Topic #4: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author
Book: The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende and translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc
“Alba was born quickly. Jaime removed the cord from around her neck, held her upside down and dangled her in the air and with two resounding slaps introduced her into the suffering of life and the mechanics of breathing. But Amanda, who had read about the customs of African tribes and preached a return to nature, seized the newborn from his hands and gently placed her on the warm belly of her mother, where she found some consolation for the sadness of being born.”
Esteban Trueba, although destitute, falls in love with Rosa del Valle, the green-haired daughter of a family as wealthy as his once was. He swears that he will regain his family’s wealth so that the two of them can get married, but when tragedy strikes, Esteban ends up marrying Rosa’s psychic younger sister, Clara, instead. Over the sixty-five years that follow, Esteban and Clara’s marriage leads to children, and then grandchildren, their gradually expanding family changing the lives of those they meet, and having their lives changed in return. Just as the marriage began with tragedy, it is destined to end in it, each step they take leading toward a nightmare that even Clara’s clairvoyance is unable to predict.
More than anything else, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is concerned with the interconnectedness of events and people, even across decades and great distances. A careless word mumbled to a stranger might change your daughter’s life in thirty years, or even shift the political leanings of the government itself. Although Allende focuses on the lives of a few immediate family members, their lives intersect with so many others: disgraced French nobility, house servants, peasant farmers and even a man who will one day become President of the country. The way the family treats each other and the friends they make over the years will shape their ambitions, their fears, and their loves. In The House of the Spirits, human beings have the power to shape their own futures, but are too ignorant of the future to take advantage of it. Even the prophesies of the superhuman Clara are too vague and inconsistent to do much good, so the family spends their lives wandering around in the dark, tripping over disaster as they go.
By tracing the ancestry of a family from the first decades of the twentieth century to the 1970s, Isabel Allende has necessarily also told a story about the country they live in, an unnamed but clear analog to Chile, a country Allende once fled to escape political violence. At the start, Allende paints the image of a simple world where the wealthy throw lavish parties and travel the world while the poor farmers die young without ever knowing the world beyond the places they were born. There is a sense of the country as unchanging, and even terrible natural disasters can come and go without lasting impact. Over the course of the book, bit by bit, the world grows more complicated—or rather, the mask of simplicity is torn away, revealing that it was always more unstable than it seemed. Socialist ideas blossom among the working class, while Esteban Trueba, who has reclaimed his family’s fortune and become an ardently right-wing senator, hatches schemes to ensure that power stays in the hands of the wealthy. He has no idea that the collision of the right and the left will unlock a potential for human cruelty that neither one would ever wish for.
Allende’s characters are not all equally effective or engaging. Esteban Trueba and Clara del Valle are both vivid characters, strikingly believable, even in their strangeness. They are nearly opposites: Esteban is stubbornly attached to the protection of his wealth and status, driven to abuse and violence by his explosive temper whenever he feels they are threatened, while Clara drifts through life like a dream, forgetting the names of family friends and paying more attention to séances than finances. Unfortunately, the descendants of this marriage are not always as interesting as the couple themselves. Their twin sons, Jaime and Nicolás, are both eccentrics with plenty of interesting stories attached to them, but their daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba, are almost interchangeable, coming across as less eccentric reproductions of Clara. Sometimes, I had to stop and wrack my brains to remember which of the three had said or done a given thing. While a certain degree of consistency between these three women is part of Allende’s design, illustrating a sort of spiritual sisterhood between them, it reached the point where it was actually distracting. This was a problem for Alba particularly, whose lack of strong characterization undermines the otherwise tremendous (and frightening) climax.
The House of the Spirits is the first novel I’ve read in the magical realism genre, and as a lover of fantasy, I was a bit disappointed by how little magic there was. As someone admittedly ignorant of the genre, the power of magical realism seems to me to lie in the absurd power of treating the magical as if it is mundane, but despite intermittent prophesies and Clara’s habit of playing the piano telekinetically with the cover down, the supernatural simply isn’t prominent enough to feel important to this book. A book that embraced Clara’s paranormal gifts more confidently might have been a fun read, but I found I actually wanted the opposite: for the supernatural to play a much smaller role, so that when it appears, especially at the very end, fusing the past and the present, the normal with the impossible, it carries a mysterious power.
At times, The House of the Spirits achieves a kind of brilliance, with well-written characters forming rivalries and friendships in an unbroken series of fortuitous coincidences. At other times, especially toward the middle, the text seems more like aimless melodrama intended to kill time, not to express anything profound. A few times, when it reaches its greatest heights, The House of the Spirits is a deeply moving portrayal of the subtle flow of destiny, but sadly, this is not nearly enough of the book.
Final Grade: C+