Tuesday, February 09, 2021

the last book I read

The House Of The Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Welcome to a coyly-unnamed South American country, definitely not explicitly referred to as Chile anywhere, but equally definitely Chile if you know anything of South American 20th-century history and the author's own personal history. 

We begin in the del Valle house, where Severo and Nívea live with an indeterminate number of children (it's never quite clear how many), most noticeably Rosa, a supernaturally luminous beauty, and younger sister Clara, possessed of mysterious clairvoyant and psychokinetic powers. Rosa is engaged to be married to a young man called Esteban Trueba, who as the novel opens is away seeking his fortune by overseeing digging operations at a gold mine.

Severo has political ambitions, and his profile rises sufficiently for him to acquire some powerful enemies, some of whom arrange to have him killed. Luckily for him, but unfortunately for Rosa, she drinks from the poisoned wine before he has a chance to do so, and dies. Eventually receiving word of her death and making the long and arduous trek back to the house, Esteban is grief-stricken and heads off to spend the next several years tending his family hacienda. The organisational and management challenges of this perk him right up, as does his habit of enthusiastically exercising his droit du seigneur on the daughters of his tenants, or, to put it another way, being a big old rapist. As an inevitable consequence of this there are a multitude of little Estebans running around the place, all of which he refuses to acknowledge as his own.

Refreshed by a lengthy stint of farm management, horse-riding and rape, Esteban returns to the del Valle house, and, being of a pragmatic turn of mind, requests Clara's hand in marriage instead. Clara is an odd young woman who has spent most of her teenage years entirely mute by her own choice after Rosa's death, but to everyone's surprise immediately abandons her wordless ways and says "yeah, go on then".

Esteban and Clara move into their own house away from Severo and Nívea (who are gruesomely dispatched in a car crash shortly after) and set about starting a family: daughter Blanca and twin sons Jaime and Nicolás. The family divide their time between their city home and the family hacienda, Tres Marías. It is during their time at Tres Marías that Blanca makes the acquaintance of Pedro Tercero García, and they eventually become lovers.

Esteban Trueba harbours political ambitions, and when a potentially powerful supporter, Jean de Satigny, comes to stay at Tres Marías, Esteban encourages him to have the run of the place. While on a midnight stroll Jean happens upon Blanca and Pedro Tercero in a state of naked post-coital slumber after some carefree rutting on a riverbank, reports his find to Esteban, and uses the resulting leverage to request Blanca's hand in marriage. She accepts, seeing an opportunity to legitimise the child (Pedro Tercero's, obviously) she is carrying. Jean de Satigny seems unperturbed by this arrangement, and uninterested in pressing his own attentions on Blanca. The reasons for this are soon revealed: Jean has some more, erm, esoteric preferences which seem to mainly revolve around arranging the household servants into erotic tableaux and then photographing them. Candid photography, he asked him knowingly, etc. Blanca and her daughter, Alba, flee back to the Trueba house.

Esteban, now a senator, detects that change is in the air, and sure enough soon the previously unthinkable happens and a socialist government is elected. Cue much rejoicing from the lower orders, but also outrage from the previously untouchable ruling classes. After some meetings in darkened rooms it is soon decided that the election result cannot be allowed to stand, for the greater good of the country. Fortunately a compliant media and the military need only a small nudge to push them over the edge into full-blown authoritarianism, and a military coup soon ensues, with assurances that the ensuing period of martial law and curfew will be short-lived - just until the immediate threat to the country has passed - as will the accompanying reign of terror visited upon anybody defying the regime's wishes or perceived to be plotting against it. 

