… she had a panic attack.


The undefeated

Often compared to Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende is more
interested in telling stories about her own life, her difficult upbringing,
marriage and her daughter’s death

Aida Edemariam
Saturday April 28,
The Guardian

The day before we met, Isabel Allende went on a
march. She had heard that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Bush
innovation, had been conducting house-to-house raids not far from where she
lives, on a bluff overlooking San Francisco Bay. One of these raids had netted a
father and his seven-year-old son who would not let go of him, so the two were
shackled together and removed. When the mayor eventually discovered where they
had been taken, he called a town meeting. Allende found herself declaiming into
a microphone and marching, "surrounded by a Spanish-speaking crowd, all of them
mestizos – dark people, little people, and they were shouting the same slogans
that we were shouting in the 70s in Chile: ‘El pueblo, unido, jamás será
vencido!’ ‘The people, united, will never be defeated!’" When she went to bed
that night, she had a panic attack, "because everything that I had lived in
Chile during the military coup came back. I realised that I had lived that
before, with different nuances."

Allende is dark-haired and little herself, a fierce 5ft, 64-year-old matriarch
who has made sure that after the Pinochet coup that killed her second cousin
Salvador Allende, marooned her brother in Moscow and sent her to Venezuela, her
family are all nearby: her son lives with his second wife and her grandchildren
just down the hill; her son-in-law and his family live in the house she and her
second husband, San Francisco lawyer and novelist William Gordon, vacated. The
house they now live in has curved rooms and a swimming pool overlooking the bay.
It is called La casa de los espíritus, House of the Spirits, after the book that
opened the door to a new life for her, the most liberating of a succession of
new lives.

Allende was born in Peru, where her father Tomás had been posted as a
diplomat; yet following his disappearance, when she was three, her mother had to
return to Chile. "I remember my childhood as a horrible time," she says, but "my
mother says that nothing so horrible ever happened to me as the things that I
remember". When her grandmother – the inspiration for Clara in The House of the
Spirits (1985), Allende’s favourite character in all her books – died, her
grandfather wore black and painted the furniture black. Her mother, now 86,
always seemed to be ill. "Because she lived under the big umbrella of my
grandfather and she didn’t have any education – she had three kids, had been
abandoned by her husband, had no money – it was a horrible life. The only way
she could get attention from her father or anybody else was by being sick. She
didn’t do it consciously. As a child I felt impotent and guilty because I felt
that I couldn’t help her in any way."

Isabel determined that she would not be a weak woman ("at five I was already
a feminist and nobody used the word in Chile yet"). Her new novel is a
straightforward feminist excavation of the life of Inés Suárez, who, although
largely written out of Chilean history books, helped Pedro de Valdivia (plus a
handful of conquistadors and 1,000-odd subjugated Indians) to conquer Chile for
Spain in the 16th century. Allende is at her best when staying closest to her
own experience. Inés of My Soul (2007) is baldly told, bland except for some
unbelievable details, which turn out to be true: Inés was a water diviner, which
saved the soldiers’ lives on the gruelling crossing from Peru; and she did end a
battle by decapitating at least one – maybe seven – Mapuche hostages (the record
is unclear).

Allende married early, into an Anglophile family and a kind of double life:
at home she was the obedient wife and mother of two; in public she became, after
a spell translating Barbara Cartland, a moderately well-known TV personality, a
dramatist and a journalist on a feminist magazine. Her only foray into political
reporting ended when she asked Salvador Allende, by then South America’s first
elected socialist president, what he thought of Christmas. "Don’t ask me
bullshit like that, Isabel," he replied. When she asked Pablo Neruda for an
interview, the poet replied: "My dear child, you must be the worst journalist in
the country. You are incapable of being objective, you place yourself at the
centre of everything you do, I suspect you’re not beyond fibbing, and when you
don’t have news, you invent it."

The CIA-backed military coup in 1973 changed everything. She has said that,
until then, she retained a kind of innocence; after it, her name meant she was
caught up in finding safe passage for those on the wanted lists; she helped
until her mother and stepfather, a diplomat in Argentina, narrowly escaped
assassination. When she herself was added to the list and began receiving death
threats, she fled to Venezuela, where she stayed for 13 years.

Venezuela gave her the freedom of anonymity, but also stripped her of a sense
of rootedness or purpose, and she drifted into affairs; briefly she escaped to
Paris with an Argentinian flautist. In Venezuela, "sensuality ceased to be a
defect that had to be hidden for the sake of gentility, and was accepted as a
basic ingredient of my temperament," she once wrote – though, she says now, she
has to make a conscious effort to include the senses in her writing, and finds
it much easier to write love and sex than violence. She has just abandoned work
on a book about slavery, partly because she found it so hard to comprehend the
levels of torture involved.

