The Excesses of Sentimentalism
If Isabel Allende passes for a minor figure in Latin American literature, and a bestselling author internationally, it rests amongst other things on her relationship with narration. The stories may or may not be complicated but the narrator is generally unproblematic. While other writers of The Boom generation and beyond (including Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes), and others that preceded them or came after them (Borges, Onetti, Cortazar, Bolano and Aire) complicate narrative perspective, Allende often breathlessly retains a confident approach concerning its reliability and its coherence. To explain what this means we will pay special attention to Allende's short stories, The Stories of Eva Luna, with occasional mention of her memoir Paula and the novel Eva Luna, but shall start first of all with an important idea explored by literary theorist Gerard Genette. Speaking of possibilities in narration he says: "the first type (in general represented by the classical narrative) [is] nonfocalized narrative, or narrative with zero focalization. The second type will be narrative with internal focalization, whether that be (a) fixed...What Maisie Knew, where we almost never leave the point of view of the little girl..." [or] (b) variable as in Madame Bovary, where the focal character is first Charles, then Emma, then again Charles...; or (c) multiple as in epistolary novels, where the same event may be evoked several times according to the point of view of several letter-writing characters." (Narrative Discourse) Then Genette offers a third-type which he calls external focalization..."in which the hero performs in front of us without our ever being allowed to know his thoughts or feelings", as we often find in Hemingway stories like 'The Killers' and 'Hills Like White Elephants'. In this book chiefly on Remembrance of Things Past, Genette creates or utilises numerous useful terms to explore the various ways in which stories can be told, and there are still further categories and sub-divisions, including heterodiegetic and homodiegetic narrators, ones who tell the story while being part of the tale and others whose involvement is present but not paramount. The Great Gatsby and The Heart of Darkness are very good examples of books where the narrator is a secondary figure to Gatsby and Marlow respectively.
Our purpose isn't to clutter up an essay with an array of terms but to understand something of the complexity of narration in modern fiction. It might be Marguerite Duras informing us halfway through the Ravishing of Lol Stein that a character who is being described turns out to be the narrator of the book we are reading, Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being referring to himself in the first person as he conjures a novel up out of his meditations on Nietzsche allied to the character of Tomas that he is in the process of creating, or Robbe-Grillet pushing the Hemingwayesque 'objectivity' still further by removing the past tense and putting the story into the immediate present. As Genette says of Robbe-Grillet and others, "a present tense narrative which is 'behaviourist' in type and strictly of the moment can seem like the height of objectivity, since the last trace of enunciating that still subsisted in the Hemingway-style narrative...now disappears in a total transparency of the narrative, which finally fades away in favour of the story." (Narrative Discourse) When Robbe-Grllet famously and notoriously proposed that a writer had nothing to say, he was making clear that what mattered was the way one says it how one tells the story. If zero-focalisation suggests in some ways that the writer has something to say but a minimal number of means available in the telling, the various options available to modern fiction indicates that what matters is how the story is told. What makes Allende seem in many ways a naive novelist is that none of this matters.
In a brief interview at the back of the autobiographical account of her adult daughter's death in Paula, Allende says, "many fiction writers write for the critics or for themselves. I never do." She indeed reckons she has something to say: "my life, my books, is made of sorrow and love. Sorrow makes me learn and love makes me grow." Allende might have taken personally numerous negative comments about her work, including fellow Chilean Roberto Bolano's when he said that "her writing ranges from the kitsch to the pathetic." ('On Literature, The National Literature Prize, and The Rare Consolations of the Writing Life') But he also said, "in other words: Allende's work is bad, but it's alive; it's anaemic, like a lot of Latin Americans, but it's alive." Allende responded by saying, "for us as Chileans it is an honor that Bolano represents us. However, we have to remember that Bolano considered me to be garbage but that doesn't take any merit away from him." (Uptown Literati) It was a kind response indeed but Bolano's remarks weren't unequivocally critical even if Allende chooses to be generous to the criticism that she received. However, rather than agreeing with the critical side of Bolano's remarks, we can attend just as readily to his modest praise. Allende is a very popular writer, "her books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages and have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide" Amazon informs us. Yet we might wonder if part of this popularity rests on having something to say without thinking very much about how to say it: that the problem of focalisation which concerns so many contemporary writers isn't one that concerns Allende at all. While she dismissively proposes she writes books for readers rather than critics, perhaps a more appropriate way of looking at this is to say she writes fiction that needn't trouble the reader with its form, seeking instead universal truths rather than acutely individualised perceptions. One reason why so many great works have created a complex relationship with perspective rests on calling into question such assumptions about universal truths, well-told stories and transparencies of style. What matters more is specificity of observation, epistemological complication and a prose that can accommodate such shifts. Argentinean novelist Ernesto Sabato put it thus: it is quite extraordinary that an evaluation of twentieth-century fiction should be attempted using canons of the nineteenth century, a century in which the type of reality described by the novelist was as different from ours as a treatise on phrenology from a paper by Jung..." Sabato adds "the twentieth-century novel not only provides an account of a more complex and truer reality than that of the previous century, but has also acquired a metaphysical dimension it did not possess before." ('The Novel in Crisis') Raymond Williams notes that "the content of a piece of literature is never the abstracted content of the "subject matter' but the actual content of the words." (Reading and Criticism)
