From the plains of Troy, a plea for humanity

September 19, 1997|By Ariel Dorfman

A FEW DAYS ago, I was drawn, for a reason I did not immediately understand, to read Homer's ''Iliad'' again. As I reached the ending, where Achilles, having heaped abuse on the body of his fallen enemy, Hector, slowly finds the humanity in himself to give the corpse back to Priam, Hector's grieving father, I was deeply moved.

Those words written thousands of years ago brought to life that warrior who was able to repress his rage and recognize the pain of others, those parents finally able to touch the white bones of their child and honor his existence and his passing away.

My emotion may have been deepened by the fact that I hold in my memory, as many Chileans do, a number of friends who presumably were killed years ago, during the military dictatorship that plagued my country, Chile, from 1973 to 1990 -- BTC and I say presumably, because the bodies of my friends, like those of thousands of other Chileans who disappeared without a trace, have never been returned to their families.


Mothers and fathers, brothers and friends, still wait for something, a bone, some hair, anything, to be restored to them by the military who took their loved ones away. Like Priam or his wife, Hecuba, we cannot rest until our missing, our ''desaparecidos,'' are themselves set to rest. Unlike Priam, we do not have an Achilles to turn to.

And yet, there is one man who could remedy the circumstance, the one man in the world who, like Achilles, could render the dead to the living. That man bizarrely came into my thoughts as I reached the final strophes of Homer's epic, and I dismissed him, dismissed the possibility that he would want to do anything, drove him from my thoughts just as Priam had driven his foremost enemy Achilles from his mind when the gods had first suggested the idea.

That man is Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who 24 years ago launched a murderous coup and was for the following 17 years the ferocious dictator of Chile until he reluctantly relinquished the presidency.

He, and he alone, as the present commander in chief of that country's army, has the power to order his subordinates to investigate their misdeeds, search their records, reveal where the disappeared lie, what happened to them, who killed them.

He is the only man alive who could force the Chilean army, an institution fervently devoted to hierarchy and obedience, to discover the truth.

He is also, unfortunately, the man least likely to imitate the nobility and compassion of Achilles.

Rather than using his leadership to bring reconciliation to Chile, the general has mocked the dead -- and their relatives.

A few years ago, for instance, when a hundred or so mutilated bodies had been located in a cemetery, packed two to a coffin, he quipped that whoever had buried those victims should be congratulated for having spared the state the expense of extra coffins and extra nails.

Even so, as I closed the ''Iliad,'' I wondered if that general, whom I detest above all people on this earth, was totally beyond the reach of Homer's words. I wondered if this is not the time, the only time, when somebody must ask Mr. Pinochet to meditate upon Achilles and Priam, if now is not the precise moment when the Chilean general may be open to the message from the plains of Troy.

Because it turns out that the general is about to lose power: Six months from now, he will retire from the army and will no longer exercise the authority that would enable him to right, however slightly, the wrongs he has done, begin to repair the consequences of his reign of terror, seize the last chance to be remembered by history as a man who took pity on his enemies and redeemed the bodies of their children.

Quite frankly, I do not expect him to listen. He has shown himself to be a man outside the common bonds of humanity.

An appeal

And yet I have forced myself to swallow my pride and write these words, many miles from home and thousands of years after Hector was buried outside the walls of Troy:

General Pinochet, you have reiterated over and over that you executed the 1973 coup in order to save Chile for Western civilization. Here is the first epic, the warrior epic of the Western world you say you are defending. In it, the man who has insulted and shamed the corpse of his enemy ends up restoring it to the bereaved family.

General Pinochet, if you have not listened to the thousands of relatives of the missing all these years, perhaps you will attend to the call of King Priam of Troy, who reminded Achilles that there are laws that oblige us all, merely because we belong to the same species.

General Pinochet, before you leave power, read the ''Iliad'' and think about tomorrow.

Ariel Dorfman is professor of Latin American studies at Duke University. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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