Chilean-American author and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman’s latest novella, The Compensation Bureau, begins with a cosmic question: How would an agency with infinite resources and omniscience that is entrusted with providing reparations for the endless chain of human injustice actually operate? Just as importantly, what effect would this type of operation have on the ‘Actuaries’ responsible for implementing it?
“I will not abandon them,” the unnamed protagonist says to himself in the opening line, “even if my heart is heavy with their stories.” The blurring of the boundary between self, his profession, and his clients – fundamental to his effectiveness in the endeavor – is starting to erode his resolve.
The last year and a half have shown that remaining empathetic in the face of the world’s seemingly intractable problems can be exhausting. Registered nurse Carla Joinson coined the term ‘compassion fatigue’ in the 1990s to describe the emotional and spiritual burnout that comes from repeated interaction with people in the throes of traumatic pain. Whether consoling the families of the recently deceased in a hospital, providing counseling for schoolchildren caught in the crossfire of gun violence, or providing legal services to refugees and asylum seekers caught in the grinding bureaucratic violence of immigration systems, the people trying their best to help others start to suffer themselves. It’s only natural.
Even the deity-like characters staring down in horror at Earth’s violence in The Compensation Bureau get caught in the grips of compassion fatigue.
Paralleling the protagonist’s internal anguish, the Chairperson of the agency faces harsh questioning from a commission investigating whether its continued funding is justified as the situation on Earth deteriorates. Her answers are evasive, even combative at points. She argues passionately for her brainchild, even as the evidence piles up indicating that its scope had crept far beyond the original mission. When the protagonist and the Chairperson meet, they begin considering ways out of their shared conundrum.
A thin book of big ideas, The Compensation Bureau leaves much to the imagination. It almost feels, at points, like a brilliant sketch of a fantastical parable rather than the final product itself. The woes of the world are presented as a laundry list (example: “the slave trade, the spice trade, the fur trade, the opium trade…”). The lack of specificity is intentional. This intriguing novella, just shy of 100 pages, unfolds through internal monologue, a committee hearing meeting, and a conversation. However, a direct look at the process of both the protagonist and Chairperson would add some needed depth.
A firsthand witness to the 1973 execution of the Chilean vision to a kinder world, Dorfman has pondered the nature of human brutality and the nature of true justice throughout a long and distinguished career. The country’s victims and victimizers coexisted in the country (and sometimes even within the same person), and this tension has lessons with relevance far beyond its borders.
Dorfman has been instrumental in demonstrating the universality of Chile’s plight through insightful and intense fiction (such as 1991’s Death and the Maiden) and op-eds. Bearing witness for decades has undoubtedly led to some compassionate fatigue along the way. By taking a step out of this world, Dorfman finds new reasons for hope. The Compensation Bureau is an abstract, late-career addition to a notable body of work.
Dorfman, Ariel. “Death and the Maiden“. Index on Censorship 20, no. 6: 5–20. June 1991.
Dorfman, Ariel. ‘Op-Ed: I danced in the streets after Allende’s victory in Chile 50 years ago. Now I see its lessons for today.’ Los Angeles Times. 4 September 2020.
Joinson, Carla. “Coping with compassion fatigue“. Nursing. 1992 Apr; 22(4):116, 118-9, 120.