03 Jun Latin America’s Scheherazade, Isabel Allende Weaves Fantastical Tales
After meeting the love of their life, most people send roses or a love letter. Isabel Allende sent a contract.
Allende laughs as if caught in a private joke. Her large, brown eyes come to life, and, for the briefest moment, her face, a striking mask etched in thin, short, straight lines and sharp angles, almost softens. “Well, I didn’t have any time to waste,” says Allende about the unusual beginning of her romance with her second husband, San Francisco-based lawyer William Gordon. “I was on a lecture tour five years ago, and I met him in San Jose,” Allende explains. “Then I saw him again in San Francisco the next day, and that was it. I had to leave, and when he took me to the airport, he said he liked me.”
She pauses and lowers her eyes in a demure gesture charged with irony. Then she bursts out, play-acting the conversation: ” ‘You like me?! What does that mean?! Do you love me or something?’ He couldn’t believe it. Poor guy, he almost drove off the road. He had to pull over, and he said, ‘What are you talking about? We just met.’ I said, ‘Yes, but look, I’m 45 years old, and I don’t have time to waste.’ So he told me, ‘Well, I’ll visit you on Christmas,’ and I said, ‘Christmas?! This is October! That’s too far ahead. I might be dead by then!’ So he said, ‘Why? Are you sick?’
“So I went home and thought about it. I liked this man very much, but his life was a mess. I didn’t want to move to the United States. My son was in Caracas, I had a life, a house, my work. Why would I leave to follow this impulse at that age? I decided to give it a chance, but I needed to be sure what I was getting into, so I wrote a contract. One column listed all the things I was willing to give. The other had my demands. Unfortunately, the demand side was longer,” she adds in an oh-by-the-way aside. “I sent it express mail; he got it and called me the next day, laughing. I think he agreed to most of it. So I took a plane and went to visit him. I took a very small bag — I was going for a week — and never returned. Six months later, we got married.”
Another pause. She shrugs, then continues. “According to my husband, I have 50 versions of how we met and he has one — but mine are all true.”
The story, with its blurry line between the mythical and the ordinary, is pure Allende.
In-person, she is just as elusive.
Her answers and gestures add up to intriguing paradoxes: a no-nonsense romantic, a tough survivor with manicured nails, a hopeful cynic, a feminist in high heels, a writer who writes to remember but, on a whim or a dare, would just as soon reinvent her memories. “I’ve always told stories,” she says with a wave of her hand. “They used to call me a liar. Now that I write books, they call me a narrator.”
Allende, now 50, is one of the most important novelists to emerge from Latin America in the past decade. Her first novel, The House of the Spirits (first published in 1982 and translated into English in 1985), is a saga of three generations of a family living in an unidentified Latin American country.
The story of the Trueba family, which contains many autobiographical elements, is shaped by inexplicable forces, oversized passions, and absurd tragedies. It is also a story that seems to reflect the fortunes of their country. When a brutal military dictatorship replaces a brief Socialist presidency, the two realities collide with breathtaking violence. The sweep, the language, the imagery of The House of the Spirits, capture a historical moment in Chile and Latin America.
Allende followed The House of the Spirits with Of Love and Shadows (1984, translation 1987), a rather straightforward account of a political crime; Eva Luna (1987, 1988), in which the heroine remakes her life through storytelling; and The Stories of Eva Luna (1988, 1989), which presents her character as a sort of Latin American Scheherezade.
All of the books became international bestsellers. A film version of The House of the Spirits, featuring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Jeremy Irons, is scheduled to be released this fall. Her latest novel, The Infinite Plan, her first since moving to the United States, will be published in English in May.
With each novel, Allende challenges the established order. Historically, Latin American letters have been dominated by male writers. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Augusto Roa Bastos, Octavio Paz, Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Angel Asturias, Julio Cortazar, and Jorge Luis Borges are all just the most recent links in a chain that extends from colonial times to the present. By contrast, Allende succeeds with a distinctly female sensibility and voice. Yet she still cannot escape comparisons to Garcia Marquez, either flattering or cruelly dismissive.
