World Literature

Isabel Allende

 

BORN: 1942, Lima, Peru

NATIONALITY: Chilean; Peruvian

GENRE: Novels, short stories, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The House of the Spirits (1982)

Of Love and Shadows (1984)

Daughter of Fortune (1999)

Ines of My Soul (2006)

 

 

Isabel Allende. Allende, Isabel, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

Chilean writer Isabel Allende is valued not only as a commentator on the turbulent nature of Latin American society but also as an author of powerful, humanistic fiction. some scholars have even placed her among the ranks of those South American writers—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, among others—who rose to prominence during the 1960s surge of interest in Latin American literature. As Alexander Coleman has asserted, ‘‘Allende is the first woman to join what has heretofore been an exclusive male club of Latin American novelists. Not that she is the first contemporary female writer from Latin America... but she is the first woman to approach on the same scale as the others the tormented patriarchal world of traditional Hispanic society.’’

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Growing Up in Turbulent Times. Allende was born in Lima, Peru, where her father served as a diplomatic representative ofChile. Although Allende’s contact with her father ceased following her parents’ divorce, she remained close to his family—particularly Salvador Allende, her godfather and her father’s cousin, who served as president of Chile from 1970 to 1973. As a child in Santiago, Chile, Allende lived with her maternal grandparents, who would later serve as models for Esteban and Clara Trueba, the patriarch and matriarch of the family whose history Allende chronicled in her first and best-known novel, The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espiritus) (1982). After spending her adolescence in Bolivia, Europe, and the Middle East with her mother and diplomat stepfather, Allende settled in Chile and became a journalist. Her life changed abruptly in 1973 when a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, resulted in the assassination of Salvador Allende and the overthrow of his socialist government. while she remained in Chile for several months following the takeover, Allende’s efforts to assist the opposition of the new regime ultimately jeopardized her safety. As Allende said in a Publishers Weekly interview quoted in Contemporary Authors, ‘‘I realized that everything was possible—that violence was a dimension that was always around you.’’

Allende and her family fled Chile for Venezuela, where she wrote for the newspaper El Nacional. Less work came her way than in her native country, and she found herself with a lot of time for thought. She used it to take stock of her own life and of the history of her own culture. One of the fruits of her reflections was a long and ultimately unmailed letter she wrote to her ailing grandfather in Chile, chronicling the long and complicated history of her own family. That letter, fictionalized and heavily elaborated, grew into Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits.

Coming to America. The House of the Spirits was translated into English in 1985 and began to gain wide attention in the United States; translated into other languages as well, it became a best seller in several European countries. Allende won several new-author awards and was brought to the United States for a promotional tour as Of Love and Shadows (De amor y de sombra, 1984), her second novel set in Chile during the dictatorship of Pinochet, was released. After giving a reading in San Jose, California, Allende met a U.S. lawyer, William Gordon; the two later married, and Allende continues to make her home in northern California.

After a decade of novels that received a lukewarm reception, Allende returned to the epic sweep of her debut in the late 1990s. Her novels Daughter of Fortune (Hija de lafortuna, 1999) and Portrait in Sepia (Retrato en sepia, 2000) featured characters who had appeared or been mentioned in The House of the Spirits. Allende once again structured her stories to encompass the experiences of several generations, this time capturing the cultural interchange that has linked the western United States with Latin American countries. About Daughter of Fortune, Publishers Weekly noted that ‘‘Allende expands her geographical boundaries in this sprawling, engrossing historical novel flavored by four cultures—English, Chilean, Chinese, and American—and set during the 1849 California Gold Rush.’’

Daughter of Fortune landed on best-seller lists and brought Allende an important rush of popular U.S. acceptance and a virtual guarantee of substantial future sales—it was named a ‘‘pick’’ by the nationwide book club headed by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. Allende was the first Hispanic author Winfrey had ever selected. Continuing to create new examples in her series of strong female characters, Allende remains in the process of redefining, for the general U.S. reading public as well as for Spanish-language readers, the image of Latin American fiction.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Allende's famous contemporaries include:

Cormac McCarthy (1933—): McCarthy is an American novelist whose work often emphasizes the interactions of Mexican and American culture.

Daniel AlarcOn (1977—): This Peruvian short-story writer and novelist is considered one of the leading figures in contemporary literature.

Esther ''Eppie'' Pauline Friedman Lederer (better known as Ann Landers) (1918-2002): A popular American journalist, Landers was one of the best known advice columnists of her time.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986): O'Keeffe was an American painter renowned for her paintings of New Mexico landscapes and her erotic depictions of flowers.

