Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Adventure classics -- Family history = nation's

The House of the Spirits

by Isabel Allende


If Napoleon had been as clairvoyant as Clara Trueba, he would have had Chile in mind when he intoned, “Geography is destiny.” For the geography of Chile, a shoestring of a country sandwiched between one of the world’s tallest mountain ranges and the world’s largest ocean, is as strange as its destiny. And almost as strange as the century-long family history in which Isabel Allende’s 1982 novel, The House of the Spirits, parallels the events of her country.

It is, of course, a remarkable family, to which daughters can be born with green hair and mermaid-like beauty, can play Chopin telekinetically on the piano, can fall tragically in love with the nephew of a father’s rape victim, and can be tortured by a brutal political regime supported by the family’s patriarch. From the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth, Allende traces Chile’s history of troubles in the sins and foibles of the Trueba family.

Perhaps remarkably, the novel lays little blame for these troubles on outsiders, although the United States, where Allende has resided for a quarter century, provided covert support for the regime that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende, a relation of the author’s. Like the greatest heroes, Allende’s characters -- and perhaps her country -- own their flaws, however tragic.

Allende's story begins with a phrase from Clara’s childhood diary, the first of a lifelong series of journals from which the narrator, Clara’s granddaughter Alba, purports to learn the facts of her family’s history. Clara del Valle is the youngest daughter of a family whose political ambitions precipitate the first of the story’s tragedies, the murder by mistake of her sister Rosa, the girl with the green hair. (Rosa was accidentally dosed with poisoned brandy intended for her father, enmeshed in a controversial political campaign.)

Although by age ten Clara has supplemented her pocket money with her clairvoyant prophecies (besides alarming dinner guests by moving table utensils without touching
them) her family pays little heed to her pronouncement of coming death. Rosa dies; her grief-stricken fiancé Esteben Trueba becomes a recluse at his family’s country estate, where he varies his regimen of agronomy by raping the local peasant girls.

After her sister’s death, Clara retreats into a silence she will not break until her nineteenth birthday.

“I’m going to be married soon,” she said. . . In the uproar about Clara’s regaining her voice they all forgot what she had said (until) Esteban Trueba, whom they had not seen since Rosa’s funeral, showed up at the door to ask for Clara’s hand.

And so the story will continue, the story’s characters, all except Clara, unable to understand the workings of their world until Trueba, now a widowed senator, falls victim to a military dictatorship he had supported, a not so thinly disguised version of the Pinochet regime.

“. . . the senator had learned that not even his own record as a supporter of the coup was any guarantee against terror. But he had never imagined that he would see a dozen plainsclohesmen break into his house. . .to drag him from his bed.”

Tortured to give information about a revolutionary mentor, Trueba’s granddaughter Alba is at last freed and returns to her family home to tell her story to her grandfather, who listens as “a world he had thought was good had crumbled at his feet.”

Forced to flee Chile in 1973 because of the Pinochet coup, Allende wrote The House of the Spirits in exile. Whether through fear of the Pinochet regime or its American supporters, numerous Latin America publishers rejected the book. It was published in Spain, where is became an instant best seller. And yes, it‘s available on Amazon. For more about Allende and her work, see her site,

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a May of historical fiction with Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.)

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