Novelist Shares An Ode To Chilean Miners You are trapped deep underground, with thousands of feet of rock above you. A nightmare to most -- but not to Chileans, says novelist Ariel Dorfman. To be sealed off at the bottom of a mine is a fable and a metaphor learned by every Chilean child. Dorman explains why this national story may help keep 33 miners trapped in Chile alive.
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Novelist Shares An Ode To Chilean Miners

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Novelist Shares An Ode To Chilean Miners

Novelist Shares An Ode To Chilean Miners

Novelist Shares An Ode To Chilean Miners

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You are trapped deep underground, with thousands of feet of rock above you. A nightmare to most — but not to Chileans, says novelist Ariel Dorfman. To be sealed off at the bottom of a mine is a fable and a metaphor learned by every Chilean child. Dorman explains why this national story may help keep 33 miners trapped in Chile alive.


By now, everybody has heard about the plight of 33 men trapped deep underground in Chile by a mine collapse and that they're going to have to wait for months yet before rescue. It's an unimaginable situation for us, but writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman wrote an essay for CNN where he said, these men will survive precisely because it is imaginable, almost familiar.

He wrote, the story of the men who go down into the mountain and chip away at minerals in the darkness and then suffer an accident that leaves them at the mercy of that darkness is part of the DNA of Chile, an integral part of the country's history.

Ariel Dorfman is the author of many books, plays and essays, including "Death and Maiden" and "Desert Memories," a book about the lives of Chilean miners. He joins us from Duke University where he's a professor of literature and Latin American studies. Nice to have you back with us.

Mr. ARIEL DORFMAN (Author, "Desert Memories"): Hello, Neal. It's very good to be with you, even if I'm not in the darkness and you're not either, but it's very good to be here.

CONAN: Well, radio studios are notoriously poorly lit. But, anyway, the situation you describe for these miners - you say this is familiar to them from their days in elementary school.

Mr. DORMAN: Well, you know, let me tell you just a story what happened to me when - I was 12-year-old kid when arrived in Chile in 1954. And one of the first thing the professor did, the Spanish professor, and I didn't even speak very much Spanish back then, but he said, open your books to (Spanish spoken) -basically, something like the devil's tunnel - by a man called Balbomedo Leo(ph) had written in 1904, 50 years before I had even set foot in Chile.

And it was a story - and he wrote many stories, all of them are called (Speaks Foreign Language), theres under the earth or under the soil. All of them were about the miners - of the coal miners from way, way back deep into the (Speaks Foreign Language) in the south of Chile. Not in the north, as this accident happened.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DORMAN: And that story was a story which every child, every Chilean -because, you know, elementary school is mandatory, every one of them had to read the story. So that story was a story about how the mountain basically devours these men. It looked like something out of (Spanish spoken). It was about the miners and their accidents and their consumption and the tuberculosis. But how they would try to survive under the earth for hours and hours and hours. And how there was an accident which is identical to the accident in the (Speaks Foreign Language) in the north of Chile that these 33 miners of suffering.

So, in a sense, what was familiar about that, as soon as I heard about this accident, I said, you know, but those miners had read about this accident. They didn't know when they were reading it that this would be their fate. But in some sense it comes from the deepest part of Chile itself. I mean, the literature of Chile had imagined that already, imagined the situation they would be in.

And, of course, the story of Chile itself has been forged by mining. In other words, mining is the story which created Chile from the very, very start when the (unintelligible) came until right now, where copper is in fact, I think, 37 or 38 percent of what the country exports.

CONAN: And it's not just copper, as you mentioned, these are stories about coal miners, but there's a phosphate miners. There's all kinds of a nitrates that were mined for fertilizers.

Mr. DORMAN: Right.

CONAN: That was, I think, the first thing that Chile exported.

