The Embassy Murders: A new short story

Will Paulina ever rest?

by Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief, Index on Censorship

Celebrated Chilean-American playwright and author Ariel Dorfman yearns for the day his play, Death and the Maiden, is no longer relevant. Until then the play’s central character Paulina will continue to haunt him, and indeed us.

“She resonates magnificently, sorrowfully, accusingly, and will do so for, alas, a long time, until she can rest, until a day comes when spectators will leave the theatre asking: ‘Torture? What is torture? Can any society really have condoned such violence? It must be something the author invented’,” Dorfman told Index.

For the unacquainted, Death and the Maiden, which was originally published in Index and later turned into a film by Roman Polanski, follows Paulina Salas, a former political prisoner from an undetermined place, who was raped and tortured by her captors (led by a sadistic doctor). Years later, after the repressive regime has fallen, Paulina is convinced that she has finally found the man responsible and the story follows her quest for revenge.

But Paulina is not just a character from Death and the Maiden. She is now a character in The Embassy Murders, Ariel Dorfman’s new short story published exclusively here for the first time. So why does she keep on coming back? As Dorfman says, she’s never really left him since he conceived her back in 1990 because the situation that gave rise to her – justice unfulfilled – continues.

“If Chile had been able to afford her and so many others some justice once the dictatorship had been defeated, she would not have been forced to seek justice on her own and I would not have been forced to write the words she seemed to be dictating to me. But Chile, like most lands that have suffered terrible atrocities and need to move forward and not be trapped in the past, was unable to repair her wounds or assuage her grief,” he said.

Worst still, today in Chile Augusto Pinochet’s coup (which happened 50 years ago this September) and the resulting dictatorship is the subject of positive revisionism, said Dorfman. Rather than a consensus from left to right condemning his reign of terror, “extreme right-wing sectors, encouraged by recent electoral victories, have declared that they justify the military takeover — and many of them flirt with denial that such violations even occurred,” he said, adding:

“This position is extremely dangerous because of what these people are implying: if you ever try to change Chile again as you did in the Allende years, we will come after you again and this time, as the joke goes, “No more Mister Nice-Guy”. And this at a moment when the trust in democracy is eroding, both in Chile and all over the world.”

Dorfman said “it is up to the citizens of Chile to isolate those anti-democratic elements and make them irrelevant.”

The central plot of The Embassy Murders is compelling. It’s set between 1973, when 1,000 people are crammed into Santiago’s Argentinian Embassy seeking refuge for their role in resisting the coup, and the early 1990s, when Dorfman is wrestling with his return to Chile and what to do with literary characters that he has abandoned. He toys with the idea of penning a story about a psychopathic killer on the loose in the embassy in 1973. The result is “an embodiment of the metaverse, an alternative way in which certain events could have occurred in a parallel universe”, he said.

Dorfman himself sought refuge in the embassy in 1973, an experience that he unsurprisingly calls “unforgettable” and that he has written about in detail often. He has also visited the embassy since and tells Index of three particular times. In one, he went with the daughter of the young revolutionary Sergio Leiva, who had been shot and killed on 3 January 1974 by snipers from one of the adjacent apartment complexes. For him the anecdote “gives a sense of the dread we felt while we were there, how death surrounded us and finally targeted one of the refugees”. In another, when having dinner with his wife Angélica, he was amused when the ambassador’s wife asked if he needed directions to the bathroom.

“I laughed. ‘No, I went to that bathroom many times during weeks and weeks. Except on this occasion there will not be a line of 50 or 60 men waiting their turn outside’.”

A third visit, this year, saw him eat at the very spot he had once slept (under a billiard table).

“The exquisite meal our hosts prepared for us made the visit even more surreal because I had gone hungry often when I was in that embassy (not easy to feed 1,000 refugees),” he said.

Back to Paulina. Can she be put to rest? While Dorfman says there are Paulinas all over the world, at least when it comes to Chile people can try to ensure a reckoning with their own Paulinas.

“We just have to keep on telling the truth and hope that the seeds find fertile ground. My novel, The Suicide Museum, which inspired me to write The Embassy Murders story, has been my way of contributing to establishing that painful truth.”

