Ah, a return to the bounty of Latin American magic realism, and not to just any book, but one of the banner examples of the genre according to some – at least that was the promise; the reality was slightly different. The House of the Spirits is a sweeping family saga that (eventually) intersects with a crucial part of 20th Century Chilean history with devastating consequences. In this sense, it gives us a dramatic insight into the history of Chile, a history that Allende’s extended family was a large part of – but more of this later. Each page is packed with ‘story’. For the most part, sentences are indulgently long and paragraphs are packed with all manner of story slivers that break-off from the main plot-line like shards of a broken mirror. Written in flowing, accessible language, it is clear from the opening that Allende is a born story-teller and that this is a very personal story. What is less clear is whether her execution matches up to the scale of her ambition.
What is immediately clear is Allende’s humour, use of magical realism. We have one of our main protagonists’ Clara Trueba’s ability to move the salt-cellar across the dinner table, accompanied by her acutely sensed prognostications and general clairvoyance. And we have her fantastic uncle Marcos whose failed serenade of his love throws him into a deep depression – but only for a melodramatic two to three days! He then travels the world and upon his return constructs a flying machine; everyone turns out to see the spectacle of flight as Marcos elegantly takes to the sky and disappears. Allende’s world is populated with such wondrous characters, events and humour. On the flip side, deaths are gruesome; take Nívea’s – Clara’s mother’s – decapitation, foreseen in a dream by Clara, and the madcap search for her head. Only Clara the clairvoyant can track it down days later whilst heavily pregnant. Indeed, finding the head proves too much for her and she goes into labour. Rushed back to the ‘big house on the corner’ – the rambling family pile and a character in its own right – she gives birth to twins whilst the startled eyes of her dead mother’s severed head look on.
It is the intersection of family and country – the political differences, challenges, and history – where the story tries to come to life. Yet for most of the novel, the ‘nationalist’ angle barely simmers to the surface of things, yet we are clear that the seeds of betrayal and exploitation that Esteban Trueba sows in his rise to both familial and political power will be bear a most bitter harvest. Esteban’s rise is accompanied by philandering and the rape and exploitation of the peasants on his hacienda, Tres Marías. It is at the end of the novel that the Chilean historical angle is laid bare. Before this, Allende’s feminism and sense of social justice is clear, from the discussion over women’s right to vote, to the growing unrest in the peasant populace over the distribution of wealth and the exploitation of workers’ rights. It is this growing tension that plagues Esteban as he seeks to control everything in his domain – from the produce and workers of his hacienda to the all the women in his life. Unfortunately for him, Allende’s leading lady Clara is more than a match. She is never his to claim despite their marriage. She never loves him, which only serves to increase his rage and desperation to possess her.
Given Allende’s leftist political connections, it is no surprise that Esteban – a Conservative – is such a thoroughly malicious character. The irony is that Esteban becomes almost sympathetic after he loses power, despite his conspiratorial plotting, particularly when he returns to Tres Marías to find it taken over by the peasants who once worked the land for him, whereupon they take him hostage. But this slight reprieve cannot last, and we see the true terror Esteban unleashed come home to roost. As he sips champagne at the moment of the coup’s success, members of his family – who have grown to admire more socialist and even Marxist views – are being tortured by the military. Esteban soon learns the military have no intention of handing back Congress. ‘The Poet’ – thought to be Neruda – dies and with him is buried democracy. Soon after Esteban expresses his “regret that the Army’s action, whose purpose had been to eliminate the threat of a Marxist dictatorship, had condemned the country to a dictatorship far more severe, one that, to all evidence, was fated to last a century. For the first time in his life, Senator Trueba admitted he had made a mistake.”
This is where the book becomes something altogether different, or attempts to, for its focus falls on the decline of nationhood and democracy after the military coup and the accompanied terror campaign. It becomes an altogether different book. But this is where it starts to struggle too, for it deals with this terror only at the end, it is the climax of the book, but the book which has been a family saga now becomes a form of historical fiction. The writing itself changes too – gone are the long, sweeping and florid sentences that characterise the first 400 pages, and in their stead are now short, sharp, action-filled sentences that ripple with the tension of the coup and its terrible aftermath. This section in itself works well, with the delightful rescuing of Esteban by Pedro Tercero Garcia in Tres Marías mirrored in the rescue of Pedro by Esteban. But overall, it doesn’t seem to gel. It tries to be too much. There is so much going on in this story, it is a wonder that it comes together at all, (and it would be a mighty task to try to summarise the labyrinthine plot with the successive generations of Truebas, their loves, their lives). You have to admire the scale of ambition shown by Allende, particularly given this is her debut novel, but the execution of the story is not, in my view, up to the task set by such vision. It feels like an attempt to be a Chilean One Hundred Years of Solitude fused with a tense political thriller. As a result, it feels disjointed, as if Allende was trying to write her way through to one storyline from another – perhaps a symptom of many a debut novel. Perhaps even Allende herself recognised this afterwards, for she again turned her attention to the harsh reality of the Chilean dictatorship with reportedly better success in her third novel Of Love and Shadows. But I’m sure others will find this fusion exhilarating, and interesting it certainly is.
