A teller of: tales Isabel Allende – Main cover: Isabel Allende – Cover Story
She is not Chilean ex-President Salvador Allende’s daughter. But she is Isabel Allende, myth weaver, storyteller and enchantress of the imagination, ex-journalist, ex-humorist, ex-playwright, early feminist, Chilean socialist, Chilean in exile, now Northern Californian, beloved daughter and beloved wife, mother both bereaved and joyous, now grandmother of three, writer always in her native Spanish, but of works translated half-the-world over, and she is also a cousin of the ex-president’s daughter.
Isabel Allende, author of eleven books, her latest the first in a trilogy for young people, initially crone to the world’s attention in 1985, with the publication of her debut novel, The House of the Spirits. A tour-de-force of magical realism, the book had an inauspicious beginning on January 8 of the previous year–the day of the year on which Allende now ceremoniously begins each of her new works. At the time, Allende had been living in exile in Venezuela–a consequence of the 1973 coup that ousted her uncle.
“I was always a journalist first and foremost … But in Venezuela I couldn’t find work as a journalist; I worked at a lot of different jobs, but never anything to do with writing. And the stories just kept piling up within me, and they were suffocating me. In 1981 I began to write a letter to my grandfather, who had just died and would never read it. And the letter grew and grew during a year of writing each night. It was a little of the history of my family, a little of the history of Chile–the country I had lost–all the anecdotes my grandfather had ever told me, and lots of imagination. And, at the end of the year, I had 500 pages on the kitchen table.”
The House of the Spirits since translated into over 30 languages, was followed by five other books, all of which have been commercially successful. Then, in 1991, Allende began writing what arguably is her most powerful work to date, Paula. In that year, Allende’s adult daughter of the same name became gravely ill and fell into coma from which she would never awake. Like Allende’s first work, this seventh book began as a letter to the dying, in which Allende would recount, to her comatose daughter, in a joyous and heart-rending riot of magical realism, the story of Isabel’s life and the family Paula was leaving. In 1994 it was published to huge literary acclaim.
Subsequently, Allende descended into an emotional fugue, marked by three years of writer’s block, which she finally managed to break with her eighth book, Aphrodite. A deliberately light-hearted catalogue of recipes guaranteed to arouse sexual desire, the book is spiced with personal reminiscence, folklore from around the world, and historical and literary references. It was born of Allende’s wish to turn away from loss and sadness, and create an “emotional space for love.”
Since then she has written three more books, of which City of the Beasts (scheduled for publication in English in November of this year) is the latest. In her interview with LATINO LEADERS, Allende spoke of this, her first serious foray into the world of juvenile literature. Born of her grandchildren’s demands to “tell us a story,” the book relates the adventures of 15-year-old Alexander, who travels to the Amazon with his grandmother to search for a legendary nine-foot-tall “Beast.” There he makes a new friend, Nadia. They are both kidnapped by the People of the Mist (a tribe whose members possess the power to make themselves invisible), and find their way to a mountain that bides the mythical city of El Dorado and the enigmatic Beasts.
Asked how the characters of this and other books came into being, Allende echoes the sentiment of many writers, claiming that the characters seem to create themselves.
“As I write and write, they take shape. And they end up surprising me and doing things I didn’t expect. The character of Alexander Cold is based on my grandson, Alexander, and that of Nadia is based on my two granddaughters. I wanted the grandmother to be different from me. I’m not anything like her, although I would like to be. But as I started to write about the grandmother, aspects of her character began to come out: that she drank vodka, smoked a pipe, cut her hair with a knife. I believe that characters exist in another dimension and emerge little by little.”
True to her journalistic roots, Allende did extensive research lot the book, which included a trip to the lush Amazon region. “You go back in time, starting with the fact that, in a lot of areas, there are no telephones. The only means of communication is the water; you have to do everything by boat. The people live from day to day with what they have at hand. You can’t stockpile food, because it would spoil. You fish for what you’re going to eat that day, and that’s it. There is no sense of working for the future.
“Nature is so overawing, so extraordinary, that the main character in the Amazon is nature itself, rather than the people. The green, the constant green, the water everywhere, the idea that human life is ruled by the rise and fall of water in the rivers.”
Allende also researched the youth market. “I didn’t even know who the readers were. During the course of a year, I prepared. I formed reading clubs for young people of different ages, from 11 to 17, girls and boys. And I worked with them; they chose the books they wanted to read, and then we discussed them.”
Comparing this latest writing experience with previous ones, Allende describes it as “more playful.”