Ariel Dorfman's latest book, The Suicide Museum, was published on 5 September 2023. Read more about it here

50 years on wounds still raw from Chile coup

Today, we mark the 50th anniversary of the coup that brought the right-wing dictator General Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile. The country remains deeply divided over Pinochet’s legacy and marches to pay tribute to the thousands of “disappeared” opponents of the regime this weekend ended in violence. Chile’s left-wing President Gabriel Boric attempted to use the anniversary as a moment of national unity, calling on all political parties to condemn the coup and celebrate democracy. He has failed to reach even this most basic consensus. According to polls, 36% of the Chilean people now believe the military was right to intervene to overthrow the Socialist government of Salvador Allende in September 1973.

Index on Censorship has always had a close relationship with Chile, particularly during the editorship of Andrew Graham-Yooll (1989-1994), who was an expert on South America. In 1991, a year after the peaceful handover of power to Pinochet’s successor, Patricio Aylwin, Index published an interview with the Chilean writer and opposition figure Ariel Dorfman, alongside the English translation of his play, Death and the Maiden. Dorfman had recently returned to his native Chile after many years in exile.

Already the fissures in Chilean society were clear. Graham-Yooll identified the difficulties faced by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation set up to investigate the murders carried out by the Pinochet regime. “The role of the Commission was intended to be cautious and to limit the chance of antagonising the military,” wrote Graham-Yooll. “Survivors of the prisons and place of torment would not be considered. Testimony received could be with withheld from the public. Compensation to the victims would be decided in closed session of parliament.”

In the interview, Dorfman said there was a fundamental difficulty in societies transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. “Basically, there will always be a co-existence in many societies between those who committed crimes and those who were repressed. This co-existence is a fact of contemporary society. It does not happen only in the Chilean transition to democracy, which in its own way is very Chilean. It happens in all the transitions – in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. We call the situation created la impunidad – the state of impunity.”

Death and the Maiden captures Chile’s conundrum. A woman whose husband has been appointed to the Commission of Inquiry into the crimes of an authoritarian regime recognises one of her former torturers. The suspect denies his crimes, the woman craves revenge, and the husband must seek justice.

In 1991, the world was full of hope. The end of the Pinochet regime seemed to be part of a global shift towards a democratic consensus that included the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid. We have learnt to know better. As Dorfman was so quick to realise after his exile, the wounds remained raw and open. “We have to say ‘hello’ politely to our adversaries and there are topics we’d better not discuss, and wherever I scratched the surface I found this terrible pain,” he told Index.

It is clear from the events in Chile over the weekend that the “terrible pain” is still there 50 years after the coup. Chile is a democratic country now, but three decades of “truth and reconciliation” have not helped heal the divisions.

Our Autumn issue of the magazine, due out next week, contains two articles on the anniversary, including an interview and new short story from Ariel Dorfman. To purchase a copy click here

Editorial: Poor excuses for not protecting protest

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A protester wears the Anonymous mask during a protest. Credit: Sean P. Anderson/Flickr


Close to where I live is a school named after an important protester of his age, John Ball. Ball was the co-leader of the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt, which looked for better conditions for the English poor and took to the streets to make that point. Masses walked from Kent to the edges of London, where Ball preached to the crowds. He argued against the poor being told where they could and couldn’t live, against being told what jobs they were allowed to pursue, and what they were allowed to wear. His basic demands were more equality, and more opportunity, a fairly modern message.

For challenging the status quo, Ball was put on trial and then put to death.

These protesters saw the right to assembly as a method for those who were not in power to speak out against the conditions in which they were expected to live and taxes they were expected to pay. In most countries today protest is still just that; a method of calling for change that people hope and believe will make life better.

However, in the 21st century the UK authorities, thankfully, do not believe protesters should be put to death for asserting their right to debate something in public, to call for laws to be modified or overturned, or for ridiculing a government decision.

Sadly though this basic right, the right to protest, is under threat in democracies, as well as, less surprisingly, in authoritarian states.

Fifty years after 1968, a year of significant protests around the world, is a good moment to take stock of the ways the right to assembly is being eroded and why it is worth fighting for.

In those 50 years have we become lazier about speaking out about our rights or dissatisfactions? Do we just expect the state to protect our individual liberties? Or do we just feel this basic democratic right is not important?

Most of the big leaps forward in societies have not happened without a struggle. The fall of dictatorships in Latin America, the end of apartheid, the right of women to vote, and more recently gay marriage, have partly come about because the public placed pressure on their governments by publicly showing dissatisfaction about the status quo. In other words, public protests were part of the story of major social change, and in doing so challenged those in power to listen.