This is a problem for Alba, now a feisty young woman, in particular, as her boyfriend Miguel is a dedicated campaigner for social reform and not about to let a little thing like being under immediate sentence of death deter him. No-one is safe, though, and Jaime, a doctor resolutely removed from politics, is arrested on the grounds of having treated the socialist President and therefore being under suspicion as a sympathiser. After being brutally tortured and presented with a confession to sign, he refuses, and is promptly killed. Soon enough the secret police come for Alba as well, and she ends up in the hands of Colonel Esteban García, who reveals himself to be the first of Esteban Trueba's horde of illegitimate children, and to have nursed a lifelong thirst for revenge upon the family. After being subjected to rape and torture, Alba is eventually released (after Esteban Trueba has managed to exert the last vestiges of his influence on the ruling regime), and she and Miguel are reunited. Esteban Trueba, now ninety, dies, Blanca and Pedro Tercero flee to Canada to escape the regime, but Alba and Miguel remain in the family house, awaiting the birth of Alba's child.

As I said at the start, it's never explicitly stated that the country in which The House Of The Spirits is set is meant to be Chile, but the events in the last section of the novel identify it as Chile pretty unequivocally, in particular the overthrowing of the government of Salvador Allende (Isabel Allende's father's cousin) by the military regime overseen by Augusto Pinochet which ruled the country from 1973 to 1990. The character "The President" is clearly meant to be Allende (the circumstances of whose death are still in dispute), and the occasional character "The Poet" is presumably meant to be Pablo Neruda, who also died in slightly mysterious circumstances in 1973 and who previously featured on this blog in a more light-hearted context here

Magic realism is a slightly lazy and unsatisfactory catch-all term for a whole variety of works by a whole variety of authors, many of them South American but many not, many of them featuring vivid multi-generational family sagas with themes both of real-life political struggle and odd supernatural elements, but some not. What you certainly can say about The House Of The Spirits is that it owes a heavy debt to the foundational work in this genre, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude, certainly in terms of the multi-generational family saga bit, but also in some specifics, for instance: The House Of The Spirits features a character called Rosa the Beautiful and One Hundred Years Of Solitude features a character called Remedios the Beauty; both characters barely utter a word during the novels but are worshipped for their supernatural beauty before dying young.

I mean, clearly there are worse books you could choose to emulate - my only critical comments would be that the way the authorial voice is managed is a bit confusing in places. There are bits that are narrated in the first person by Esteban Trueba and bits (the majority of the narrative) that are written in a third-person omniscient style by an unknown author, or at least unknown until right at the end when the author is revealed to have been Alba, basing much of the text on a series of notebooks handed down to her by her grandmother Clara. Until you know this, some of the transitions between authorial voices are a bit jarring, and the transition between the colourful family saga with occasional tragic bits for the first three-quarters of the book and the full-blown fascist torture nightmare at the end is a bit jarring as well, although of course this could very well have been intentional. The brief and bizarre episode with Jean de Satigny's nudey photo habits put me in mind of the similar episode in Picture Palace

Other books which could loosely be said to fall into the same genre among non-South American authors include Midnight's Children and most of John Irving's back catalogue. You'll recall that I was resolutely unimpressed with Midnight's Children but a big fan of most of Irving's work (The World According To Garp in particular), so you can see that it really depends in the individual merits of the individual work, and I can say without reservation (apart from the very minor ones above, anyway) that I thoroughly enjoyed The House Of The Spirits, which is another book that has probably been sitting on my shelves for the best part of 25 years. The only other thing I would say is: we've all had ex-girlfriends who were quiet, enigmatic, hard to fathom, and those would be the Climbers of the ex-girlfriend world; conversely we've all had ex-girlfriends who were theatrical, intense, and seemingly constantly teetering on the edge of near-hysteria. Spending a significant amount of time with The House Of The Spirits is a little bit like spending time with a girlfriend of the latter sort: exhilarating but exhausting and something you should probably verify that you're in the mood for before you start.

As you can see my copy is a tie-in edition to the 1993 film - if ever there was a book that deserved the epithet "unfilmable" I would have thought it was this one, but they had a go, bless 'em, with a stellar cast (most of them jarringly white) even if they probably had to drop 70-80% of the plot.

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