January 2009

Lorette C. Luzajic

Fascinating Writers

Of Love and Shadows: The Stories of Isabel Allende

Once upon a time, I had a scandalous love affair straight out of One Thousand and One Nights. While our romance was passionate, we were mismatched from the start. The entrepreneur’s and the poet’s soul seldom make perfect companions. Many years after we went our separate ways, my old amour was in town on business and we got together to sip espresso. Before parting, he asked if I had anything for him to read on the plane, and I scanned my library. “Not really,” I said. Then my eyes fell on a paperback. The cover of the mass-market edition sadly dated a timeless story, and my friend wrinkled his nose at the chick lit in my hand. “I don’t think so,” he said. But I slipped it into his hand anyways. “You never understood me in those days,” I said, not unkindly. “But after this book, I think you will.”

That book was Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits. Have you ever read a book that resonated deeply within your soul, transporting you into unknown territory, yet leaving you even more yourself? My life is nothing like the epic saga of this fascinating Chilean family, yet I saw myself in those pages, clearly, as if I became conscious during that time. Though raised with the stoic staid pragmatic propriety of German ancestry and the dour, passionless Calvinist faith, I have always seen the world as a dazzling rollercoaster of highs and lows, love as ecstasy and hell, all with portents and signs and coincidences and spirits that point the way. Most around me felt that as a strangely melancholy child I "lived in my head," and read too much poetry; at the clinic they call it bipolar, veering strongly into "schizotypal." It was a revelation to me that this way of perceiving the world was hardly madness: it was a way of life for the Trueba women in the story, for the author, and for millions of Latin Americans. Even more important, I had long ago decided that whether or not I liked it, my fate was to observe the dramas around me and write them down. Allende’s character has the same role: she marks down everything that happens to the Trueba family in “notebooks that bear witness to life.”

Isabel Allende should need no introduction. Since her debut, House of Spirits, in 1982, she has written more than 15 books, including The Infinite Plan, Of Love and Shadows, Daughter of Fortune, The Stories of Eva Luna, Zorro, and Ines of my Soul. A few are more personal, including Paula, a letter written to her daughter while she was in a long coma before passing away. Her work has won dozens of prestigious awards, has been translated from Spanish into dozens of languages, and sold more than 50 million copies.

Despite endless comparisons of her work to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of the Latin American "magical realism" genre, where the mystical merges with quotidian life, Allende is not acknowledged by the Latin boys’ club as a serious writer. Pablo Neruda told her she had too much imagination to be a journalist, and Marquez does not acknowledge her importance -- sad, because the woman’s perspective in this genre of literature is the element that was always missing, the most important one. “I don’t belong to their club,” Allende told Argentinean-born anthologist Alberto Manguel. “In Latin America, women are not respected. You have to make twice the as much effort as a man for half the recognition. And if you are a writer, ten times as much… If a woman had written Garcia Marquez’s brilliant Love in the Time of Cholera, her novel would have been branded mushy, over-sentimental… The male literary community in Latin America would be delighted if women wrote only cookbooks, children’s books… let them not fuck around the rest, with ‘real’ literature.”

Allende’s vast works do include a cookbook -- an erotic cookbook! And several children’s novels, one for each of her grandchildren. But her dazzling epics span centuries and families through political and personal strife. They feature strong women adventurers, such as the forgotten female conquistador of Chile, Ines Suarez. Allende deftly weaves history through generations, spun with dizzying details of magical signs and portents. Her works acknowledge the madness of love, its inexplicable ability to make even the most staid person irrational, its power to give life meaning in the most tumultuous times. The stories frankly contend with the betrayals and weaknesses within families, yet show the unbreakable bonds of blood and community. Allende’s world is operatic, melodramatic, fantastical, and earthy all at the same time. She never shrinks away from difficult truths about men or women or love or war, but gives all themes their rightful place, knowing that life’s soaring joys are endlessly tangled up in life’s deepest sorrows.

Though her stories are not biographical, Allende does take ideas, inspiration, and parallels from her own life. In her most recent book, 2008’s The Sum of our Days, she says, “There is no lack of drama in my life, I have more than enough three-ring-circus material for writing.”

The book paints a vivid picture of Allende today, surrounded by an eclectic tribe of family and friends, their dramas and traumas at turns tragic or hilarious. But the story began in Peru, where Isabel was born in 1942. Her father Tomas was a Chilean ambassador to Peru, and the cousin of Chile’s socialist Senator Salvador Allende, later President, before his 1973 assassination. Due to the years of political turmoil, and her father’s and relatives’ involvement in various upheavals and controversies, Allende was raised alternately in Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia, even Lebanon, where she attended a Quaker school and read the Marquis de Sade.