Allende tends to write about bold subjects with ready-made phrases, and none more than in the book about her daughter's time in a coma before passing away, Paula. It might seem unfair to expect great prose from a writer dealing with an awful tragedy but whatever the personal circumstances of Allende's life, once she chooses to put it into the public sphere then literary expectations apply. The book is an impressively passionate and at the same time dispassionate account of her daughter's life and death, and of the Allende family history, but frequently phrases make us aware of the staleness of the language over the magnitude of the feelings. In just one page she says that her third novel Eva Luna "was written in the full light of day", 'that she decided to "devote myself to writing", that "crime had skyrocketed in Caracas" and that "I begged her a thousand times." Such stock phrases might seem to suggest bad translation but there is little in Allende's work to suggest that the sensibility counters such language. Allende often writes with an insistent need to allow assumptions to stand and nuances to retreat. Novels, she says, "are made of the demented and the villainous, of people tortured by obsessions, of victims of the implacable mills of destiny." (Paula) This might be a good description of Allende's novels but it is another generalisation that doesn't benefit from scrutiny. Williams' point is that good fiction doesn't only bare scrutiny, it demands it. Differentiating between the quality of Joyce's prose and the sometimes inadequacy of Graham Greene's, Williams says of a passage from Greene that "what has lapsed here is the fundamental faculty, of definition and communication. These achievements have been replaced by a mechanical recitation of atmosphere which is intended to excite the reader into acquiescence." (Reading and Criticism) To side with Williams on this issue doesn't mean we have to fetishise language (Williams was above all else a Marxist critic) but it does mean we wish to concern ourselves with meaning, There are numerous writers that never quite had Joyce's, Flaubert's or Nabokov's obsession with the prose and some who weren't even very good prose stylists, no matter their genius, like Dostoevsky and Dickens. However, if the language reveals a perceptual tiredness reenergised by hyperbole, the reader might understand why Harold Bloom could say of Allende that she wouldn't last. "Isabel Allende is a very bad writer and only reflects a determined period of time. After that everyone will forget her." (Uptown Literati)
Yet rather than making bold claims about the future, one may instead look at the work presently in front of our eyes, and especially The Stories of Eva Luna. Allende's success as a storyteller isn't at all baffling: she writes with the enthusiasm of someone who believes in the stories she tells which is perhaps a central aspect of zero-focalization. The collection is prefaced by a passage from A Thousand and One Tales of the Arabian Nights, and while various critics have attacked Allende no less harshly than Bloom, some, like Samuel Amago have suggested The Stories of Eva Luna "are bound together by formal similarities and an overall thematic and structural frame based upon the..." ancient tales. ('Isabel Allende and the Postmodern Literary Tradition') The content of the story is what matters, not the telling. When she opens 'The Toad's Mouth', so to speak, with "times were very hard in the south. Not in the south of this country but the south of the world, where the seasons are reversed and winter does not come at Christmastime, as it does in civilised nations, but, as in barbaric lands, in the middle of the year," she could be reading aloud to a young child somewhere in what passes for the centre of civilisation: New York, London, Paris. If such a tale is exotic it isn't because it takes place in the southern hemisphere but that it locates itself as other than the North, however ironically. It also gives to the storytelling that fairytale aspect which often starts with "in a land, far, far away." Allende's stories usually are in such a land even if geographically the locations could be easily enough placed on a map somewhere in South America, or more accurately 'Latin America' as if the former indicates a topographic specificity while the latter suggests a product no less of the mind. In 'The Toad's Mouth', Allende focuses on a broad broadly, a woman of easy virtue who takes care of the drovers on a remote sheep farm: "Hermelinda ...was a female they could see and count on, one with a heady mixture of blood in her veins and a hearty taste for a good time." The titular game the workers play with Hermelinda consists of the happy hooker in a circle lying on her back with her knees up and the men throwing coins towards her. All the money that enters the circle Hermelinda keeps, but if a man manages to land a coin in the slot machine of pleasure then he gets a couple of hours in her enviable company. A man could lose a month's pay the narrator tells us but what else is there for the men to spend their money on in this desolate area, and so the story ends with the men all the more bereft when eventually Hermelinda goes off with a newcomer Pablo, someone who manages to arc the coin perfectly so it arrives at its destination. Instead of two hours together they spend, three, four, and still they don't emerge. The next day when they do the lovers disappear never to return. An open-mouthed ceramic toad is imported from London so that the men can still play the game but there isn't much enthusiasm for it and why would there be without the possible prize of Hermelinda's loins?