Rigid and deferential societies, such as China, do not take kindly to people gathering in the street and telling the grand leaders that they are wrong. And with China racheting up its censorship and control, it’s no wonder that protesters risk punishment for public protest.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width="1/4"][vc_icon icon_fontawesome="fa fa-quote-left" color="custom" align="right" custom_color="#dd3333"][/vc_column][vc_column width="3/4"][vc_custom_heading text="Protecting protest is vital, even if it doesn’t feel important today. " google_fonts="font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic"][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

But it is not just China where the right to protest is not being protected. Our special report on the UK discovers that public squares in Bristol and other major cities are being handed over to private companies to manage for hundreds of years, giving away basic democratic rights like freedom of speech and assembly without so much as a backwards glance.

Leading legal academics revealed to Index that it was impossible to track this shift of public spaces into private hands in detail, as it was not being mapped as it would in other Western countries. As councils shrug off their responsibilities for historic city squares that have been at the centre of shaping those cities, they are also lightly handing over their responsibilities for public democracy, for the right to assembly and for local powers to be challenged.

The Bristol Alliance, which already controls one central shopping district with a 250-year lease, is now seeking to take over two central thoroughfares as part of a 100,000-square-metre deal (see page 15). And the people who are deciding to hand them over are elected representatives.

In the USA, where a similar shift has happened with private companies taking over the management of town squares, the right to protest and to free speech has, in many cases, been protected as part of the deal. But in the UK those hard-fought-for rights are being thrown away.

Another significant anniversary in 2018 is the centenary of the right to vote for British women over 30. That right came after decades of protests. Those suffragettes, if they were alive today, would not look kindly on English city councils who are giving away the rights of their ancestors to assemble and argue in public arenas.

For a swift lesson in why defending the right to assembly is vital, look to Duncan Tucker’s report on how protesters in Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil are facing increasing threats, tear gas and prison, just for publicly criticising those governments.

In Venezuela, where there are increasing food and medicine shortages, as well as escalating inflation, legislation is being introduced to criminalise protest.

As Tucker details on page 27 and 28, Mexican authorities have passed or submitted at least 17 local and federal initiatives to regulate demonstrations in the past three years.

Those in power across these countries are using these new laws to target minorities and those with the least power, as is typically the case throughout history. When the mainstream middle class take part in protest, the police often respond less dramatically.  The lesson here is that throughout the centuries freedom of expression and freedom of assembly have been used to challenge deference and the elite, and are vital tools in our defences against corruption and authoritarianism. Protecting protest is vital, even if it doesn’t feel important today. Tomorrow when it is gone, it could well be too late.

But it is not all bad news. We are also seeing the rise of extreme creativity in bringing protests to a whole new audience in 2017. From photos of cow masks in India to satirical election posters from the Two-Tailed Dog Party in Hungary, new techniques have the power to use dangerous levels of humour and political satire to hit the pressure points of politicians. These clever and powerful techniques have shown protest is not a dying art, but it can come back and bite the powers that be on the bum in an expected fashion. And that’s to be celebrated in 2018, a year which remembers all things protest.

Finally, don’t miss our amazing exclusive this issue, a brand new short story by the award-winning writer Ariel Dorfman, who imagines a meeting between Shakespeare and Cervantes, two of his heroes.


Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship magazine. 

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text="From the Archives"][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="91582" img_size="213x289" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][vc_custom_heading text="Uruguay 1968-88" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]June 1988

In 1968 she was a student and a political activist; in 1972 she was arrested, tortured and held for four years; then began the years of exile.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="94296" img_size="213x289" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][vc_custom_heading text="The girl athlete" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]February 1981

Unable to publish his work in Prague since the cultural freeze following the Soviet invasion in 1968, Ivan Klíma, has his short story published by Index. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="91220" img_size="213x289" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][vc_custom_heading text="Cement protesters" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]June 2017

Protesters casting their feet in concrete are grabbing attention in Indonesia and inspiring other communities to challenge the government using new tactics.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row content_placement="top"][vc_column width="1/3"][vc_custom_heading text="What price protest?" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]In homage to the 50th anniversary of 1968, the year the world took to the streets, the winter 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine looks at all aspects related to protest.

With: Micah White, Ariel Dorfman, Robert McCrum[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3"][vc_single_image image="96747" img_size="medium" alignment="center" onclick="custom_link" link=""][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3" css=".vc_custom_1481888488328{padding-bottom: 50px !important;}"][vc_custom_heading text="Subscribe" font_container="tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left" link="|||"][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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Marking the 250th issue: Contributors choose favourites from Index on Censorship archives

Writers picks

Index writers pick their favourite features from 250 issues

To celebrate the 250th issue of Index on Censorship magazine, we asked some of our contributors to nominate memorable articles from the publication's long history. Here they share their memories and recommendations.