Isabel read all kinds of things early on -- her family owned many books. She loved to go into the spooky basement of one home with a candle, and sit among the spiders and mice, reading Dickens and Jules Verne by candlelight. (Today, she still writes with a candle burning.) She was not yet teenager when she began devouring Shakespeare, recreating the characters with cardboard and acting out the plays.

Isabel always wanted to be a boy -- they had it easier. But then she met Miguel Frias, and everything changed. “At fifteen, I met a boy who fell in love with me, and opened doors to another dimension… I felt a whole world was opening its doors to me.” They married in 1962, and a year later gave birth to Paula. The couple also had a son, Nicolas. Isabel worked for the United Nations in Santiago, but she also began editing a fashion and a children’s magazine, and translating English romances into Spanish.

During a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, President Allende was killed. Isabel tried to bring her family members to safety. Her mother and stepfather narrowly escaped assassination. Isabel fled once more to Venezuela, where she worked as a freelance journalist for the Caracas newspaper. She was 40 years old when she wrote her first novel, House of Spirits, a book meant to exorcise the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship, which began as a letter to her grandfather. The story took on a strange life of its own. Allende says on her site that as a writer, she is something of a “medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me, voices that talk through me. I'm creating a world that is fiction but that doesn't belong to me.” And because she began writing that particular book on the 8th of January, and to this day she will not start a book project on any other day.

In the late ‘80s, Allende and Frias divorced. The Chilean exile was lifted, but Isabel, who’d assumed no one else could put up with her persona, had unexpectedly fallen in love during an American book tour. She showed up on lawyer William Gordon’s door with her suitcase and a whole new set of triumphs and tragedies began for her. It was shortly after this that daughter Paula, who had an enzyme disorder called porphyria, slipped into a coma due to some hospital errors. Isabel wrote her first memoir, Paula, during the months that her daughter was unconscious. Sadly, Paula died in 1995.

As if that was not enough pain after everything, Isabel struggled with Willie to save his daughter, Jennifer, a heroin addict. Jennifer gave birth to a preemie before disappearing forever. Isabel wanted to adopt Sabrina but the couple decided they were too old and had had enough pain. Friends of the family, a lesbian couple, adopted Sabrina.

In The Sum of Our Days, Allende writes with humour and verve of these solemn horrors, and all the bright and dark spots of her new life in America. Matriarch to an assortment of children, in-laws, and colourful characters, she describes the frailties, fiascoes, and superb strength of extended family. There is no end to the adventure -- Allende witnesses a murder, gets a phone call informing her that her homophobic daughter-in-law is gay, sorts out soap operatic adulteries among her clan, humours Willie’s endeavour to write a novel about a perverted dwarf, and candidly ‘fesses up to plastic surgery.

When Allende herself encounters the rare-for-her but dreaded writer’s block, she finds an unusual way around it: she drinks a potent shamanic rainforest hallucinogen and disappears into her mind for several days. During this unorthodox excursion, Isabel “crossed through the opening and effortlessly plunged into an absolute void… There was no sensation, no spirit, not a trace of individual consciousness; instead I felt a divine, absolute presence. I was inside the goddess… something I can only define as love, an impression of oneness, I dissolved into the divine, I felt that there was no separation between me and the rest of all that exists, all that was light and silence. I was left with the certainly that we are spirits, and all that is material is illusory.”

Allende says that on that voyage she lost her fear of death, and her writer’s block as well. She resumed her usual writing schedule -- beginning work on January 8th, and writing for ten to twelve hours per day, six days a week, until a book is complete.

When her writing is finished, Allende runs a foundation that she founded for her deceased daughter Paula, who had been a dedicated volunteer among the poor in Venezuela and Spain. Proceeds from Isabel’s books fund the foundation’s work with poor women the world over. With diverse programs of grants to nonprofit organizations, and scholarships to girls, Allende shows her daughter’s belief that we only have what we give. “Women my age, as elders of the village, have a duty to care for the young, especially girls,” she says. “I have been empowered by education, reproductive rights and economic independence. Young women who are uneducated and have no skills, who are not in control of their own bodies and fertility, and who cannot support themselves, can become destitute and be victimized. Each of us must act without delay to empower girls to take control of their lives, even if they stumble and fall a hundred times. With our help, they can succeed.”

Who knows what kind of notes Isabel will begin right about now -- January 8? All of her books, fiction or memoir, are like Clara’s notebooks that bear witness to life. Inspiration is always close at hand. “Fortunately though,” she writes, after a bump in her marriage was assuaged, “the family melodrama continued, because if not, what the devil would I write about?”

Fascinating Writers is a spin –off of Lorette C. Luzajic’s Fascinating People blog, at fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com. Lorette is a Toronto based writer who also writes about food, poetry, pets, and art. She is the author of The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos, available online, or through her site, www.thegirlcanwrite.net.