WHITHER ISABEL? 12/06

Isabel Allende shares a place with Louise Erdrich in the top echelon of writers of the last few decades. She has in common with Erdrich the ability to simultaneously enter the worlds of body, emotion, and spirit as well as those of the past, present, and future. The two women also share a penchant for the historical as well as for exploring the intricacies of families through the generations. I mentioned The Crown of Columbus in as an Erdrich example in my last blog, and many of her works use a fictional Faulkner-like world of places and characters. Allende has to her credit such fine works as House of the Sprits  Daughter of Fortune, and Portrait in Sepia which employ many of the same techniques. The last two books are of particular interest to me because of their immersion in the California gold rush era, of which I am an avid fan.

Allende’s first “hit” was her Eva Luna series in 1988, in which she made full use of her South American magical realism tradition. In one interview, she stated that Magical Realism is not an artificial technique, but a way of thinking, a view of reality  that is organic to her work. And therein lies the reason for the title of this blog.

No one except Marquez has made magical realism more accessible to English audiences than Allende. Her characters inhabit the bodies and spirits of animals at the same time that they live their mundane lives, and thus they can simultaneously wash a floors and fly. There is little value in the concrete and apparent, rather the life of the soul transcends–transforms–our daily dreck and therein lies what makes us human as well as what allows us to soar above the limits of our humanness.

Unfortunately, though, Allende seems lately to have turned away from her roots. Zorro is a rather pedestrian treatment of what seemed like natural magical subject matter, and memoir seems to have become her major interest. Her treatment of her daughter’s slow death in Paula is touching for the subject of its title character and revelatory in its treatment of the chaotic life of the writer. As an artist, Allende is in such control of her material, I was amazed to find her in such little control of her life, which it turns out is at least as interesting as her art. As the exiled niece of coup (via the CIA) victim, her background is fascinating just in its framework. However, she made what middle-class therapists might call life-choices along the way that exacerbated the severity of her plight, and she is unrelenting (and unsensational) in her treatment of her life. My Invented Country is, another memoir, spiced with observations on history and the comparative characters of Chileans and Americans. The reviews were a little mixed, suggesting that she’s better off as a novelist than as an historian, but that her life is so unique and her prose so powerful that the book comes off. It’s also apparently one of the first high-quality pieces of 9/11 literature. Her very latest, Ines of my Soul, an historical novel set amid the sixteenth century butchery of Spain’s conquest of South and Central America, has similarly mixed reviews. Some, like me, hearken for the old Isabel: Allende the magical realist has been replaced by Allende the historical re-creationist, and the results are not encouraging.

Even if she’s abandoned what brought me to her and what I have loved about her, I’m grateful for what she’s contributed to our literature and lives. I still have My Invented Country to read as well as Ines, and I haven’t yet gotten to Aphrodite: a Memoir of the Senses, which is reportedly about food and sex and aphrodisiacs. I know from reading Paula that Isabel knows plenty about food and sex, and I’m always willing to learn more. Onward and upward.

Sitting up