Covering seven pages, Allende gives us a sense of the men's boredom, the excitement that Hermelinda's presence offers, and the feeling of desolation when she disappears. It is a fine example of a story well told about an exceptional moment in the lives of men whose existence is otherwise filled with the mundane. Allende describes the environment functionally rather than atmospherically, giving us a clear sense of place to point up how important Hermelinda will be to their lives rather than illuminating the specifics of the milieu, and also a clear sense of loneliness that a bit of magic realist exaggeration helps along. "Under surveillance of the management's guards, aching with cold without so much as a bowl of soup for months, the workers survived in misery, as neglected as the help they herded." The narrator adds that they would lay with their sheep, and with a seal if they could catch one. "The seals had large mammae, like a nursing mother's, and if they skinned the living, warm, palpitating seal, a love-starved man could close his eyes and imagine he was embracing a siren." Allende doesn't describe the men's world; she prepares us for the entrance of the woman who will come into their existence. There is no hesitancy to the telling because the writer is in no doubt what is important to the tale: the men's loneliness and Hermelinda's presence, and the return of that loneliness when she falls in love and the men are left alone once again. It is the classic pessimistic form of equilibrium that becomes disequilibrium and returns to its sad equilibrium. It could easily be reversed as optimism: we might have a young man leaving his beautiful young wife and going out into the Patagonian wilds to make his future only to return after much effort and hardship to see that what matters most is the woman he loves. The equilibrium disrupted would return to equilibrium.
Yet though Allende isn't a complex storyteller she can occasionally create complicated and poignant feelings out of this narrative structure. In 'Tosca', the equilibrium shows the central female character as a married woman with a husband who very much loves her and a son whom she adores, but falls in love with another man with whom she shares a love of music and especially the opera Tosca. She is forced, in leaving her husband, into leaving her son too as her husband will not allow her to take him with her. Maurizia finds herself disappearing into the isolated countryside and informs her lover by telegraph that "she had given up her only son, defied her husband, society and God himself, and that her decision to follow him until death should them part was irrevocable." To find him requires a journey by train, bus and riverboat as her lover has taken a job at a remote oil field, working as a doctor. For years they live there amongst the very men who wouldn't have been very different from the workers we find in 'Toad's Mouth', the temperatures as harshly hot as they were previously cold. Her husband eventually dies after tropic fevers attacked his health, and Maurizia is once again alone. In time, the town develops and she notices that it is partly being built by Ezio Long and Son: her ex-husband and child. One day she sees them together in a tavern and is filled with regret, realising that the hero of the drama wasn't the doctor but her coarse ex, a man who had loved her far more than her lover. She hoped that he still desired her as much as he had in the past even if she is now a woman in her early fifties whose skin had been hardened by years of sun. Standing in the shadows she prepares to reacquaint herself when the father and son "both burst out laughing, clapped each other on the shoulder, and ruffled each other's hair with a virile tenderness and staunch complicity that excluded Maurizia Rugieri and the rest of the world." She remains in the shadows, knowing that she is not and can never again be part of their lives. The narrative opens with her leaving her husband and child, then shows her living with her lover for many years in the jungle, and then once again seeing her husband and son. The story manages to possess a unity but refuses the happiness of that refamiliarization. Time has passed horribly and Maurizia is left as bereft as the men who must live without Hermelinda, yet the story is deeper and more meaningful since the men in 'Toad's Mouth' cannot be held responsible for Hermelinda leaving, while Maurizia will be left feeling a mixture of chasmic guilt and loss.
