The email came to me a few days after Harold Pinter’s death. It was from Farouq Homar, who was in the process of translating three of the great dramatist’s plays into Kurdish and who lamented: “I am unlucky that I will be unable to send the great playwright a volume of three of his works about to appear in Kurdish, as a gift, because he wrote Mountain Language for us, the Kurds.
”With all the homages from actors and directors and politicians, it would be easy to overlook what the life and works of Harold Pinter meant to remote people in the forgotten corners of the earth.
Men like Farouq Homar. Men like myself.
It was in Chile, some time in the early 1960s, that I saw my first Pinter play. That is where and when something in my work and life changed for ever. The play was The Dumb Waiter and it was immediately recognisable to me, almost Latin American in its familiarity, despite having been originally written in elliptical English by an author from Hackney, London. In the years that followed, Pinter’s plays showed me how dramatic art can be poetic merely by delving into the buried rhythms of everyday speech. He whispered to me that we often speak in order to hide, and perhaps avoid, what we are really feeling and thinking.
He understood that if you push reality hard enough, it will end up exposing under its surface another dimension – fantastic, absurd, delirious. He suggested that the worst hallucinations of fear are not immune to the pendulum of humour.
But all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about politics. Though the characters in those first works were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse, sad citizens of intimacy obsessed only with their own survival, the lives of those men and women revealed to audiences everywhere the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness absent from other authors, even those supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing politics.
All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, free humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that language is where the other, parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.
Two men waiting in a basement to kill somebody. An old tramp laying claim to a derelict room. A birthday celebration interrupted by intruders. A woman afraid of being evicted. A son who comes home to his dysfunctional family accompanied by an enigmatic wife. Primal scenes of betrayal that could be happening anywhere on our planet, embodiments of a vast and disquieting landscape of dread, the precarious condition inhabited by most of contemporary humanity, the neglected narrative of the 20th century.
So it was natural that I projected on to those stories born in England the disturbing shadows of my own Latin America. How many men like Davies [from The Caretaker] crossed our Santiago streets? How many killers took their time in the Buenos Aires cellars of yesterday? How many would await us in the São Paulo cellars of tomorrow? And how to tell those stories, respecting the uncertainty of those existences on the rim of extinction, mercilessly stripping the masks forged out of the lives we made for ourselves, and yet also be gentle, oh so tender, with these victims of their own delusions?
Pinter knew how.
I was haunted by his knowledge, so obsessed that my first book was an examination of his plays. Many years later, when I began to write for the theatre, his aesthetics guided me, made my loneliness bearable. By the time I dedicated Death and the Maiden to him, we had already become close, he and I and our wives, Antonia and Angélica, but all our dinners and outings were really a continuation of a conversation I had started before I had been honoured with his friendship.
Now he is gone, and I must face a world where I can no longer dial his number and hear his dry voice, or sit down with this older brother of mine and denounce the penultimate human rights abuse, or find his latest poem in the mail. Now I am left with what I discovered when I was first enraptured by his play more than 45 years ago, left with that mysterious heart and mind of his with which he will continue to help me and the countless Farouq Homars of this world make sense of the glories and miseries of our time.
Ariel Dorfman is professor of literature at Duke University. His latest book is “Other Septembers, Many Americas” (Seven Stories Press, $16.95)