“I did it with a tremendous sense of lightheartedness. First I did the research, that is, gathered together all the base material, and then the rest involved just adding imagination and enjoying it, There was no pressure. I didn’t have any expectations. There were no editors waiting for me to finish it. It was just a whim.”
One of the outstanding aspects of Allende’s literary style is her mastery of words at the service of engaging the reader with her story. Although Allende typically is associated with magical realism, several of her books are written in the style of traditional realism. In her realistic works, there is a highly researched specificity of detail that immediately draws the reader into the narrative web. In her works of magical realism, the reader who opens one of her books is immediately plunged into a world of characters who pulse with an intense, mythic quality of life.
Allende credits this storytelling ability in part to her journalistic experience: “Journalism has helped me to understand that a book is just a stack of pages bunched together until somebody picks it up and reads it. It’s important to me that the reader pick up the book and immediately be grabbed by file story, that the reader not have to struggle through 60 pages before getting involved.”
How does she accomplish this?
“More than anything, I try to write as well as I can. Something well written is much more pleasant to read than something written haphazardly. I’m very careful with my adjectives, with the descriptions, With the sound of the words.
“I think about what interests me, and assume that it will be interesting to others as well.
“And then I think about what people identify with. For instance, when I write humor–I wrote humorous columns for many years–I ask myself, ‘What is funny?’ Humor is something evasive, very subtle, ephemeral. And it’s always based on identification. What makes someone laugh? Sometimes you laugh cruelly about something that happened to someone else, because it could have happened to you. It is very abstract. Humor is all right in some situations, but it’s not something that will make you laugh. It is identification that grabs your attention and makes you say, ‘I know that person, and that could have happened to me. That family is like my family. That weird country, so different from mine, has a lot of things in common with mine.'”
Allende also does meticulous research for her books, but like a true journalist she goes directly to the source.
“The research I do for a book is based on interviews. If I can manage to identify a person who has lived the experience, I interview that person rather than go to something in writing. If I have to write about a criminal, I try to identify one and interview him and see how he moves, how he talks, what he looks at. The same is true for historical novels. Although the ones I’ve written are set in periods from which nobody remains alive, I try to go to letters that people have written, and the more personal the letter the better.”
During the two decades she has now been creating literature, Allende the writer has matured and gained confidence in her abilities in this, her second genre.
“One of the things I have learned in these 20 years of writing is that I can do it. Before, it felt like every book was a gift from heaven that had landed in my lap. I would finish a book with a feeling akin to being shipwrecked, because I didn’t know if I would be able to do it again. Now I know that the whole world is full of stories, and that if I come up with a story that makes me passionate I’ll be able to tell it. Now I know the mechanism. I know how to do it.”
If Allende’s books are tilled with amazing, gripping, uplifting, glorious, horrifying, moving, tragic, marvelous, and searing events, that should not come as much of a surprise, given the course of her own life and that of her family’s. Isabel was born to a family in the Chilean diplomatic service. But, while she was still a toddler, her father abandoned the family, and her mother returned, with three young children, to her parents’ home in Santiago. Although her mother eventually remarried, Isabel spent most of her childhood under the powerful influence of her grandfather, whom she credits with giving her “a great sense of responsibility and work, the idea that nothing is given to you. Everything you get in life has to be earned, because life is effort, life is pain, and when something good happens yon need to celebrate it because it won’t happen again.”
Allende describes her grandfather as “omnipotent, omnipresent, magnificent,” and talks about how he painted all the furniture in the house black when her grandmother died.
“He was an imposing figure for a child, a very” severe and harsh-spoken man in many ways.”
“And yet,” she adds, “I remember him with great tenderness and have a strong and emotional relationship with his memory.”
The figure of power and control Allende saw in her grandfather stands in marked contrast to the image projected by her mother, who was economically dependent on one man or another all her life. Early on, Allende became bent on achieving economic independence and eliminating machismo.
“Starting at the age of four, I dreamt that the whole world was feminist. When I was 15, I was a wild one, and had horrendous fights with my poor grandfather, who was born in the Nineteenth Century.” Immediately upon graduating from high school, Allende began working; she started out as a secretary in a press office. But a fortuitous event dropped her, unexpectedly, into the world of television journalism: when her boss came down sick one day, she was drafted into doing a television appearance he had scheduled. That was in the late 1950s, in the very early days of Chilean television.
As the hippy era rolled around in the 1960s, Allende’s radical and feminist identity evolved, and she continued to pursue her journalistic career. In 1962 she married her first husband, and her daughter was born the following year. Her son, Nicolas, was born three years later. In 1967 Allende began working for a groundbreaking feminist magazine, Paula, while still working in television and other media. She was at the magazine when Pinochet overthrew the Allende government, and the entire staff was forced to resign.
