Allende's magical realism gives women a voice
Isabel Allende's novel The House of the Spirits begins with a morbidly baroque recollection of a Holy Thursday processional in which a bloodied stand-in for the insurrectionist Roman prisoner Barrabas is paraded down the streets of a Chilean village ( a stand-in for Jerusalem) on his way to a mock pardoning by a stand-in for Pontius Pilate at the Church of the Martyrs. By means of circuitous digression, the local passion play dissolves into the story of the del Valle sisters--the translucently beautiful Rosa, her younger telepathic sister, Clara, and their mother Nivea, a skeptical Catholic for whom transubstantiation mattered less than the goal of women's suffrage.
Allende, who visits Buffalo Friday night to close out the 2008-2009 Babel Series of readings by and discussions with leading international authors in Kleinhans Music Hall--began The House of the Spirits (her first novel; she had been previously been a journalist) in 1979 at the age of 35 as a letter to her dying grandfather--then in his late 90's--in order to explain and expiate the political tyranny and human tragedy that had befallen their native Chile in the years following the CIA assisted coup that ousted democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende (Isabel's cousin, once removed) in 1973.
Over time, the core narrative spanning three generations of the Trueba family saga grew in unpredictably self-generating, self-empowering, and deliciously entertaining ways. By the time of its first publication in Barcelona in 1982, it was hailed throughout the Spanish speaking world as an instant classic, nothing less than a woman centered counterpart to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the novel considered the apotheosis of what then called "El Boom" in Latin American literature.
Like the Marquez classic, Allende's novel was written in a style that came to be known as "magical realism"--a narrative technique prevalent in cultures where Catholic iconography was superimposed on a rich body of indigenous ritual--in which elements of the dream logic of fantasy are seamless incorporated into the traditional "realistic" modes of storytelling. "My most important problem was destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic," Marquez once disclosed about his early work.
It's important to think of Allende's fiction--especially in her two subsequent novels Of Love and Shadows (1985) and Eva Luna (1987)--as defining a gender sensitive variation on the machismo of Latin culture and the bravado of the magical realist genre. Her work is less concerned with narrative spectacle than the fiction of Carlos Fuentes, less with pure narrative ingenuity than the work of Julio Cortazar. Instead it accentuates the sensuous and pleasure giving qualities of storytelling, the novel's capacity to entertain and enchant, to hold the readers attention over time, as the author insinuates her message of human dignity and social justice into what is essentially the matrilineal voice of family narrative.