Mr. DORMAN: No, no. The first thing that they exported really was gold, like the old Latin America, gold and silver. That's when the conquistadors came, right? Then they went with some iron. But in the middle of the 19th century, there was the discovery of nitrate. And nitrate was fundamental for two reasons. One, it was good for explosives, but more important it fertilized the Earth in ways that we're absolutely extraordinary and allowed the Industrial Revolution to feed all the people who were coming off the countryside of Europe and United States into the cities, right, so that the yield of the crops was much larger.

And what happened in that dessert - and I did this in this book "Desert Memories" and National Geographic sent me anywhere I want in the world. I wanted to go in the north of Chile. I wanted to go these dry deserts. And it's a crust of salt and nitrate on top of the earth for miles and miles and miles. And you have to sort of, you have to mine it.

And that that the mining of that, with terrible of accidents as well, of course, created this - in the north of Chile - this very dry place, the driest desert, in fact, in the world. It hasn't rain there in 300 years. It just doesn't - in Sahara, it rains. It doesn't rain in the north of Chile.

And what they did is, they created hundreds of towns. Some of these towns were so extraordinary that people like the equivalent of Pavarotti then, would come all the way from Europe just to sing in those towns for the owners of the mines, right? Or...

CONAN: So these were like the Colorado gold boomtowns?

Mr. DORFMAN: It would be like that, exactly. But they even - I even saw there, when I went there, I saw an enormous ship that had been brought from the coast, 100 miles away, to be filled with water so that it could be part of a swimming pool. There's a regatta that the British, who were the owners of the mine, would do their regattas like in Cambridge, going back and forth. But this is in the middle of the desert. I mean, this is Latin American, typical Latin America.

And then, nitrate disappeared as the major export, because during the First World War, the Germans found that they couldn't get nitrate from the British, of course, and from Chile, so they created an artificial nitrate. And this is the story - the boom and bust - what you spoke about Colorado, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DORFMAN: It's the same story, which is you create all this wealth and then the need for it, which comes from outside, disappears. And they just evaporate into the desert. And they're all ghost towns. The only use of some of these ghost towns, in fact, was as concentration camps for General Pinochet. It's extraordinary. I also went to see those concentration camps. So the history of Chile is related to that. And all the big mansions that you have in Chile, in Santiago, all of them were paid for by the nitrate, as many of the mansions now in Chile are paid for by the copper.

CONAN: It sounds...

Mr. DORFMAN: Where the workers, by the way, don't live. The miners don't live in those, as a matter of fact.

CONAN: I didn't think they did.

Mr. DORFMAN: Right. (Unintelligible)

CONAN: It's a little like the cattle barons and the cowboys. Yeah.

Mr. DORFMAN: It is. It is, indeed. And, you know, I think the - I think this idea of the cowboys is an interesting sort of parallel to the Chilean myth. Because in one sense, they're mythically there, just like the cowboys are there; but the difference is that the cowboys are out on the open range and everybody can see them. In other words, that's why we've had so many, you know, cowboy stories and cowboy novels and cowboy films - you know, this myth of the pioneer out there against nature. What's interesting about the Chilean miners is that they're out of sight. In other words, we have Baldomero Lillo, we have some other literature about that. But there's nothing that can compare to the myth of a cowboy, because they are under the ground. We don't see them.

And I think one of the extraordinary things that has happened with this mining accident, is that all of a sudden they become visible. And if you want to ask me - I mean, you are asking me. But the story in Chile, in great measure, is the story of how do we make visible those who create the riches for the country, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DORFMAN: It was - how do you make them part of the history of the country -really history, and create a sense of not having these accidents all the time, because it really is terrible. 100 years after, Baldomero Lillo writes that story about the mountain devouring the miners. We have another mountain devouring other miners because, clearly, there were no safeguards. There was a great deal of greed. There was no regulation oversight. It was, in some sense, like the BP's spill in the Gulf, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DORFMAN: I mean, that sort of thing is happening all over the world, as there's a need, you know, to extract more and more riches and not to care particularly about what happens to the people who die in those accidents. If you look at the amount of accidents there are, there seem to be more and more of them. I'm not sure if this true or not, but this is just my impression of it.

