The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

allende_house.jpgIn November 1970, in his fourth consecutive campaign for the office, Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile, becoming the first socialist leader to gain power in the Western Hemisphere via the democratic process. He immediately began an ambitious plan to restructure Chilean society, nationalizing major industries and introducing the government into the administration of education, health care, and other areas of life in which Allende saw too great a disparity between the haves and have-nots. Less than three years after his election, Allende was overthrown and died during a military coup d'état supported by the United States and led by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet proceeded to install a military dictatorship which would rule for more than 15 years, oversee widespread murder and torture, and eventually result in Pinochet's infamous arrest in Britain in 1998.

In 1982, a remarkable debut novel, The House of the Spirits, was published in Barcelona to widespread acclaim. Its author, Isabel Allende, was a cousin of the late Chilean president (not his niece, as commonly reported, due to confusion in translation between Spanish and English), and was living in Chile before and during his presidency. She remained in Chile for several years after the coup, apparently assisting those wanted by the military in finding safe passage out of the country; in 1976, she herself fled to Venezuala. In 1981, upon learning that her grandfather was dying, Allende began writing him a letter.

That letter would become The House of the Spirits, a book that functions both as a roman à clef about the political upheavals in Chile and as a vivid example of magical realism, a sort of matriarchal counterpart to Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, Allende's debut follows several generations of the same family, interweaving their lives with elements of Latin America's evolving politics, religion, and culture.

As the novel opens, the protagonist Clara is still a small girl, the youngest child of the Del Valle family, and the strangest as well: Clara is a clairvoyant, able to foresee future events and engage in telekinesis. As in other works of magical realism, these powers are recognized as rare, but not irrational or unbelievable. Clara's elder sister, Rosa, is famed for her ethereal beauty, and engaged to a young man who is slaving away in a distant mine to build his fortune, Esteban Trueba. Unfortunately, Chilean politics quickly introduces tragedy into both Clara and Esteban's lives, as Rosa becomes the unintended victim of an assassination plot against her father, who was running for Congress:

The night that Dr. Cuevas and his assistant cut open Rosa's corpse in the kitchen to establish the cause of her death, Clara lay in bed with here eyes wide open, trembling in the dark. She was terrified that Roaa had died because she had said she would. She believed that just as the power of her mind could move the saltcellar on the table, she could also produce deaths, earthquakes, and other, even worse catastrophes. In vain her mother had explain that she could not bring about events, only see them somewhat in advance. She felt lonely and guilty, and it occurred to her that if only she could be with Rosa she would feel much happier... She did not speak again until nine years later, when she opened her mouth to announce that she was planning to be married.

And married to none other than Esteban Trueba, her late sister's fiancee. In the intervening years, Esteban's personality had grown hard and angry, but he had channeled his passion into material success. He returned to the long-abandoned Trueba country estate, named Tres Marias. There, through sheer force of will, Esteban brings discipline to the tenant farmers and restores the hacienda to its former glory, as he relates in one of several interludes dispersed through the novel in which the third-person narration gives way to Esteban's own reminiscences:

No one's going to convince me that I wasn't a good patron. Anyone who saw Tres Marias in decline and who could see it now, when it's a model estate, would have to agree with me. That's why I can't go along with my granddaughter's story about class struggle. Because when it comes right down to it, those poor peasants are a lot worse off today than they were fifty years ago. I was like a father to them. Agrarian reform ruined things for everyone.

I used all the money I had saved to marry Rosa, and everything the foreman sent me from the mine, to pull Tres Marias out of misery, but it wasn't money that saved the place, it was hard work and organization.

This "by the bootstraps" experience would forever control Esteban's view of society. The poor, by his estimation, were stupid, lazy, or both; and they were largely at his disposal, as he engages in a reign of terror, violence, and rape on his hacienda in the years before he settles down and marries Clara. Later in his life, Esteban would successfully seek to put his conservative principles into broader action through political power, putting him at odds with the rest of his family who had gravitated in one way or another toward the reform movement. And when the reactionary forces he supports establish a violent military dictatorship, rather than a return to aristocratic republicanism, Esteban will suffer for the folly of his stridency.

But that is jumping to the end. In between is a long, tumultuous family saga involving Clara, her daughter Blanca, her granddaughter Alba, as well as two women who gave loving devotion to the family: Nana, who came to serve them from the Del Valle household after the death of Clara's parents, and Ferula, Esteban's sister who came to show a tremendous devotion to her brother's wife. Despite his efforts at controlling those around him, Esteban is never able to control these women. His wife is kind, but aloof, treating him with no greater affection or attention than anyone else. He becames violently jealous of his sister's relationship with Clara, eventually lashing out and banishing Ferula from the house.

Nowhere is the independence of these women more striking than in their relationships. Blanca, who splits her childhood between the family's city home and the Tres Marias hacienda, forms a friendship with the son of her father's foreman, a boy named Pedro Tercero Garcia. This friendship blossoms into love, and Blanca pursues the relationship even after her father drives Pedro Tercero from the land for spreading socialist philosophy amongst the farmers:

During the months that they were separated, Blanca and Pedro Tercero exchanged burning letters, which he signed with a woman's name and which she hid as soon as they arrived... Blanca spent the winter knitting a sweater made of Scottish wool in her sewing class at school, with the boy's measurements in mind. At night she slept with her arms around the sweater, inhaling the scent of wool and dreaming that it was he who spent the night beside her. Pedro Tercero, meanwhile, spent his winter writing songs on the guitar that he would sing to Blanca ... Both young people awaited the coming of summer with aching impatience. When it finally arrived and they met once again, the sweater Blanca had knit for Pedro didn't fit over his head, because in the intervening months he had left his childhood behind and acquired the dimensions of a man, and the tender songs he had composed now sounded ridiculous to her, because she had a woman's bearing and a woman's needs.

Eventually this relationship produced a daughter, Alba, and it is she that takes the story to its conclusion. Like her mother, she found love with her grandfather's enemies, this time with a young man named Miguel who supported the opposition party:

Miguel talked about revolution. He said that the violence of the system needed to be answered with the violence of revolution. But Alba was not interested in politics; she wanted only to talk about love... Out of love for Miguel, and not for any ideological conviction, Alba sat in at the university along with the students who had seized a building in support of a strike by workers.

Unfortunately for Alba, love was not enough during those times, and she was dragged half-willingly into the political upheaval that would eventually turn tragically violent. The consequences for Alba, and for several other characters who had no particular ideological involvement in the turmoil, vividly demonstrates the ways in which politics and revolution can strike into any life, even those motivated simply by love, compassion, or charity. Thus the novel is a study not just of a period of dramatic political upheaval, but also of love, family, devotion, and the intersection of each.

Of the many themes explored in The House of the Spirits, I was particularly struck by the importance of names. Most obviously, the names of the three generatiosn of Trueba women can all be translated as variants of the color white: Clara, Blanca, and Alba (as can the name of Clara's mother, Nivea). But there are further examples of the power of names, including Esteban's failure to give his name to any of his illegitimate children, and the renunication of the Trueba name by family members who seek independence from Esteban's hegemony. The numerous interactions between the Del Valle, Trueba, and Garcia familes also point to Allende's emphasis on the importance of taking the long view of history, a point made explicit near the book's end:

[M]emory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously... And now I seek my hatred and cannot seem to find it.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Allende was speaking for herself in these lines, and that the writing of The House of the Spirits was in part an attempt to ensure that her experience of the Chilean tragedy was not left solely to the frailties of memory. In that effort, she has surely succeeded beyond measure.