She was nearly 40 when she wrote the fantastically embroidered autobiography
of her family that became The House of the Spirits. "It would have been much
better if I had started [writing novels] at 19. But I couldn’t. I had to support
a family, I wasn’t ready. And I think I needed to lose my country to start
writing, because The House of the Spirits is an attempt to recreate the country
I had lost, the family I had lost." Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American
and Latino culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts and author of The
Hispanic Condition, has written that the book "symbolised the end of the
old-boys club in Latin American letters. This intensely experimental club
sought, [through] Julio Cortázar and José Lezama Lima, among others, to renovate
literature: to show that the novel as a genre no longer belonged solely to
Europe, where it appeared exhausted after Kafka, Proust and Joyce, but that it
was alive and well in the Americas." Yet by the time Allende arrived, popular
appetite was "for sheer entertainment. Allende is the ultimate transmogrifier of
literature into a middlebrow commodity."

Allende quickly tired of being compared to Gabriel García Márquez, to being
claimed, over and over again, as a late, pale entrant into the magical-realist
fold. "I just want to tell a story as straightforwardly as possible, from all
angles, with a strong voice," she says tersely. "I’m not trying to experiment
with the form." In fact, the more baroque aspects of her work have progressively
been subdued.

It wasn’t until she had published her third book, Eva Luna (1989), that she
left her day job at a school for the disabled, and, for good measure, her
marriage. Allende has an unusual willingness to make her private life public.
Her website contains a selection of personal photographs; she has written
without reservation (though with self-mockery, too) of the way in which she met
her second husband, "an Irish-looking North American lawyer with an aristocratic
appearance and a silk tie who spoke Spanish like a Mexican bandido and had a
tattoo on his left hand" at an event for Of Love and Shadows (1987). Within a
couple of weeks she had mailed him a contract detailing her demands, and what
she was prepared to offer in a relationship, even though she was "absolutely
shocked by the way he lived – by how awful his family was. He had three
biological children, all of them drug addicts. How can you have three children,
all of them drug addicts? No sense of family, everybody disconnected." He soon
found himself the subject of a novel, The Infinite Plan (1993); she found that
his often invented Spanglish was creeping into her writing; these days she has
her work trawled for linguistic and grammatical oddities.

"If I had to choose between a relative and a good story, I would take the
story," she says of the outrage that The House of the Spirits provoked among her
relatives in Chile. This tendency produced a 1995 memoir that has been called –
with good reason – her masterpiece. It was written at her daughter Paula’s
bedside, after the 29-year-old had fallen into a year-long coma following
complications due to porphyria. Intended at first as a way to fill in the gaps
for her daughter when she woke, Paula is furious, grieving, recklessly honest;
occasionally, when Allende begins to realise that her daughter will never
return, is in fact dying, it is unbearably so. Her mother, who was her trusted
editor, was horrified and wanted her to turn it into a novel. Allende tried; it
felt wrong, a betrayal of Paula, and she refused.

A year later Gordon’s daughter disappeared, presumed murdered. (The oldest
child has been in and out of prison his whole life; the youngest, after eight
years of heroin, is clean.) It was nearly the end of their marriage. "But every
time I mentioned the word divorce, Willie would drag me to therapy. He was
determined to keep this thing going. And he won. It was very funny, because I
remember once we made a deal that for three weeks we would not mention the word
divorce, no matter what. We could kill each other, but that word was not going
to be mentioned. And it saved us, because we realised that if you put your
energy into solving the problem instead of running away, everything shifts." It
was five years before she could write again, and she tested the water with
Aphrodite (1998), a book of recipes and aphrodisiacs. She had started Daughter
of Fortune (1999), about Chileans in the California gold rush, before Paula fell
ill, but didn’t finish it for another seven years. It’s a sweeping melodrama,
full of flashing eyes and pirates and love at first sight.

Allende knows this sort of thing means she doesn’t often get reviewed –
especially in Chile, where she is nevertheless popular (Inés has been at the top
of the bestseller lists since it was published there in August) – but she is
defiant. "I think that any writer who is commercial, who sells a lot of books,
has to face criticism. Because the more hermetic and the more difficult your
book is, supposedly it’s better. But as a journalist you learn that you have a
readership, and you have to connect with that readership no matter what. If your
readers do not pick up your book and read it, you’ve wasted your time. I want
people to identify with the characters, to know that other people feel the same
way. To know that what is happening to them at a particular point – a child
dying or something – has happened before and will happen again."


One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Captain’s Verses
by Pablo Neruda
The Arabian Nights
by Marc Chagall
‘Gracias a la Vida’, a song by Violeta

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Norwich, U(na) K(asa),

P.D.Piromaníaca. Nerón en la Roma.

P.D.Anónima. Formando una sociedad de cofradías.

P.D.Lépera. "¿A dónde fueron mis palabras SUCIAS de sangre de Abril?" – ¿A dónde van? (Silvio Rodríguez).

P.D.Perseguida. "…dark ANGELS follow me/over a GODLESS sea…" – Why should I cry for you? (Sting).

P.D.Excomulgada. "I thought that I heard you laughing …" – Losing my religion (REM).

… Confutatis Maledictis.
This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s