The undefeated

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 1970s in Chile: ‘El pueblo, unido, jamas sera 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 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 new novel is a straightforward feminist excavation of the life of Ines Suarez, who, although largely written out of Chilean history books, helped Pedro de Valdivia (plus a handful of conquistadors and 1 000 or so subjugated Indians) to conquer Chile for Spain in the 16th century. Allende is at her best when staying closest to her own experience. Ines of My Soul (2007) is baldly told, bland except for some unbelievable details, which turn out to be true: Ines 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 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 Cortazar 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 Garcia 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. 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). 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 from 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.

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 (Ines 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.”—Â

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