“I was never a political animal,” Allende explains, “until after the military coup. When that happened, nobody could stay neutral or indifferent. I felt like my life had been split in two, that everything I believed in had been dashed to pieces. Since I was part of the Left, many of my friends were murdered, many were persecuted, tortured. People had to be hidden.”
Allende became involved, its did many journalists, in smuggling out the story of what was happening in her country to the rest of the world. Eventually, she herself was forced to free.
Allende did not return to Chile for 13 years, until 1988, when Pinochet was forced to stage a plebiscite to determine whether or not file nation wished him to remain as dictator. By that time, Allende had divorced and remarried, to an American, William Gordon, and she was living in the United States.
“I went back to Chile as soon as the plebiscite was announced. The country had changed so much that I almost didn’t recognize it. It was a country that had lived under 17 years of dictatorship, and I had left a country that had just seen the end of a socialist regime in which there was a sense of effervescence, albeit chaotic. I returned to a country that was like a military barracks, where people were afraid to answer questions. The journalists who interviewed me and the questions they asked were so cautious that they were laughable. It was as if they were interviewing me for a high school newspaper.”
Since then, Allende has returned once a year, every, year, to her native land. She says that the country gradually began to open up following the plebiscite, but it was not until 10 years later, in 1998, when Pinochet was arrested in London, that “the gravestone that oppressed Chilean society was lifted.”
In response in a question regarding the leitmotifs of love and violence in her life and works, Allende weighs up the two: “In my life there has been pain, separation, different forms of violence. But all of that has been more than compensated for, because I have had a lot of love, a strong and close family, the unconditional love of my mother since the day I was born, and great fortune.”
For Allende’s readers, our great fortune is the world of characters and events, both real and magically real, that have paraded through her life, and that she shares with us through her great gift as a teller of tales. In the words of one of those characters, “language is an inexhaustible thread you weave as if life were created as you tell it.” How lucky we are to be privy to the great tapestry of life that Isabel Allende has woven, and hung on the wall of literature.
The House of the Spirits
Published by Knopf 1985
That was Marcos’s longest trip. He returned with a shipment of enormous boxes that were piled in the far courtyard, between the chicken coop and the woodshed, until the winter was over. At the lust signs of spring he had titan transferred to the parade grounds, a huge dark where people would gather to watch the soldiers file by on Independence Day, with the goosestep they had learned from the Prussians. When the crates were opened, they were found to contain loose hits of wood, mental, and painted cloth. Marcos spent two weeks assembling the contents according to an instruction manual written in English, which he was able to decipher flanks to this invincible imagination and a small dictionary. When the job was finished, it turned our to be a bird of prehistoric dimensions, with the face of a furious eagle, wings that moved, and a propeller on its back. It caused an uproar.
The Stories of Eva Luna
Published by Atheneum 1991
Yon untied your sash, kicked off your sandals, tossed your full skirt into the corner–it was cotton, if I remember–and loosened the clasp that held your hair in a ponytail. You were shivering and laughing. We were too close to see one another, each absorbed in our urgent rite, enveloped in our shared warmth and scent. You opened to me, my hands on your twisting waist, your hands impatient. You pressed against me, you explored me, you scaled me, you fastened me with your invincible legs, you said a thousand times, come, your lips on mine.
Published by HarperCollins 1995
Nothing had prepared my mother for motherhood In those days, such matters were discussed in whispers before unwed girls, and Meme had given no thought to advising her about the libidinous preoccupations of the birds and the flowers because her soul floated on different planes, more intrigued with the translucence of apparitions than the gross realities of this world. Nevertheless, as soon as my mother sensed she was pregnant, she knew it would be a girl. She named her Isabel and established a dialogue that continues to the present day. Clinging to the creature developing in her womb, she tried to compensate for the loneliness of a woman who has chosen badly in love.
Published by HarperCollins 1997
Napoleon ate truffles before meeting Josephine in their amorous battles in the imperial bedchamber, in which it is no exaggeration to say, he always wound up defeated. Scientists–how ever do they come up with these experiments, I wonder?–have discovered that the scent of the truffle activates a gland in the pig that produces the same pheromones present in humans when they are smitten by love. It is a sweaty, garlic-tinged odor that reminds me of the New York subway.
Anita R. Savio works with non-profit organizations on strategic planning issues.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Ferraez Publications of America Corp.
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