She is not surprised. “It never bothered me,” says Allende. “His influence was pointed out so much in The House of the Spirits that it must be there, although I was not aware of it when I wrote it. However, after writing five books, I feel a little angry. This is something that always happens to women when they do anything creative: They need a male model to validate them. This is not only in writing but in every field that has been male-dominated and is invaded by a woman. They have never compared me to [Chilean female poet and Nobel Prize winner] Gabriela Mistral and never will. They will always compare me with a man.”
Allende’s spoken English is rich, fluid, only slightly accented, but she writes in Spanish. “Fiction is something that happens in your belly, not in your mind,” she says. “I can write a speech in English, but fiction, never.”
It’s a distinction she makes even in conversation. For an interview, she chooses English. In part, it is a practical decision, a way of avoiding the reporter-as-translator. In part, it is because she seems to think of English as the language of business. “English is good enough for interviews,” she says as if talking about using a mediocre wine for cooking.
Conversing in English, she speaks softly. She can be so guarded as to sound charmless, uptight. Even her humor, her cutting irony, seems forced.
But when Allende speaks in Spanish, the color of her voice, the pace, the rhythms, are different. Then, she leans forward and speaks with her hands, her eyes, her elbows. Allende smiles at the observation. “It’s that Spanish is not about the head,” she says. “It comes from somewhere else, deep down, and just comes out.”
The public persona is still there. And she makes no effort to create the illusion of intimacy that learned performers often use to manipulate interviews. This is work. Still, it is as if she finds something comforting about speaking in Spanish. Then Allende the character gives way to Allende the person.
Allende was born in Lima, Peru, to Tomás Allende, a Chilean diplomat, and Panchita Llona Barros. She remembers her childhood as “very lonely and very unhappy. Maybe it wasn’t like that at all, but that’s how I remember it, and that’s what counts.”
Her father left when she was 3 years old, and Allende’s mother decided to return to Chile. They moved back to her grandparents’ house, where Allende lived until she was 10. When her mother remarried, to another diplomat, the family began traveling again.
“I remember changing schools, changing places, changing languages, changing friends until I was 15. We were living in Lebanon then,” she says. “The Marines had disembarked, and the government asked diplomats to send their families home, so they sent me back to my grandparents in Chile. I ended up there with my grandfather, who was a very important figure in my life because he was the father figure for a long time. We were very, very close.
“When I finished school,” she says, “I met a boy who was studying to be an engineer, and when I was 19, we married. We had two children, Paula and Nicolas, and a very straight life. I dressed like a hippie, but I wasn’t. I was a very, very straight, hard-working person, very disciplined. And I had this lovely family and worked as a journalist and I thought I would die in Chile and my life would be very stable, very secure, and nothing would happen that would challenge that security,” she says, all in one breath.
Allende worked at a women’s magazine, writing what she once described as an Erma Bombeck-type column, hosted a TV program, and wrote plays and children’s books. She also discovered Germaine Greer and the North American feminists and, with them, “a language to express this burning anger of being a woman in a male chauvinist society.” But Allende used humor to address issues from a feminist perspective and still make her work acceptable. “They all thought it was tongue-in-cheek,” she says, “and that I was not so serious about it, so the men felt less threatened. Then, on the 11th of September, 1973, there was a military coup in Chile.”
Up to this point in the interview, Allende has recited dates, names, and places with an efficiency and detachment that not only suggest practice and the boredom of repetition but also distance. She has talked about her younger self as if discussing a little-known relative. Even her sarcasm sounds flat.
But, as happens in The House of the Spirits, mention of the coup triggers a subtle yet profound change in tone. Because she is the niece and goddaughter of Socialist president Salvador Allende, who was killed in the uprising, the tragedy in Chile was both epic and personal.
“That day, something essential changed in me forever. If at the beginning [The House of the Spirits] has a dream quality, it’s because that’s the way I lived then,” she says. “I was the perpetual adolescent. I was 30 years old and didn’t understand the rules of the game. I did not know that there was so much evil. I was very, very naive. After the coup, I really got in touch with reality. I woke up. Unfortunately, I didn’t wake up as suddenly and as swiftly as I should have. I was very slow to understand. But that day I grew up. It was like an initiation rite. I was never again the same person.”
