Christopher Hitchens wrote:
A house divided
Twenty years after its first publication in English, Christopher Hitchens pays tribute to a seminal novel by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende - one of the few 'magical' fictions ever to have its wish come true
Saturday March 5, 2005
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
It is while speaking of the island of Crete, in Saki's story "The Jesting of Arlington Stringham", that the eponymous character says that the place "produces more history than it can consume locally". We all know of certain distinctive countries on the map of which this seems to be true. For some reason, a lot of them also begin with the letter C: Czechoslovakia (which now exists only in memory), Cuba, Cyprus - and Chile. And there is also a literary surplus that often comes with these territories: think only of Kafka, Kundera, Yglesias and Neruda.
For people of a certain generation (my own, to be exact: those of us sometimes vulgarly described as the baby-boomers), the imagery and cosmology of Chile is a part of ourselves. A country shaped like a long, thin, jagged blade, forming the littoral of almost an entire continent, and poised to crumble into the ocean leaving only the Andes behind. A place of earthquakes and wine and poets, like some Antarctic Aegean. And a place of arms: the scene of the grand 20th-century confrontation between Allende and Pinochet. The nation's territory includes the Atacama desert, an expanse of rainforest, a huge deposit of copper, a great valley full of vines, and the mysteriously statued Polynesian outpost of Easter Island, known to the indigenous as Rapanui, or "the navel of the world".
The voices and portents in La Casa de los Espiritus are also somewhat cryptic at times, as befits the school of "magical realism". This style, or manner, was actually pioneered somewhat earlier than most people think, by Jorge Luis Borges in neighbouring Argentina. In 1926 he published an essay, "Tales of Turkestan", in which he hymned the sort of story where "the marvellous and the everyday are entwined ... there are angels as there are trees". In 1931, in The Postulation of Magic, he announced that fiction was "an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments", as bodied forth in the "predestined" Ulysses of James Joyce.
From the very beginning of Isabel Allende's narration, disbelief is suspensible in the most natural way, and (if you pay attention) the premonitions begin to register. Rather cleverly - and subversively - the action begins in a church. Bored by the blackmailing liturgy, and by the devotional decorations which make an everyday trade out of the officially supernatural, the Trueba family is preoccupied with the truly extraordinary developments within its own ranks. Effortlessly, we find ourselves conscripted into the truth of this tale; from green hair to the gift of prophecy and divination and the taken-for-granted ability to fly. Just off the centre of the stage, in carefully placed hints and allusions to the Prussian goose-step, to the future burning of the books and to the Marxist gentleman referred to as "the candidate", we can also pick up the faint drum-taps of the far-off tragic denouement.
Children and animals are often the conveyors of the magical: innocence and experience being in their cases less immediately distinguishable. Clara and the dog Barrabás would make an almost cartoonish filmic double-act for anyone with the necessary entrepreneurial imagination: a sort of Scooby-Doo with the facts of life thrown in.
Here it is Isabel Allende's brilliantly dead-pan and dry humour, concerning such things as the beast Barrabás's murderous penis, that draw us into the story and make us surrender. In counterpoint to this highly bearable lightness, her notes of seriousness are correspondingly weighty. (Why does nobody ever believe Clara's prophecies? Because nobody ever believed Cassandra.) By the time we reach chapter five ("The Lovers") we are suddenly aware that we are watching a parody of Animal Farm in reverse, with a song about the chickens organising to defeat the fox, heard by a wealthy landowner who wants to put a stop to such romantic nonsense.
The romance between the rich man's daughter and the penniless son of the peasant is such a folkloric cliché that one has to become wary for an instant, even with an author who has already won one's trust. However, The House Of The Spirits depends for its ingenuity on the blending of the microcosmic with the macrocosmic: the little society of the family and the wider society of Chile.
Lineage is important in the unfolding of this, and the Truebas all have one dynastic name, while the "Pedros" - like the nameless French serfs who were all called "Jacques" - mark their descent by numbers: Secundo, Tercero ... just like monarchs in fact. Isabel Allende herself bears a great name that has become imperishable for non-hereditary reasons, and so it is rather generous of her, in the circumstances, to invert what is traditional and to make a hero out of what Marxism might normally prefer to cast as a villain. Esteban Trueba is a patriarch in every sense: a self-made man of property and a seigneur who haughtily insists on exercising every droit, libidinous or financial. His appetites are gigantic, and no peasant girl is safe from him, but he feels himself bound nonetheless by a contrat social and a sense of noblesse oblige.
My own family is not the only one where there exists an extraordinary bond between grandfather and granddaughter. The emotional strength of this phenomenon has been noted many times (some people even joke that such alliances are so durable and intense because they are based upon a common enemy). At any rate, we know from the highly candid and affecting memoirs of Isabel Allende that her own grandfather, Agustin Llona, was in many ways the "main man" in her early life: the representative of the masculine virtues. Indeed, he is the raison d'être of this novel. One day, in exile from her martyred country, Isabel Allende heard the awful news:
'that my grandfather was dying, and that he had told the family he had decided to die. He had stopped eating and drinking, and he sat in chair to wait for death. At that moment I wanted so badly to write and tell him that he was never going to die, that somehow he would always be present in my life, because he had a theory that death didn't exist, only forgetfulness did. He believed that if you can keep people in your memory, they will live forever. That's what he did with my grandmother. So I began to write him a long letter, elaborated from the awful thought that he was going to die.'