David Aaronovitch – author, Times columnist and chair of Index on Censorship 

We are all familiar with the idea of luvvies. The word suggests the artist, actor or musician who, unread and emoting, trespasses onto the stage of public affairs and gets on everyone’s tits. It is sometimes true but usually wrong. One of my favourite Index magazine pieces (and there are so many to choose from) was written in 2006 by that epitome of the engaged intellectual, Tom Stoppard. Stoppard was involved with Index in its early days and has remained a patron and in this piece, he asks whether freedom of speech really is a human right. This is an awkward question in the middle of a magazine which would want to assist at every turn that a right is exactly what it is – none greater. But Stoppard argues that what makes a society one in which he would want to live is not the demanding of a right, but the according of it – the day-by-day renewed assumption that others will say what they want. Because that’s the way we choose to live.

Playing the Trump Card by Tom Stoppard was published in February 2006 (volume 35, no 1)

Ariel Dorfman – author and playwright 

As I am trying to finish a major piece of writing, I didn’t have the time to go to the office where most of my Index back issues await me. I remember stories and poems from countries that generally receive little or no attention and wanted to highlight one of those. Index has published so many of my own works over the decades (I especially think Trademark Territory or Je Suis José Carrasco piece are relevant today), but, hands down, I would have to choose the publication of [my 1990 play] Death and the Maiden as my most important memory. Index was the first to publish the text before it became famous. This is typical of Index’s commitment to those who are on the margins of public notoriety, its mission to bring out of the darkness the voices that are suppressed by tyrants or by neglect and indifference, the voices of the Paulinas of the world.

Death and the Maiden was published in June 1991 (volume 20, no 6)

Ismail Einashe – journalist

I would have to pick Fabrizio Gatti's piece Undercover Immigrant, which is a stunning piece of journalism. Gatti spent fours years undercover, investigating migrant journeys from Africa to Europe. What is remarkable about his piece, an extract of his book published for the first time in English by Index, is that he so successfully managed to hide his true identity as a Italian by assuming the identity of Bilal, a Kurdish asylum seeker. By doing this, Gatti got unique access into the Lampedusa's migrant centres, the tiny island in the Med that has become a symbol of Europe's migrant crisis. Through telling the story of "Bilal", he was able to get fascinating perspective on the migrant journeys and reveals the shocking stark reality of being a migrant in Italy, a situation which 10 years on from Gatti's undercover reports has sadly barely changed. Like then, thousands of migrants still die in dinghies trying to reach Europe.

Undercover Immigrant was published in Spring 2015 (volume 44 , issue 1), within a special report on refugee voices. You can also listen to an extract of the piece via an Index podcast

Janet Suzman – actress and director 

I am without hesitation going to choose the whole of your Shakespeare-themed spring 2016 edition. I’m choosing it because from the beginning of my career I fervently believed that there was more to Shakespeare – indeed more to all drama – than simply getting one’s teeth into a juicy part. From every corner of the unfree world, the essays you have printed bear me out; theatre is a danger to ignorance and autocracy and Shakespeare still holds the sway. To quote my favourite aperçu: Shakespeare’s plays, like iron filings to a magnet, seem to attract any crisis that is in the air. I congratulate you and Index on giving such space to a writer who is still bannable after 400-plus years.

Staging Shakespeare Dissent was a special report published in spring 2016 (volume 45, issue 1), with an introduction by Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley on how Shakespeare’s plays plays have been used to circumvent censorship and tackle difficult issues around the world

Christie Watson – novelist 

There are too many articles to choose from, but I chose Ken Wiwa's Letter to my Father, as it perfectly demonstrates Index on Censorship's commitment to story-telling. Ken Wiwa's letter [to his father and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged during Nigeria's military dictatorship] reminds the reader that behind significant political events are personal stories, like the relationship between a son and his father. Index recognises the power of personal stories in order to reach the widest audience.

Ken Wiwa's Letter to my Father was published in the spring 2005 issue (volume 34, issue 4) on the 10th anniversary of Ken Saro Wiwa's death in 2005. Ken Wiwa also wrote a letter for the 20th anniversary (summer 2015, volume 44, issue 2). See our Ken Saro Wiwa reading list

Index will celebrate 250 issues of the magazine next week at a special event at MagCulture. To explore over 40 years of archives, subscribe today via Sage Publications. Or sign up for Exact Editions' digital version, which offers access to 38 back issues.