Allende didn’t leave Chile immediately, but the rest of her family did. Her mother and her stepfather, who was the ambassador to Argentina at the time, found themselves in exile and later escaped, by sheer luck, an assassination attempt that claimed the life of Chilean army general Carlos Prats, an outspoken critic of the coup.
With her upper-middle-class beliefs shattered, her family in exile, and her comfortable lifestyle unraveling, Allende discovered a different Chile.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening in the Chile I knew,” she says. “We had a long tradition of democracy. We never had dictatorships and military coups. We didn’t believe most of what we heard. We heard rumors about concentration camps and torture centers, and I thought they were exaggerated.”
Most, it turns out, were not, and Allende became part of an underground railroad that saved the lives of many potential targets of the repression. But, she says, she soon realized her work was “not only endangering me but my family.”
In 1975, Allende left for Venezuela. She was alone at first, thinking of a short stay. “Then, a few months later, my husband realized I was not going to be able to get back, that I was on the [government’s wanted] list, so he closed the house and came with the children. By then, we realized that this was not going to go away quickly, but we thought it would be for a few months. We didn’t even rent out the house, we just closed it. We were going back soon. We never imagined that it was going to last 16 years.”
As happens with many exiled couples, her marriage soon collapsed. “It broke down in 1978, and I left,” says Allende softly, “but I went back, and we lived together nine more years. I can’t say they were awful because he was a very good man. There was no reason to leave him — except I didn’t love him.”
In Venezuela, she worked as a school administrator and began to write fiction as “a sort of catharsis.” Then, in 1981, she learned that her grandfather was dying. Allende remembered that he had told her that people only truly died when they are forgotten. Her way of reassuring him and consoling herself was to write a long letter that retold all of his stories and the conversations they had had. She never sent the letter, but it became the seed of The House of the Spirits. “I can only justify The House of the Spirits as an attempt to overcome nostalgia, homesickness, to recover everything I had lost, to bring back the dead, to reunite those that had been scattered all over the world,” she explains. “Looking back, what I was doing was putting my memory together in a place where I could never lose it again. Writing made it all real.”
For Allende, it still does. She writes a letter to her mother every morning, because, she says, “I have the feeling that if I don’t write, the previous day disappears. If I write it down, then it’s somehow registered.”
She also says that each book she has written has been “an exorcism.” Of Love and Shadows was motivated by anger, “anger at the abuse and the horrible things that I have seen.” Eva Luna was “the celebration of being a woman and being a storyteller. She says for me all the things I wanted to say. She is totally feminine, and she has internalized this in such an earthy, essential way.”
Her new book, The Infinite Plan, is set in California and tells the story of a white American family. Some themes, some literary gestures, even the use of personal references, echo previous books, but many — including Vietnam, racism, and a male protagonist — are new. Her style, reflecting the impact of the English language, has also changed. Even in the original Spanish, the sentences are shorter, the rhythms more compact, the imagery more direct.
Rather than being concerned about being a writer living in a strange culture with a strange language, Allende says that being a foreigner has helped her. “I am happy that I don’t belong,” she says forcefully. “I could have never written this book if I had been born in this country. The fact that I’m an outsider gives me a perspective on the society that people who were born here can’t see. What everyone takes for granted, for me is awesome. I think it’s a great privilege for a writer.”
Allende points out that she started to write while she was in exile in Venezuela, where she was also a foreigner. “I was as removed from everything as I am now,” she says. “When I belonged to a place, I was not writing fiction. You need the distance to focus. When you are in the middle of a hurricane, you don’t see anything. I had all the elements to write The House of the Spirits in 1973, and it took me many years and a great distance, not only in time but in space, to be able to focus on Chile and my family. The crime in Love and Shadows was committed during the coup in 1973, discovered in 1978, and I wrote the book in 1983.”
Allende’s writing routine is simple. She lives in San Rafael, a small town in Marin County, but does not work at home. Instead, she rises about 6 a.m. and goes to an “enchanting reconditioned carriage house” in Sausalito, near the Golden Gate Bridge, a 20-minute drive from her home.