 

Works in Literary Context

Many of Allende’s books are noted for their feminine perspective, dramatic qualities of romance and struggle, and the magical realism genre often found in Latin American literature. Allende has shared many memories, both real and fictional, with her readers. She has examined political issues, related stories of her ‘‘interesting’’ childhood, enthralled readers with magical ideas, and shared the beauties of her homeland. The large topical span of Allende’s writings makes it difficult to classify the author as a particular type.

Strength of Character. Allende’s family members included a number of politicians and diplomats. While she received a strong education in private schools, the beginning of Allende’s growth into a novelist can be marked by the personal and public tragedy she suffered when her godfather Salvador Allende was assassinated in a coup in Chile. The strength she had to muster in her private life can be seen in the characters she has created, especially the female ones.

Allende’s female characters survive hardships— imprisonment, starvation, the loss of loved ones—but never lose their spirit or ability to love others. In reference to The House of the Spirits, Philip Howard contended in the Times of London, ‘‘It is a remarkable achievement to make the old monster lovable not just to his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, and the other women in his life, but also to the reader.’’ Although much of her writing includes political approaches similar to that of other Latin American writers, it also contains ‘‘an original feminist argument that suggests [a] women’s monopoly on powers that oppose the violent ‘paternalism’ from which countries like Chile continue to suffer,’’ according to Chicago Tribune contributor Bruce Allen. Alberto Manguel likewise considered important Allende’s ‘‘depiction of woman as a colonial object,’’ as he wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Magical Realism. Magical realism as a literary style typically demonstrates a strong narrative drive in which the recognizably realistic mingles with the unexpected and inexplicable. It has been suggested that Allende uses magical realism both to jostle the reader out of preconceived understandings of events and to allow herself the opportunity to reinterpret these events from a woman’s perspective. In the tradition of writers of magical realism, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Allende often blends elements of realism and fantasy in her works to examine the tumultuous social and political heritage of South America. She frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her family to emphasize the role of personal memory as a record of the violence and repression that characterizes much of Latin American history.

Despite her recurring use of moral and political themes, Allende maintains that she does not intend to create political fiction. ‘‘I write about the things I care about,’’ she has stated; ‘‘poverty, inequality, and social problems are part of politics, and that’s what I write about. ...I just can’t write in an ivory tower, distant from what’s happening in the real world and from the reality of my continent. So the politics just steps in, in spite of myself.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Allende's novels often feature strong women prevailing in chaotic and violent times. Other works featuring such figures include:

Medea (431 BCE), a play by Euripides. In this classic Greek drama, Medea is the spurned wife of legendary hero Jason. She wreaks a horrible vengeance on Jason and, unusually for a Greek play, gets away with it.

Gone with the Wind (1936), a novel by Margaret Mitchell. Resourceful Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara is forced to rebuild her life in the aftermath of the American Civil War in this classic novel.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. Winner of multiple prizes, this science fiction novel is set in a fictional future theocracy in which women have lost all civil rights.

Beloved (1987), a novel by Toni Morrison. The story of Sethe, an escaped slave, and her daughter as they attempt to come to terms with the violent legacy of slavery.

 

Works in Critical Context

Allende’s fiction as a whole has received mixed reviews. While some commentators regard her works as derivative or melodramatic, most commend her polished technique, including the lushly detailed prose and compelling images that subtly convey her moral and political themes. Some debate has ensued, however, over whether she successfully combines her political ideas with the fantastic elements in her fiction. Much critical analysis of Allende’s work has been devoted to her feminist perspective as well, and her depiction of the patriarchal society of Latin America has been applauded, although some critics charge that her portrayals of Latin males are frequently stereotypically macho and that she at times resorts to other cliches about Hispanics.

The House of the Spirits. Following three generations of the Trueba family and their domestic and political conflicts, The House of the Spirits ‘‘is a novel of peace and reconciliation, in spite of the fact that it tells of bloody, tragic events,’’ claimed New York Times Book Review contributor Alexander Coleman. ‘‘The author has accomplished this not only by plumbing her memory for the familial and political textures of the continent, but also by turning practically every major Latin American novel on its head,’’ the critic continued.

Allende’s grand scope and use of fantastic elements and characters have led many critics to compare The House of the Spirits specifically to Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). ‘‘Allende has her own distinctive voice, however,’’ noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer; ‘‘while her prose lacks the incandescent brilliance of the master’s, it has a whimsical charm, besides being clearer, more accessible and more explicit about the contemporary situation in South America.’’ In contrast, Village Voice contributor Enrique Fernandez believed that ‘‘only the dullest reader can fail to be distracted by the shameless cloning from One Hundred Years of Solitude.” ‘‘Allende is very much under the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but she is scarcely an imitator,'' remarked Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley, concluding that ‘‘she is most certainly a novelist in her own right and, for a first novelist, a startlingly skillful, confident one.''

