Almost two decades since it was published Death and the Maiden remains fresh and topical. The story starts with Paulina Calas seated on the terrace. She is married to a human rights lawyer, Gerardo Escobar, who has been appointed to the country’s commission to investigate human rights abuses of the previous regime in a country that is not stated.
Paulina then imprisons the house guest of her husband, the seemingly benign and even amiable Dr. Roberto Miranda because she thinks he tortured and raped her when she was a political prisoner. The book mostly consists of an on-going conversation among the trio.
Paulina’s nightmare started on April 6th, 1975. Three got out of a car and one stuck a gun to her heard and said: “One word and we’ll blow you away Miss.” She was then taken to prison, tortured and repeatedly raped. One of her torturers was a medical doctor. Though she could not see him because she was blindfolded, she never forgot his voice. When she hears Dr. Miranda speaking in her house, she is certain that he was her gaoler.
It seems the doctor was at first hired by the torturers to alleviate the suffering of the prisoners. But with time the brutality he witnessed transformed him into a monster. He became less interested in the welfare of his patients, and their pain became a drug that excited him.
He became more concerned with how much a tortured human being can endure before he dies. He was keen to know how torture, including the use of electric current, affects a woman’s sexuality.
By the time Paulina Salas was arrested it was already too late, and the doctor’s virtue had been supplanted by sadism. He had become the embodiment of evil and was a willing participant in the mass rapes of female prisoners.
Death and The Maiden is an obvious reference to several regimes in South America. Dorfman’s native Chile was ruled by General Pinochet for almost two decades until he stepped down in 1991. His rule was a monument to brutal intolerance and persecution of dissidents. However the unmistakable parallels to regimes in our own continent also cannot be missed.
It seems impossible to detach the author from the character of Gerardo, the humane human rights lawyer. The character’s role seems to have a submerged affinity to the author’s message. The author also forces us to ask ourselves what caused Dr. Miranda to become a monster. He is an educated and even a refined man with a deep love of music. However when anarchy ensued, his coarser instincts and the evil side of his nature asserted themselves.
Perhaps Ariel Dorfman is an advocate of the rule of law applying even to the best among us. Since when no restrictions exist and everything is allowed, even the most virtuous are capable of total degradation.
The book also skilfully shows the human forces that are unleashed when the victims finally face their tormentors. It shows how this confrontation can sometimes lead to healing. I found the political message in the book to be only a marginal dividend. Dorfman is a natural reconciler and the last paragraph in the story is a demonstration of that.
And why does it always have to be people like me who have to sacrifice why are we always the ones who have to make concessions when something has to be conceded, why always me who has to bite her tongue, why?
In Paulina, her anger notwithstanding, there seems to be a grudging acceptance of the need for forgiveness. It is both a human and a pragmatic need.
What do we lose by killing one of them? What do we lose? What do we lose?
With these last words Paulina is finally freed from her tomb of anger, and seems to be actually asking herself: What do we gain by killing one of them? What do we gain? What do we gain? With this, the largeness of her soul and the profundity of her mind are revealed. It is as if she realises that sometimes the battle between good and evil can end in a truce.
Paulina is the central character in the story. It is her portrait that shines, and the other characters are only marginal. She is aware of the importance of her decisions. It is her ordeal, her rage, and it is her ultimate response that frees the others to get on with their lives.
Death and the Maiden, though sad, is a thoughtful, profoundly subtle, and marvellously entertaining read. It exposes the appalling and extremely disturbing face of a dictatorship, and raises the moral issues of justice, retribution, and forgiveness.