One might have a problem with the potential sexual politics of such a tale; that Maurizia is narratively punished for leaving her husband and child. Just because, on reading Paula, we can see in the story a working- through of Allende's own personal situation doesn't mean such a response to the problematic sexual politics is invalid. In Paula, Allende describes at one moment in her life leaving her husband and living with a lover in Spain but returned to a caring if passionless marriage and to her two children in Venezuela. Those interested in the biographical manifesting itself in the fictional will see Allende fictionalising her close call with guilt and loss. However, the story could have made more of the husband's pride and that he was willing to sacrifice the boy's need for a mother to his own hubris. That might have made for a different story, one more socio-politically nuanced but less emotionally devastating the story isn't about the family's loss but only Maurizia's. The husband and son seem to have created a very meaningful relationship amongst themselves in her absence. The story is about a woman who can't see what she has until she so completely loses the thing. But it is also about a certain type of idealist: a woman who romanticises the doctor as her great love and then reassesses her assumptions years later and thinks it was Ezio. The truth isn't which man happened to be that great love but the sense of bereavement the story concludes on as Allende makes clear she has something to say while utilising well the conventions.
Allende reckons, "I think that there are very few good short stories. Very few. And there are many novels that are wonderful, with a plot that you always remember, always remember. In a short story, it's more important how you tell it than what you tell; the form is very important. In a novel you can make all the mistakes you want and very few people will notice." She believes "a short story is like an apple; it comes whole; there is only one appropriate ending for a short story. All the others are not. And you know it; you feel it. If you can't find that ending you don't have a story eliminate it because it's useless to work on it anymore. To me a short story is like an arrow; it has to have the right direction from the beginning and you have to know exactly where you're aiming." (Contemporary Literature) In such a remark Allende's narrative conservatism reveals itself even if it is also useful for the type of fiction she wants to write. She may be proposing that form is more important than content but then acknowledges that the way it is told is limited. When she says she never really reads reviews and avoids reading literary interviews with other writers, when she says "it's not I who choose the story; the story chooses me" (Contemporary Literature), Allende shows that stories aren't manifold objects (tales, fables, essay-fictions, epiphanic narratives, self-reflexive accounts and slices of life) but specifically narrativised accounts that should possess a clear beginning, middle and end even if the story appears to jump around. The difference between a Latin American writer ostensibly similar to Allende, Rosario Ferre, is that Ferre looks to complicate history and point of view in the telling, as we find in The House by the Lagoon and the stories in Sweet Diamond Dust, books which constantly raise questions about memory and who is telling the story, while Allende looks for the most straightforward of through lines to maximise the emotional heft.
But, detouring further from Allende's work, we need only think of writers even within the Latin American context to see the variety of short fictions available, writers who unlike Ferre don't at all resemble Allende. just as we noted the importance for Genette of the different modes of narration, so we can think of Latin American writers and the different approaches available to the short story. Horacio Quiroga was a fine writer of tales and fables, stories with a strong sense of the inevitable and the tragic in works like 'Juan Dorien' and 'Drifting'; Borges wrote stories that might actually be essays: as in 'Borges and I' (and which his collection Labyrinths refers to as a parable) and 'The Fearful Sphere of Pascal'. Julio Cortazar often produced stories that contained within them a dimension that dissolved the gap between the story and its telling: in 'Continuity of Parks', a man sits reading a book in an armchair covered in green velvet about a couple of lovers who have a deed to perform. They make love as he caresses the knife and afterwards she goes one way and he goes another as he in time enters a house and find his victim: a man in an armchair covered in green velvet reading a novel. In Axolotol , a man spends his days looking at the titular neo-tonic salamanders and one day finds looking back at him isn't an Axolotl but the man himself being looked on by he who is now an Axolotl. In Juan Carlos Onetti stories, the teller is so exhausted that the telling becomes a constant means to deflate and forewarn the reader about the inadequacy of the story he tells. People in the stories age pointlessly, tell each other tales out of boredom and can't often remember the details. Juan Rulfo's short stories are brief accounts of terribly harsh lives, with great emphasis on the hard, arid landscapes that turn any story into an irrelevance next to the environment out of which they come. "Everything is going from bad to worse here" 'We're Very Poor' opens. "Last week my Aunt Jacinta died, and on Saturday, when we'd already buried her and we started getting over the sadness, it began raining like never before. That made my father mad, because the whole rye harvest was stacked out in the open, drying in the sun."
