himself suicidal twice in his life, and in both those occasions Allende's intervention, not directly, but because of Allende's existence or Allende's words or Allende's presence in history, saved him from being destroyed. So Hortha will reveal towards the middle of this novel that he intends to create a suicide museum, not as a homage to island, but as a wake-up call for all of humanity because he thinks humanity is committing suicide because of the ecological disasters that are looming ahead of us. And he wants to wake them up.

But because he owes his life twice to Allende, he needs this Ariel Dorfman character to go to Chile and find out for sure whether Allende committed suicide, and therefore, Allende will be one part of the museum or he was murdered, and therefore, he will have another message inside this museum.

SIMON: There is such a vivid scene where Ariel visits Joseph and discovers this collection of images he's keeping for the museum - Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Cicero. I could go on.

DORFMAN: Yeah, on and on and on. There are two or three walls filled of an enormous penthouse on Central Park West where he's just got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of images of people who have committed suicide for the most diverse reasons.

SIMON: You were working for President Allende. Can you tell us where you were September 11, 1973?

DORFMAN: Yeah. I never made it to La Moneda. And that's what I was really doing here. I was getting rid of my trauma in a sense, the trauma of my guilt at not having made it to a place where Allende, who was, like, sort of a substitute father for me, died there. And I wasn't there either to save him or to help him or to witness this, right? So the novel is, in some sense, my penance for not having been there. And at the same time, it is my homage to the person who I was supposed to be there for.

SIMON: You use the word guilt, which I was shying away from. Help us understand how you have felt all these years.

DORFMAN: Let's just start by saying that just about everybody who survives a catastrophe in some sense feels guilt because there are a series of other people who die in that catastrophe and that disaster. And then one of us, the person who was speaking, survives, and there's no reason why we survived. It's a very difficult sort of negotiation that you make with yourself and with history.

SIMON: When you build a novel around a character with your own name, are you tempted to give that character all the best lines?

DORFMAN: No. No. All the best lines go to my wife. I mean, that's why...

(LAUGHTER)

DORFMAN: I'd better. No, no, no, seriously. She's my favorite character. On the contrary, I turned that alter ego, or avatar of myself, into somebody who is not as moral, transparent, or as clear in relation to life as I hope I am, OK? But at the same time, maybe he's a better person than I am. I don't know, because I created him. But I created him out of my own demons and obsessions.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of your best lines (laughter).

DORFMAN: OK. Well, thank you. Remind me of them. I like it.

SIMON: Well, that have stayed with me - and I - life, after all, was just a flicker. In that brief moment of light, we can hurt one another, or we can alleviate the suffering. There is a chance to fight the darkness. But how do we recognize those moments?

DORFMAN: Well, I think - that is a pretty good line, let me say, right? And I do give it to the protagonist and the narrator, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

DORFMAN: And that's toward the very, very end of the novel when he's asking himself about what the meaning of this whole quest has been. And I think you recognize those lines. He says this in paragraphs nearby when you say, if we can, instead of trying to save humanity or a nation, we try to save one another one by one by one with compassion. The way to to think ourselves and to feel ourselves out of the crisis we're in is for that to become something that we all can do. Now, I'm not suggesting this is a model of behavior for - only for the, let's say, the stars of history, right? Every man, every woman, every child alive today - every one of those who are listening to us today - has the capacity to be compassionate towards one another.

SIMON: Just as we were finishing the book and preparing to interview you, Chile's President Boric announced this week that his government will lead a national effort to discover what happened to the hundreds of people who disappeared during the Pinochet regime. What does that mean to you and other Chileans this week?

DORFMAN: This is a debt that Chile has with its dead. We have 1,300-and-some missing people, people who have been disappeared, meaning they were kidnapped by the security forces. They were tortured. They were executed. Many of them were thrown into the sea. Many were buried in anonymous graves somewhere - who knows where? - in what mines or what under the mountainous regions of Chile. And they have not been found. Not even a fragment of a bone has been found for forensic people to be able to give that bone to the families who have been waiting for 50 years to bury that person and therefore have some sense of a resting place.

That doesn't mean there's closure. But we need to know. And among the reasons we need to know, because the disappeared - they represent the disappearance of Chile itself, of a certain dream of Chile, of a vision that we had of social justice for all, of equality, of empowerment of people who have been neglected by history, but who constructed our country.

SIMON: Ariel Dorfman, his novel, "The Suicide Museum." Thank you so much for being with us.

DORFMAN: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: And for anyone experiencing thoughts of self-harm, the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline number is 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.