Journeys Through the Chilean North.

By Ariel Dorfman.
National Geographic Directions. 283 pp. $21.

I’ve never had a strong appetite for travel literature. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been on an airplane or have spent too many years spoiled by my native New Yorker status, too content to cast aside my provincial why-go-anywhere-else attitude. But there’s always been one place I have wanted to go: my father’s country, Chile. Ariel Dorfman’s Desert Memories, published through National Geographic’s “Literary Travel Series,” has brought me a step closer to that elusive destination. The Chilean poet, essayist, novelist and playwright dons the cap of memoirist and weaves a satisfying narrative account of his journey home. But Dorfman offers readers more than a hopscotch across far-flung locales and delves into Chile’s rich, tortured political history, by default a journey into the realm of ghosts and memory.

My father was born in the port city of Valparaíso, verdant compared to the sun-baked terrain of the country’s northern section, which boasts the world’s driest desert. But like many who faced crippling unemployment in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he wandered north in search of work. Many of the characters we meet in Dorfman’s book are similarly detoured figures, people who stay far longer in the dusty desert towns of El Norte Grande than first intended. For four years my father worked in Chile’s salitreras, nitrate towns, before the prospect of a brutal life capped by an early death from mining-related afflictions like silicosis forced him to move on.

Multiple circumstances motivate Dorfman’s “voyage to the origins,” including his wife’s ancestral roots in El Norte Grande, his own hurried trip through the desert more than forty years ago and the never-found body of his murdered friend Freddy Taberna, disappeared during Chile’s 1973 coup. Dorfman’s journey is about paying respects, remembering those sacrificed during the tumultuous events that wrenched modern Chile into existence. Throughout he discovers traces of the exploitation that facilitated such “progress,” in the graves of dead miners and the recollections of those still living, casualties of the nitrate boom and bust who made Chile rich and then were evicted from the towns they (quite literally) gave their lives to. Wrested from Peru and Bolivia in the nineteenth century, El Norte Grande didn’t even belong to Chile but would birth the labor reforms that activists like Dorfman fought and died for during the Allende years.

In this quest for origins, Dorfman delivers complex geographical information with lyrical simplicity while keeping the thread of his story intact. His poetic impulses evince themselves in vivid descriptions of the arid land, the hard, impenetrable mineral rock pried from unyielding mountains and the white-hot flames that purify the ore during the smelting process. He suffuses the text with meditations on the human condition and shows reverence for both the ancient and recently deceased. In his warm, textured portrait of ill-fated friend Freddy Taberna, Dorfman never oversteps his bounds or drifts into sentimentality, though the diarylike entries and present-tense narration occasionally threaten to break the spell he casts over readers.

Desert Memories never shies from grappling with the ironies of Chile’s “doubly tormented history,” one that has seen archeologists excavate the bodies of dead friends and a government that once converted defunct nitrate towns into concentration camps for its political prisoners, heaping another layer of wreckage onto ruins already saturated with human suffering. Ultimately, the book surpasses its modest aim of travel and succeeds in its own right as a project of recovery and preservation, confronting the indifference Chile has often shown to the less glorious aspects of its national history. Dorfman’s work has insured that all spectral inhabitants of Chile’s abandoned ghost towns will no longer live on in memory alone.