Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits

July 23, 2013

9781400043187This novel had sat around for a long time waiting for me to get to it; what a revelation, as it was well worth waiting for. Isabel Allende’s uncle was Salvador Allende, the Marxist elected President of Chile in 1970, and murdered in a US-backed coup in 1973. This event was one of the most shocking of my younger days, and made me realise just how difficult any meaningful political change anywhere in the world was going to be.

Allende writes in the familiar Latin American ‘magic realism’ genre, reminding one easily of Marquez’s great novels. She traces the history of her country – never named, but clearly Chile – through the story of the successes and failures of several generations of one family, against the backdrop of more general social and political change; this family becomes more closely involved with the movements that led up to the events of the 1970s as the story nears that time.

The lyrical portrayal of a loved country and people develops very effectively; one comes to know and love the range of – sometimes bizarre – members of the family, their houses and country estates. It is magical realism at its captivating best, but obviously there is always in the back of the reader’s mind the traumatic events of forty years ago, and one of the things that drew this reader along was wondering how Allende would integrate them.

The chapters that deal with the coup and murder of the president are a kick in the crotch to the reader; the brutality leaps out, and characters we have grown to know and like are sucked into the nightmare; the magic vanishes and the reality is devastatingly effective.

I was drawn to compare this novel with an old favourite of mine, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which is also set in Latin America, although the fictional land of Costaguana is less readily identifiable than Allende’s Chile. Again, the backdrop is the economic development of the country against the backdrop of scheming and coups and revolutions, and how revolutions – at least to Conrad – inevitably seem to corrupt those who make them or are involved in them. Both writers seem to me to raise the question of whether, and how, it is possible to make a better world, that encompasses all people, rather than benefiting only those ruthless and fortunate ones at the top of the heap. They don’t offer an answer, though…

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