I mentioned this was an intensely personal story for Allende. Indeed, there is debate as to whether the story is a roman à clef, with ‘The Poet’ character being Neruda, and ‘The Candidate’ and ‘The President’ characters one in the same – and both Allende’s cousin once removed: Salvador Allende. (Salvador helped to found the Chilean Socialist Party, a Marxist party that eventually won power in 1970. The CIA then got involved to overthrow Allende who was indeed ousted and killed in a military coup in 1973, to be replaced as President by none other than the military dictator Augusto Pinochet). The book is preceded by a dedication: “To my mother, my grandmother, and all the other extraordinary women of this story”, which is then followed by some of Neruda’s poetry. All of which lends itself to the belief that indeed a hidden reality underpins the narrative. This viewpoint is further bolstered by the portrayal of the right’s plotting to oversee the economic collapse of the country with the help of foreign “gringos” later in the story. Allende herself was forced to leave Chile when she was added to wanted lists for helping others escape the brutal Pinochet regime. It is not surprising that the heartfelt tragedy of her lost nation comes through so strongly in her writing. She now lives in California, and owing to the success of The House of the Spirits – which she commenced writing on the 8th of January 1981 – she has started writing each of her subsequent works on the 8th of January too.
There are nice plot turns and sections of beautiful writing. When Clara realises she is close to death and begins to put her affairs in order, her diaries are organised, and she finds all the jewels that she had put in shoeboxes and the like over the many years of marriage, placing them all in a sock and handing it to Blanca, saying: “Put this away, darling. Someday they may be good for something besides masquerades.” You get the sense that we’ll see these jewels again and so it proves when Blanca is forced to sell them to make ends meet after Esteban turns his attention away from the upkeep of the house. Clara is not perturbed by death; she sees it as merely a ‘change’, and because of her ability to confer with those who have passed over, she feels that she too will be able to communicate with those in the here-and-now, that “death would not be a separation, but a way of being more united.” But Clara is the glue that had kept the big house alive, and with her departure the house begins an inexorable decline toward oblivion. The decay of the house is well depicted; only Clara’s blue silk-covered room remains unadulterated.
SPOLIER ALERT IN NEXT PARAGRAPH ONLY
The depiction of Alba’s incarceration and torture is particularly affecting; eventually, she decides that death would be a welcome thing and stops eating, but Clara comes to her “with the novel idea that the point was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle.” She then tells Alba to live so she can write down the horrible truth of what has gone on so that everyone will know the story. In the meantime, Esteban finds himself calling upon an old whore he once lent money to, Tránsito Soto, who pops up in the storyline every now and then. It is she who finally helps Esteban to free his grand-daughter. A circle is completed here in the history of the family and the nation – Esteban raped Pancha García, a peasant in Tres Marías, and the grandson of this rape now rapes Esteban’s grand-daughter in a wretched parallel. This circularity is reflected in the way Alba reads again the first line of her grandmother’s Clara’s notebooks as a place in which to finish the story, just as it had started, and reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses.
OK TO READ FROM HERE!:
But aside from the finer moments, there were plenty of clunky ones in this edition, which I’ll put down to the Spanish-English translation and poor type-setting. Examples: “Amanda clasped him to his breast frenetically”, seems a poor choice, and: “… no-one could accuse him of any greater offense that tax evasion”, [pages 258 & 259 respectively, emphasis added]. It would be interesting to see how Allende herself – now fluent in English – would ‘translate’ her own work. There are also small inconsistencies in the plot – on the one hand Esteban is shocked when the socialists win government, whilst on the next page he has supposedly foreseen this eventuality and has prepared for it in minute detail. Why would he be shocked if he had foreseen it?
Elsewhere, parts left me under-whelmed. Early parts are over-written and there was a little too much repetition; I felt myself wanting to skip ahead which I rarely do in books I’m enjoying. In short, the book could be shorter, tighter and more focussed. But I ask myself: would more ‘focus’ take away from the sheer exuberance of the tale which is what ultimately sustains interest? We’ll never know, but all I can say is that it is a worthy read and a fairly memorable story, but the problems of execution were a let-down for me, which means it does not rate as highly for me as it will for others. But it is a great debut novel, and strongly persuades that Allende deserves to be read further. More highly rated by my old copy of The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide and also a 1,001 Must Read is Allende’s Of Love and Shadows which is on my TBR list. I hope for a better read from an even more accomplished author.
There is much to admire both about The House of the Spirits and Isabel Allende herself. For more on Allende, see her wonderful, impassioned TED talk on women’s rights.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Source: Personal Library aka: the Bookshelf Rainbow.