David Luban


Gerardo Escobar, the human rights lawyer, is late returning from his meeting with the President, and his wife Paulina is edgy as she keeps dinner warm in their isolated coastal home. Sudden thunder, sheets of rain, and the electricity goes out, cutting off the radio news in midsentence. The summer storm is violent, but Paulina has a different kind of violence on her mind. "The time is the present," Ariel Dorfman tells us in the stage directions to Death and the Maiden, "and the place, a country that is probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship."

Paulina knows that even in countries that are no longer dictatorships, fascists sometimes visit the isolated homes of human rights lawyers on stormy nights. As a pair of headlights winds up the road, Paulina quickly blows out the candles and picks up a pistol. Car doors slam and voices are heard, but it is only Gerardo saying goodbye to someone who turns his car and drives away.

Gerardo had a flat tire; luckily, a good Samaritan gave him a lift home, going miles out of his way. Meanwhile, Gerardo has news. The President has appointed him to the Commission investigating human rights violations under the previous regime. Admittedly, the Commission's mandate is limited: It will investigate only cases that ended in death or the presumption of death. And admittedly, the names of the perpetrators won't be published, and anyway there is the amnesty. Admittedly, therefore, the Commission won't investigate Paulina's case, because Paulina managed to live through it. But maybe her turn will come later. These things take time, and anyway Gerardo hasn't said yes to the President, not without talking to Paulina first.