While The House of the Spirits contains some of the magical realism so characteristic of late-twentieth-century Latin American fiction, it is counterbalanced by the political realities that Allende recounts. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Antony Beevor stated that whereas the early chapters of The House of the Spirits seem ‘‘to belong firmly in the school of magical realism,’’ a closer reading ‘‘suggests that Isabel Allende's tongue is lightly in her cheek. It soon becomes clear that she has taken the genre to flip it over,'' the critic elaborated. ‘‘The metaphorical house, the themes of time and power, the machista violence and the unstoppable merry-go-round of history: all of these are reworked and then examined from the other side—from a woman’s perspective.’’ Other critics, however, faulted Allende for trying to combine the magical and the political. Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times Book Review felt that the author ‘‘rarely manages to integrate her magic and her message,’’ while Nation contributor Paul West wrote that the political story is ‘‘the book Allende probably wanted to write, and would have had she not felt obliged to toe the line of magical realism.'' But others maintained that the contrast between the fantastic and political segments is effective, as Harriet Waugh of the Spectator explained: ‘‘[The] magic gradually dies away as a terrible political reality engulfs the people of the country. Ghosts, the gift of foretelling the future and the ability to make the pepper and salt cellars move around the dining-room table cannot survive terror, mass-murder and torture.’’

Eva Luna. ‘‘Fears that Isabel Allende might be a ‘one- book' writer, that her first ... success would be her only one, ought to be quashed by Eva Luna,'' asserted Abigail E. Lee in the Times Literary Supplement. ‘‘The eponymous protagonist and narrator of this, her third novel, has an engaging personality, a motley collection of interesting acquaintances and an interesting angle on political upheavals in the unnamed Latin-American republic in which she lives.’’ ‘‘In Eva Luna, Allende moves between the personal and the political, between realism and fantasy, weaving two exotic coming-of-age stories—Eva Luna’s and Rolf Carle’s—into the turbulent coming of age of her unnamed South American country,'' Elizabeth Benedict summarized in Chicago's Tribune Books. Switching between the stories of the two protagonists, Eva Luna is ‘‘filled with a multitude of characters and tales,'' recounted Washington Post Book World contributor Alan Ryan. Allende’s work is ‘‘a remarkable novel,’’ the critic elaborated, ‘‘one in which a cascade of stories tumbles out before the reader, stories vivid and passionate and human enough to engage, in their own right, all the reader's attention and sympathy.''

Ines of My Soul. In her 2006 novel, Ines of My Soul (Ines del alma mia), Allende blends history and feminism to tell the story of Ines Suarez, often called the mother of Chile. This sixteenth-century historical figure was born in a poor Spanish village in 1509 and made a life for herself in the New World, becoming the mistress of the Chilean governor and helping to battle Native Americans who besieged the capital of Santiago. As a Kirkus Reviews critic noted, Ines Suarez’s life ‘‘was full of daring, intrigue and passionate romance.’’ However, for this same critic Allende’s novel missed much of that adventure, devolving instead into ‘‘turgid and detached homework masquerading as epic.’’ Similarly, Jennifer Reese, writing in Entertainment Weekly, thought that Allende’s novel was a ‘‘bodice ripper’’ that ‘‘turn[s] a truly extraordinary life story into a forgettable, easy-reading romp.’’ A more positive assessment was delivered by a Publishers Weekly contributor who noted: ‘‘Allende crafts a swift, thrilling epic, packed with fierce battles and passionate romance.’’ Likewise, Amber Haq, writing in Newsweek International, termed Inees of My Soul ‘‘a powerfully evocative narrative,’’ and concluded: ‘‘Allende inspires women everywhere with the true story of one who wouldn’t be tamed, who knew her own power and lived to taste its glory.’’ New York Times Book Review critic Maggie Gale- house felt that ‘‘Allende succeeds in resurrecting a woman from history and endowing her with the gravitas of a hero.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. How does Allende’s depiction of women compare with female characters in other Latin American novels? Do her female characters ring true?

2. Read a novel by another writer known for a style of magical realism. How does Allende’s use of magical realism differ from that of the author you chose? Do you believe, as some critics do, that Allende’s use of magical realism is satirical? Why or why not?

3. Read Allende’s Zorro (2005). How does Allende’s portrayal of Zorro differ from Antonio Banderas’s portrayal of Zorro in the movies The Mask of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro? What factors account for the differences?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bloom, Harold, ed. Isabel Allende. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Hart, Patricia. Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Levine, Linda Gould. Isabel Allende. New York: Twayne, 2002.

Ryan, Bryan, ed. Hispanic Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale, 1991.

Zapata, Celia Correas. Isabel Allende: Life and Spirits. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2002.