Esteban Trueba, the fictional memorial of this grand old gentleman, is life-affirming. He builds a grand estate at Tres Marías out of his own unremitting struggle with adversity, and accepts the responsibility for his tenants even as he declines to listen to any whining or subversive back-chat from them. He also becomes a distinguished senator, and leads the charge against the party of Allende, even irritating the more conciliatory conservatives who dislike making a fuss:
'"The day we can't get our hands on the ballot boxes before the vote is counted we're done for," Trueba argued.
'"The Marxists haven't won by popular vote anywhere in the world," his confreres replied. "At the very least it takes a revolution, and that kind of thing doesn't happen in this country."
'"Until it happens!" Trueba answered furiously.
'"Relax, hombre. We're not going to let that happen," they consoled him.
'"Marxism doesn't stand a chance in Latin America. Don't you know it doesn't allow for the magical side of things?"'
In the context, that's rather a clever question. And, in her grandpa's quoted opinion that forgetfulness is the equivalent of death, isn't there an echo of the author, much admired by Isabel Allende, who has most attempted to fuse Marxism with magic? Gabriel García Márquez, in his epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, describes a village which suffers an epidemic of insomnia. After an interval of chaotic and protracted wakefulness, the increasingly deranged inhabitants begin to forget the names of common objects. Their solution is to write labels and affix them to the said objects, which serves to keep the crisis at bay for a while. But then the insomnia mutates into radical amnesia, and they begin to forget what letters stand for, and how words are written or read ...
The class war is fought not just between the siblings of the Trueba dynasty and the humble Tercero family, but among them as well. Like many mighty patriarchs, Esteban Trueba is fated to be disappointed by his sons as well as his daughter. One of the boys, Nicolás, becomes somewhat futile and vapid, wasting his time on aeronautical fantasies and difficult women. Another, Jaime, becomes a conscience-stricken medical student who rejects his privileged upbringing in order to minister to the poor, or at least to make them the objects of his charity in the aptly named Misericordia District. (Ever since Graham Greene, I sometimes think, the socialist physician - Dr Magiot, Dr Czinner - has been an especially serious character. And of course, Salvador Allende himself was a doctor.)
In Esteban García, the crafty youth who is also an illegitimate by-blow of old man Trueba, we are finally introduced to evil. Again spurning the ideal-types of radical romanticism, Isabel Allende portrays this cold, plebeian, ambitious type as the instrument of death foretold. Here is the sort of person, found in every society, who becomes a torturer and executioner when the state is taken over by sadists. By way of an ironic wrinkle in the genealogical plot, he gets his great opportunity from his unaware grandfather, who despises the surreptitious and whose combats have always been in the open. The patriarch wants the honest military gentlemen to seize power, to scatter the subversives, and to restore decency and tradition and order. But he wants them then to return to the barracks and supervise new elections. Esteban García, no aristocrat, desires the day when police rule will be permanent, and he himself can have endless official permission to humiliate his betters as well as his inferiors.
The House of the Spirits is, or perhaps retrospectively became, the first of a trilogy that is comprised of itself, followed by Of Love and Shadows and Portrait in Sepia. The "subject" is assuredly family life, which is also the tempestuous sub-text of much of Isabel Allende's non-fiction. But the story is about Chile.
For millions of people across the world, this very name took on the same resonance as had "Spain" 40 years before. On one side, the landlords, the church, the army and the fascists. On the other, "the people" in their various gnarled, exploited, neglected and semi-upright postures. Arbitrating and manipulating things were far-off superpowers and vested interests. My little summary does, admittedly, possess all the subtlety of a Brecht play put on in Berkeley. But sometimes things are quite simple, and even Brecht might have turned down the idea of multinational corporations instructing Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to use murderous force to protect their dividends. Given the starkness of this, as it appeared at the time, it is greatly to Señora Allende's credit that she contrived so much wit, grace and chiaroscuro.
The Spanish civil war is remembered today as having been a writers' and poets' war, among other things, and Chile in the 1970s possessed some of that quality also. In these pages one can re-encounter at least a couple of the relevant figures. Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest love poets of all time (and the hero of that gem of a movie, Il Postino) appears as The Poet: someone almost too numinous and distinguished to be named. Victor Jara, the radical balladeer of Allende's Unidad Popular movement, is to be found in the strumming and singing of Pedro Tercero.