CONAN: I understand totally. And this comes at a time - I think, this month, Chile celebrates its bicentennial, and of course, the national drama at this moment is those miners.

Mr. DORFMAN: It's quite extraordinary, that after 200 years of independent life, you know, we should have this as the central drama of our day in Chile. And that everybody in Chile is asking themselves, will the miners survive? In some sense, almost like a symbol of the country - well, will this country survive? Of course, the country will survive. The question is, will it come out into the light? Because really, we've been in a lot of darkness. I mean, these 200 years are years of great joy and of great progress in some sense. But it's been - they've been years of great - of really darkness of tunnels, you know, of a country that also devours its own children, of wars, of dictatorships, of prisons.

So the real question that every centennial - the centennials, I don't like them too much. But I think they're good in as much as they allow you to look back and say, well, where are we, 200 years? I mean, what has been repeating itself over and over again? Are we going to repeat the past over again? Or are we, in fact, going to, like the miners, find a way of coming out of that darkness and going into the sun? And it's about time, in some sense, I think.

CONAN: You also suggested that, in fact, this cultural DNA, this history and culture of mining is going to help them survive.

Mr. DORFMAN: Well, they've learned about it. I mean, what are the things that happened in the nitrate mines - and that's why the nitrate is so important - is this was the birth of the working class of Chile. Meaning, never before had so many workers has been put in a situation where they were next to each other. So the first trade unions of Chile were born at the end of the 19th century. The first cultural associations were born. The first newspapers were born.

And there's a very interesting parallel which you can look at, which is wherever there was mining in Chile, around it, the agricultural workers organized as well. So you can almost say that the story of Chile, which in great measure, is the story of the rights of people, right? The rights of women to vote or the rights of, simply, people to vote, not because they have money but because they're citizens of a country. Or the right of children not to go down into the mines and not to have child slavery. All the wonderful democratic institutions that have created - been created in Chile, which were, in fact, the pride of the country - the country was, until Pinochet's dictatorship, the most democratic country in Latin America.

In a measure, is, of course, partly the bourgeoisie or the intellectuals or what-do-you-want. But it has to do with this working class culture of men who decided that, as I say in my article, their ancestors were telling them, listen, you're going to have a very hard life. You've got to depend on one another. You have to organize.

There's a hierarchy down there. People around the world are surprised. They were astonished at the wonder of the fact that you have all these workers who are down there for months. They've organized. They have shifts. They take care of the one who is oldest. I mean, they know how to take care of their own. And when you think about that, there is a model for society in the way in which they act which should be a model for all of Latin America; and in fact, could be a model for our sad republic itself - in the sense of one, where when things go wrong, we're all on the boat together. We're all down in the mine together, in some sense.

If we could only understand that those emergencies that are happening right now - and again, I'm not - I don't want to preach about that - but this is country where a lot of people are suffering. And if we could understand that they're suffering with us, that they're our brothers and sisters who are suffering, and that we're all down in that metaphorical mine together, then maybe we can all come out together into the sun. But we have to organize, as well, and care for one another in the way in which those miners are caring.

And that's the story - I think that's the hidden story and the beautiful story of Chile, which is related to its mining experience. The mines made the workers organize, discover one another, educate one another, care for one another, care for their families in such ways that this is an ethos that has moved down from generation to generation. And they're down in the mines, and they're teaching us all a lesson.

CONAN: Ariel Dorfman, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Prof. DORFMAN: It is always great to be with you. And it - it's okay you're in the studio. It - it's better than the mines, let's say.

CONAN: Well, I have windows, but they look out on other rooms, not outside, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Ariel Dorfman is...

Prof. DORFMAN: Thank you so much. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: ...Walter Hines Page Professor of Literature in Latin American Studies at Duke. There's a link to his essay, "Why Trapped Miners 'Unwilling to Die in Darkness'" on our website, He joined us from the studios at Duke.

(Soundbite of music)

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