Often what makes writing significant isn't only the complication and intricacies involved in the story the writer tells but also the social, historical and literary expectations of the time. A writer can obviously fall too easily into the modish as a consequence, speaking too readily about the socially pertinent in the fashionably literary, writing an entire novel in 2002 using text messages during the crisis of 9/11, for example, would be bang up do date but it may also nevertheless fall too easily into an old fashioned epistolary form and just be playing on disaster without understanding it. Better to take a step back and try to find what was unique about the event and then find the means that will most successfully articulate the problematic therein. Literature in the 21st century has so many options available to it (free indirect discourse, stream of consciousness, restrictive narration, metafiction, hetero-diegetic and homo-diegetic narration and so on), to settle for so restrictive a means as the mobile phone text message which could lead to an eschewal of innovation as the writer falls back on the epistolary that goes back centuries. The point is that an important piece of writing isn't ignorant of its possibilities as it nevertheless demands its own set of restrictions, but if the restrictions are too modish it reflects its moment in time but can't capture a first principle concerning it.
The other direction to take is that we don't need all these developments in literature; that for all the surface differences available in an event, a crisis is a crisis, a tragedy is a tragedy, and the writer's job is to tell tales as universally as possible. They may deal with contemporary issues but there needn't be any new question in form that arises out of them. Such an approach appears of course very close to Allende's position. "I write as well as I can. And I try to reach people and tell them what is true for me, what is important for me. I don't experiment very much with literature." (The Kenyon Review) "Why? First, because I'm not interested in [formal] experimentation. And second, because I want to communicate in a very direct way. I want to tell readers about my country. I want to tell them about torture chambers, about politics, about people who starve to death, and about people who sell themselves as slaves because they have no food. And I don't think that's soap opera." Allende adds, "Soap opera is a melodrama in which you have no political or social concerns. You live in a bubble, away from everything that has to do with the world. Away from poverty, away from all the struggles of humankind. And those are not my books. Maybe they are sentimental very often, and maybe they are kitsch very often. And I'm not afraid of that. I can cope with that. I like it actually." (The Kenyon Review)
There is both defiance and defensiveness in Allende's tone, someone who might be aware that her work isn't of great merit but is infuriated that some might regard it as worthless. Yet when we think of the variety available in the short story form in Latin American literature alone, Allend's work can seem frustratingly naive and limited. Thus it seems fair to say that it is of merit without quite being of value, a harsh criticism from one perspective (a literary one) but it is a position that can acknowledge Allende's capacity to connect with readers without writing junk. By predicating the Eva Luna stories on The Arabian Nights, Allende offers the reconfiguring without the self-reflexivity of a Robert Coover, Angela Carter or a Michel Tournier but proposes no more and no less that telling old-fashioned stories can keep us going, even if they contain 'new-fashioned' subject matter. In the novel Eva Luna, we have guerrilla movements and transsexuality, military dictatorships and sex-ops. When an interviewer asks "to what extent can your work affirm feminism, socialism or anticapitalism? Is there a point beyond which ideology intrudes, so that it threatens your artistic aims?" Allende replies: "I never think of my books as art. Maybe because I was a journalist for so long. I write because it gives me a lot of pleasure. It's the only thing I can do." (Kenyon Review)
Yet what sometimes makes Allende's stories interesting is that they seem almost provocatively callow in the face of ideology, as we find in 'Tosca', but also in 'Revenge, If You Touched My Heart' and 'Letters of Betrayed Love'. In 'Revenge', a young woman is raped and her father killed. In time she hopes to avenge the deeds but when she eventually meets again the man, Tadeo Cespedes, who destroyed her life, he tells her that "you have pursued me relentlessly. I have never been able to love anyone but you." Our central character Dulce Rosa, wishing to kill him, falls in love with him instead. Caught in an impossible situation she decides to take her own life, with the story concluding on Tadeo Cespedes, who "would live to be ninety and pay for his guilt with the memory of the only woman who had ever touched his heart." How could a feminist perspective countenance a tale that suggests that Dulce Rosa wouldn't only fall in love with the perpetrator of the crime but would also choose to take her own life once aware that she was unable to kill him? Here we have a very complicated emotional and psychological situation turned into a tragic fairy tale, but we also have from Allende's perspective an interesting notion of love conquering all, no matter how pessimistically. Dulce Rosa can't entertain revenge because she is in love; so kills herself. Tadeo Cespedes can't live happily with himself because he has lost the woman he has always loved, a woman whose life he ruined. Love wins out in the end rather than hate but on almost absurd terms.
