Re: The House of the Spirits; Rosa the Beautiful
The poem by Pablo Neruda
at the start of the book does indeed indicate that The House of the Spirits
is in Chilé. Neruda is Chilé’s national poet, and writes with brilliant luminosity and depth and sadness. He appears later in the book as The Poet. Yet we find the strange device that never once is the name of Chilé mentioned. I also found myself wondering if perhaps the book might be about Allende’s homeland Peru. Yet I suspect The House of the Spirits
will come to be regarded as Chilé’s national book, much as The Brothers Karamazov
is the national book of Russia, articulating the contrary currents of national identity, even though Allende was born abroad and has lived around the world.
Rosa’s mermaid status is another puzzling mystery. On page 41, as Rosa lays like Sleeping Beauty dead on the slab, her father, Severo del Valle, who had himself accidentally given her the rat poison intended for him, sees her. “Severo was overcome when his daughter’s nightgown was lifted to reveal the splendid body of a mermaid.” And then on the next page, “they recalled the happy days when Rosa scampered in the garden startling the butterflies with her beauty that could have only come from the bottom of the sea.”
These strange statements, presented as fact, illustrate the dream-like magical realism of The House of the Spirits
. If you only read it once, you might be forgiven for forgetting the statements that indicate that Rosa is not in fact a mermaid. After all, mermaids are akin to shape-shifters, creatures with a dual identity. Like the nation of Chilé itself, Rosa has both a magical and a prosaic nature. And like Chilé, Rosa is accidentally killed, so to speak, by a loving father. Perhaps at death she reverts to her true identity?
Esteban Trueba, Rosa’s fiancé, is the lead character of the book. His intense conservatism is presented in sympathetic light by Allende, very surprising given the book’s rather left wing theme. His love of Chilé will lead him to campaign for the fascist coup, an event that plunges the nation into destruction and sorrow, the death of Rosa writ large. Throughout the book we find portents of this tragedy. In this chapter, we see mention that Uncle Marcos’s books will be destroyed.
Marcos is an intriguing bit part. He stands for entrepreneurial imagination, with his madcap plan to fly over the Andes on a mechanical bird (p24), and his naïve assumption that “no woman in her right mind could remain impassive before a barrel-organ serenade” (p22). This deadpan statement is typical of Allende’s humor, recalling the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. In fact, there are many women who would fail to be wooed by military marches and waltzes (one of each repeated) played on a rusty box adorned by a fake ship’s smokestack, to the accompaniment of a shrieking Amazon parrot who had learned Spanish as a second tongue.
The relationship between Marcos and Clara is grounded in his magical books which become the foundation of Clara’s education. She recalls his pose triumphant over a dead Malay tiger as very similar to the Blessed Virgin in her conquest of the devil. His crystal ball and clairvoyant fortune telling introduce Clara to the world of magic. His “collection of maps and books of stories and fairy tales … were hauled out to inhabit the dreams of his descendants, until they were mistakenly burned half a century later on an infamous pyre.” (p29)