“A photographer came by once to do some photos, with this cliche in mind of writers being these carefree bohemians, and when he stepped into the house he was so disappointed. It is like a lab,” she deadpans.
Allende writes in the morning, edits, and revises in the afternoon: “I stay there about eight to 10 hours, then Willie picks me up on his way home from San Francisco. That’s my perfect day.”
Once a manuscript is completed, she sends it to her mother, who still lives in Chile. “She hates everything I write — until she reads the reviews,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek, “then she says how she always knew, she always liked it. She is not just the first reader but the only reader. I send it to her; she reads it, takes the first plane she can find, and comes to my house. We close ourselves off in a room for a month, and we discuss the characters, and as I sort of explain it to her, it forces me to be consistent with my characters.
“She’s a very good reader — and cruel, also. She doesn’t have any consideration with me. She says the most horrible things. I know her, so I can take it. If someone else would say what she says, I wouldn’t write again.” She chuckles, then adds, “She is marvelous.”
Dreams, stories out of the National Enquirer, popular myths, half-remembered childhood tales — these are just some of Allende’s sources. She weaves them into a style, magical realism, in which everyday reality, supernatural wonders, and the absurd intersect at improbable angles.
This is not fiction but the reality of Latin America, Allende says, and she has recreated this reality in California: “I come from a very structured family. I have a sense of tribe, of community. I never think of myself alone. When I think of myself as an entity, it’s an entity that includes my children, my grandchildren, my mother, my relatives. If I do well, everybody does well.
“I have been able to reproduce my Latin American tribe in San Rafael. We have an open house, we cook for 10 people, people just drop in, I see my son every day, I raise my grandchildren, we speak Spanish, we cook Mexican food — and at the same time, we have the advantages of living in the United States.
“I think this makes [my husband], Willie, very happy. We have very different backgrounds. He’s self-made, raised on the streets, two broken marriages, a very solitary man. But he has adjusted in such a splendid way to the Latin tribe that, now, when my mother visits, she has breakfast in bed with us. He brings the tray with coffee and closes the door because he doesn’t want anybody to know he has breakfast in bed with his mother-in-law.”
This support system, and her remarkable strength, helped Allende through a tragedy last year. Her daughter, Paula, who was living in Spain with her husband, fell into a coma — the result of a congenital condition — and never recovered.
“I went to Spain and stayed with them for six months, and when she could breathe by herself, I brought her to California on an incredible trip and installed a hospital in my house. I had her with me until she died, last December.”
Still, this winter, Allende kept a breakneck pace, honoring the commitments she had to cancel last year. In the span of a few weeks, she lectured at Keene State College, in New Hampshire, flew to Denmark, where The House of the Spirits is being filmed, went back to California, and returned to New England for a residency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A given day on the road included a lecture, an official lunch and dinner, and several interviews. Allende is the ultimate professional: punctual, always prepared, answering demands with unfailing grace.
Her mourning will have to wait even longer. A new round of engagements awaits her with the publication in May of The Infinite Plan and a subsequent book tour.
It’s a fact that she simply accepts. She has learned to deal with it as she learned to manipulate feeding tubes when her daughter was comatose in her house. One gets the sense that, in an emergency, Allende would roll up her sleeves and perform surgery with a plastic fork and knife if needed and rail against her misfortune later.
“No, all this work doesn’t help. It bothers me,” she says, allowing herself to show just a hint of impatience. “I think what is going to help is starting to write in July. Writing is a trip inward, and it is a time of introspection and of ordering the confusion that one carries in the heart and the head. I need silence, solitude, time for myself, which I haven’t had.
When Paula died, I had a few days of mourning, and then I had to work in this very public life, so I haven’t had time to sit down and really think about all this pain.”
For Allende, writing comes from pain and love and, perhaps, anger. There is the story, always, and the storytelling, the sheer pleasure of passing on a memory in a telling detail, the pride and burden of being the tribe’s historian, its implacable conscience.
Now, as she pauses, her shoulders sag, and, as if completing the earlier thought, she says, “Finally, one writes to recover what has been lost.”
This feature appeared in The Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine, April, 1993