Both real lives ended at the time of the military coup in 1973: Neruda died of natural causes - perhaps exacerbated by the violence of events - and his marvellous library was trashed by marauding soldiers. Victor Jara was dragged away in a round-up and murdered, but not before his sniggering captors had recognised him and gone to all the trouble of smashing his guitar-playing fingers. (Both of these men had dull and sometimes sinister communist politics, and after all it is George Orwell whose writing on Spain survives the burblings and mendacities of the Popular Front, but the face of fascism is still much the same whether it murders Lorca or pillages Neruda.)
So the last third of the novel is really a palimpsest for those who experienced those years, or who wish to profit by studying them. Sex and love and family drama persist, of course, as they have to (and sometimes ecstatically in the first case). But everything is enacted in the shadow thrown by the first pages of the book: the great confrontation that has long been doomed to occur within the Chilean family as a whole. These pages are, to the Chilean revolution and counter-revolution, what A Tale of Two Cities once was to their French equivalents.
They also capture - if I may be permitted this - the best of times and the worst of times. Again, it is Isabel Allende's nuance, combined with her fair-mindedness, that astonishes. We watch the festival of the oppressed as it takes place on the old feudal estate at Tres Marías, but we also see the element of riot and Saturnalia as the peasants up-end the vintage wine-bottles, eat the seed-corn and slaughter the animals that were intended for husbandry. We meet the single-minded and zealous revolutionary Miguel but we also learn (and this through Jaime, who admires him too) that he could be "one of those fatal men possessed by a dangerous idealism and an intransigent purity that colour everything they touch with disaster, especially the women who have the misfortune to fall in love with them".
Though I know that Isabel Allende was at the time heart and brain and soul a supporter of the Chilean Left, she does not present us with a politicised morality play. She understands how it came to be that many middling and even poor Chileans eventually welcomed the Pinochet moment, as a respite from disorder and dogma. Indeed, in her much later memoir My Invented Country, published 30 years after the coup, she freely says that the economic programme adopted by her famous uncle was a calamitous one.
Nonetheless, there was a point at which family and honour and politics converged, in a kind of redemption of all the wreckage and intolerance. The leaders of the French revolution, with the exception of Lafayette, went to the bad and consumed each other as well as many rivals. The leaders of the Russian revolution - with the arguable exception of Leon Trotsky - went the same way. There are numerous other examples of Jacobin and Bolshevik cannibalism and fratricide, or the analogues of same. The Cuban revolution, even as I write, is expiring in banana-republic futility. But Salvador Allende never murdered or tortured anyone, and faced his own death with unexampled fortitude, and that has made all the difference.
When I first met Isabel Allende, at the point that this novel was first published, she ended our conversation by recalling her uncle's last words, spoken over a hissing and howling static from an improvised radio station, as the western-supplied warplanes were wheeling and diving over the dignified old presidential palace of La Moneda: named for its former office as the Chilean mint. Here is what he said, as cited word-for-word in The House of the Spirits:
'I speak to all those who will be persecuted to tell you that I am not going to resign: I will repay the people's loyalty with my life. I will always be with you. I have faith in our nation and its destiny. Other men will prevail, and soon the great avenues will be open again, where free men will walk, to build a better society.'
Our interview concluded with her saying that her ambition was to see this come true, and to one day walk those avenues herself, "along with everybody else". I recall saying rather feebly that I hoped I could join her. At the time, Chile was in a grip of adamantine rule, as I had seen for myself, and the prospect of any liberated stroll or saunter or paseo looked distinctly faint. I was too pessimistic.
So I suppose this is one of the very few "magical" fictions ever to have its wish come true. (I can only think of one other such case: Theodor Herzl's Altneuland, a Utopian novel about a once-and-future Jewish state in Palestine, written by the founder of Zionism.) Herzl never lived to see his dream vindicated, and one rather wonders what he would make of the result as we know it today. But it was not only the veterans of the Chilean Left, emerging from torture chambers and frigid far-off camps on island prisons in the south Atlantic, who celebrated when Ricardo Lagos was elected president of Chile at the turn of the 20th century.
It was understood by all who gathered for his inauguration - the first member of Allende's old party to be chosen by unhindered ballot since 1970 - that he would have to leave the balcony of the palace, and walk down the "great avenues" without a bodyguard, to be among the people. And so he did, amid a great hush and also a great rejoicing.
Well, I thought, I have lived to see it. I have also lived to see General Pinochet arraigned in his own country, providing in his person one of the great individual benchmarks (Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein) by which it is established that those who trample on law and justice will some day have to face a court. One trial cannot of course do duty for all the crimes and all the murders and "disappearances" and corruptions, but only those who believe in vicarious redemption and human sacrifice can expect all sins to be taken away in this manner, and though The House of the Spirits opens and closes with exactly the same sentence ("Barrabás came to us by sea") it doesn't do to forget that this Barrabás was only a large and randy dog.
In a conversation of some years ago, Isabel Allende went back yet again to the subject of her magnificent and maddening maternal grandfather, and described her lifelong and posthumous connection to him as one of "enraged intimacy". One Balzac, as Karl Marx is supposed to have said, is worth a hundred Zolas, but this Zola fan can see that "enraged intimacy" is what makes the Balzacian narrative imperishable.