In 'If You Touched My Heart', a fifteen-year-old girl Hortensia is seduced by a wealthy thug, Amadeo Peralta, one day and a week later she appeared at his door, "inflamed with the fever of love." Amadeo Peralta does more than take her in; he locks her up she is discovered after decades hidden away from anybody's eyes other than Amadeo Peralta's, locked in the cellar of an old sugar mill. Amadeo Peralta is arrested and imprisoned, spending the rest of his life in jail but "at ten every morning, Hortensia, with the faltering steps of a madwoman, tottered down to the prison where she handed the guard at the gate a warm saucepan for the prisoner." He almost never left her hungry she says. Amadeo Peralta, knowing each day that Hortensa waits outside the prison, "from time to time...felt something like a stab of guilt." Again we have a forgiving woman without the story feeling obliged to go through the complexities of why that might be so. Both are short tales, perfectly arced to allow for a sting in them, so to speak, to suggest that the women's weaknesses are more present than the men's brutality.
In Letters of Betrayed Love, the story is gentler and a lot more optimistic but again the naivety is evident. A woman is compelled to marry her cousin who initially sends her beautiful letters that while suggesting a far from handsome man indicate nevertheless a person with a great heart and a fine sensibility. Yet when she meets the man himself he is far more attractive than she imagined but far less interesting than she hoped. She had fallen in love with an idea in her mind not matched by the reality in front of her eyes. She marries and has children with her cousin but she never gets over the disappointment. Eventually, however, she works out that the handwriting on her child's homework is none other than that of the letter writer years earlier and the teacher is as she imagined, ugly and infirm, but the man of her dreams. He had written the letters for her cousin. "Can you forgive me?" he says. In Allende's world the answer is of course. One can easily dismiss these three stories and see in them schmaltz, 'el sentimentalismo excesivo'. Another way of looking at her work though is to see in such tales a sort of ideological chutzpah, or 'osadia', a surprising confidence in the tale over the ideology, believing the narrative force of tradition can impose itself on the counter-force of shifting ideological representation. When asked what motivates the work, Allende says: "Passion. The overwhelming passion to tell a story. Usually a novel is a very long process. You have to be sitting there in front of your typewriter or your computer for months in a row, sometimes years. So you really have to be very committed; you have to be in love with the story. Without that passion, that love, you just can't do it." (Contemporary Literature) Love and Passion sounds like the title of an Allende novel but it can probably help explain her success. She manages to ignore the numerous pressing literary problems even if we might insist that they are only literary problems because they are problems more generally, evident in Sabato's earlier claim. If Rosario Ferre writes much knottier narrations about family life in The House by the Lagoon, it is because she acknowledges the complications of history, the intricacy of memory and the needs of the ego to deny the truth of certain events, one that involves questioning assumptions about telling a story with literary techniques that allow her to keep in balance the opposing forces of memory, history and ego. Those pesky terms concerning modes of narration come in very useful once such problems arise. Allende is much more straightforward in her telling and hence why we propose she usually remains a writer adopting zero-focalization.
However, this doesn't mean we need regard Allende as a writer without merit she can offer a cathartic response to situations even if she eschews problematising them though the work wouldn't seem to have much lasting value. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says Allende "seems guilty of that extravagant and whimsical fabulousness so dear to the imagination of many South and Central American fictionalists. Within the first few dozen pages of The House of the Spirits we have a horse-sized dog named Barrabas who likes ham and ''every known type of marmalade,'' an uncle named Marcos who flies off into the clouds with the aid of a mechanical bird he has built, and a clairvoyant child named Clara who decides to become mute upon witnessing her green-haired sister's autopsy. In the land of repression, magic sometimes sounds like hysteria". (New York Times) At the same time those who like Allende's work would be happy with her own self-proclamations. "Literature for me is a fact of alchemy, the ability to transform the banalities of existence into glimpses of wisdom." (Paula) What Allende suggests is that the writer's purpose isn't to problematise but to hyperbolise, to take small truths and enlarge them even if in the process the nuances and subtleties of people and place are lost. Love and pain, sorrow and loss will make themselves present in higher case and the ready-made phrases and the exaggerated situations will reveal, in an alchemical way, the albeit banal wisdom of the world Allende seeks.
© Tony McKibbin