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Critical Review by Gabriella De Ferrari
SOURCE: "Letters to a Dying Daughter," in Book World—The Washington Post, April 30, 1995, p. 10.
De Ferrari is a Peruvian-born art curator and novelist. In the following review of Paula, she discusses Allende's portrayal of her life and family.
Isabel Allende's new book, Paula, is more than a memoir. It is a tender, moving and vivid record of a mother's agony at the bedside of her daughter—a 27-year-old who succumbed to a hereditary disease called porphyria and, because of a doctor's misdiagnosis, lay in a coma for a year before dying. The book moves through dark territories from desperation to a heartbreaking ace: an acceptance of that most searing of losses, the premature death of a child.
An Excerpt from the Stories of Eva Luna
María was born to be a great lady; this was what the other women deduced from her aristocratic manner of speaking and her unique behavior, and, if any doubt remained, it was dissipated at her death. She died with her dignity intact. She suffered no recognizable illness; she was not frightened, nor did she breathe through her ears as ordinary people do when they are dying; she merely announced that she could no longer bear the tedium of living, put on her best dress, painted her lips bright red, and opened the plastic curtains that gave access to her room, so that everyone could be with her.
"My time has come to die" was her only comment.
She lay back in her bed, supported by three pillows whose cases had been starched for the occasion, and drank the contents of a large jug of thick chocolate at one swallow. The other women laughed at her, but when four hours later they were unable to wake her they realized that her decision was categorical and they ran to spread the word through the barrio. Some people came only out of curiosity, but most were truly distressed and stayed to be near her. Her friends brewed coffee to offer the visitors, because it seemed in bad taste to serve liquor; they did not want the wake to be confused with a celebration. About six in the evening, Maria shuddered, opened her eyes, looked around without seeing the faces; and immediately gave up the ghost. That was all.
Isabel Allende, in The Stories of Eva Luna, Atheneum, 1991.
Like Allende's brilliant novel The House of the Spirits, which uses a farewell letter to the protagonist's dying grandfather as its point of departure, Paula begins as a long letter—this one to Allende's unconscious daughter as a way of giving her back the life that is ebbing away. "Since you fell ill, I have had no strength for anything but you, Paula …," Allende writes. "I think that perhaps if I give form to this devastation I shall be able to help you, and myself, and that the meticulous exercise of writing can be our salvation…. I am writing you, Paula, to bring you back to life."
The letter is meant to give form and shape to an unfathomable experience and to transform its bitter reality into an instrument of healing. Ultimately, Allende tells us, her daughter's illness leads her to discover her own "interior spaces … that have never been explored before." The result is a mesmerizing story. But though Paula's illness sparked the writing of this book, Paula tells us little about Allende's daughter beyond the parameters of her brief life. The book is really about Allende and her family.
Allende tells us how she did not begin to write fiction until 1981, when she was 40. By then she had tried several avenues that had left her unsatisfied and unfocused. Born in Peru, the daughter of a minor Chilean diplomat who abandoned his family when Allende was very young, she returned to Chile with her mother and brother to the home of her maternal grandparents. In that large, drafty house, Allende grew up in a large, extended family headed by her grandfather and presumed clairvoyant grandmother. Here ghosts and creatures of the imagination became as important as bachelor uncles, a romantic stepfather and an unkempt menagerie of animals.
Allende's imagination was kindled early on in life, and when she describes her unusual childhood it is often difficult to separate the imaginary from the real. The ghosts and spirits of her past remained with her throughout her life, becoming sources of strength in the final acceptance of her daughter's death. So it is that as Paula dies, Allende is accompanied not only by her family but also by the comforting presence of a variety of dead relatives.
Paula is filled with fascinating material that brings to light the sources of Allende's writing. A niece of Salvador Allende, she was a close witness to this enigmatic man's life and tragic end. President Allende's fall from power made it impossible for Isabel Allende and her family to remain in Chile. The account of her last hours in Santiago is moving, as are the descriptions of life in Pinochet's tormented Chile. Transplanted to Venezuela, with a husband she no longer loved, two children, no job, approaching the middle of her life, Allende was forced to assess her existence.
In Chile she had worked as a tabloid journalist and as a minor television personality. Now, in exile, she was forced to acknowledge that her life had been mediocre and unsatisfying. Then, too, it became apparent that her marriage, to a rather phlegmatic Anglo-Chilean, was over. Gradually, Allende learned that, while she had been outwardly stifled by Chilean censorship, the real censorship had been self-imposed. In realizing this, she became fiercely feminist and had a love affair that almost broke her ties to her children and left her with even more loneliness and self-doubt.
Her writing brought her to California on a book tour, where she met Willie, the man who changed her life. She now lives on the northern California coast with him and an odd assortment of people she refers to as her "Latin tribe"—an attempt to recreate a Chilean home. In this place with a man "who walks with long strides, laughs explosively … but with a boundless reserve of gentleness … who has survived great misfortune without being tainted with cynicism," her writing flourishes.
It took the success of three novels for Allende to admit to herself that she was a writer. For her, writing has become a tool for survival, an accord between the real and the imagined life. We learn of people who give her the gift of their story, from her clairvoyant grandmother, who dictated to the author as she wrote The House of the Spirits, to the victims of the atrocities during the Pinochet years, who pursued her with their stories until she was forced to write them. Writing, Allende tells us, is a ritual to which she summons spirits: "I do not choose the subject, the subject chooses me."
With Paula she does even more. In flawlessly rich prose she shares with us her most intimate feelings as she learns to accept that her daughter will never be rescued and that the only thing that Allende can do is give comfort to an inert and unresponsive human being. Magnificently translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, this is an emotionally charged, spellbinding memoir.
This section contains 1,208 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)