Isabel Allende | Doris Grumbach

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 1,104 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Doris Grumbach

SOURCE: "Farewell My Daughter," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 30, 1995, pp. 3, 8.

Grumbach is an American educator, biographer, memoirist, and critic who has written such works as Coming into the Endzone: A Memoir (1991). In the following review of Paula, she praises Allende's storytelling abilities.

Many people believe that fiction arises out of somewhat well-disguised autobiography. Such readers search authors' life stories for clues to their seemingly imaginative fiction, certain that, if only they knew enough of the authors' real lives they could account for every detail that appears on the pages of novels. Isabel Allende's beautiful and heart-rending memoir [Paula] supplies ample evidence for those of that conviction. Admirers of her fiction, and scholars-to-come of her oeuvre, may use this new book to explain the origin of the characters in her work: The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna and The Infinite Plan. It will serve as fictional source material, while at the same time bringing her life up to date, stemming from the dying and death of her beloved young married daughter, Paula.

Seated day after day at her daughter's bedside, Allende uses the unresponsive and empty time to review her life. She tells Paula about her own parents and colorful grandparents, her childhood and youth in Santiago, Chile, her loves and marriages. She re-creates in graphic prose the violent coup of the generals against the presidency of her uncle, Salvador Allende, which exiled her and then her family to a long residence in Venezuela and, with the blossoming of her career as a writer, her final settlement in California.

The occasion for all this outpouring of memories which form themselves into good stories is 1992, the year of Paula's terrible affliction. She had married Ernesto, a Spaniard and lived in Madrid. Suddenly she is stricken with the rare disease, porphyria, the same illness that caused George III of England's recurrent madness and eventual death. Paula's case is especially severe; she lies in a coma in a Madrid hospital, unable to hear her mother's impassioned tales of her life and loves.

We are fortunate to be able to listen, enthralled. However, I am forced to admit that, more than once, it occurred to me that this frame (Paula's long, silent sickness) for these wonderfully described reminiscences might be merely a literary device, like the 14th-Century plague that provided Boccaccio with his opportunity to tell the 100 witty tales of the Decameron, and of course the Canterbury pilgrimage that served in the same way for Chaucer's travelers. Allende is a born storyteller; it may be that her stories are more the result of perfectly formed literary art than the usual rather haphazard oral narration that would ordinarily be the product of bed-side talk. But still, she writes convincingly:

Through forty-nine years of a life of action and struggle, I have run after goals I can no longer recall, pursuing something nameless that was always a little farther on. Now I am forced to inaction and silence; no matter how much I run I get nowhere, and if I scream no one hears. You, Paula, have given me this silence in which to examine my path through the world, to return to the true and the fantastic pasts … to remember what never happened and what still may happen.

This passage reminds us of what we know from Allende's fiction, that she is a firm believer in the nether world of spirits. To her, her beloved dead are still all around her. She feels the magic of their presence in her daily life and cherishes the ability of some gifted persons to predict her future as well as to bring spirits closer to her.

No matter. Whatever their origins, there are lovely set pieces here: the fine, long description of the child Isabel's idyllic visits to a watering place, La Playa Grande; the coming to her house and family (after her father's disappearance) of Tio Ramon, her mother's lover and later Isabel's stepfather. A marvelous character as we come to know him in these pages, he inspires her to make a distinction between real life and fiction:

Novels are made of the demented and the villainous, of people tortured by obsessions, of victims of the implacable mills of destiny. From the narrative point of view, an intelligent, good man like Tio Ramon is useless; on the other hand, as a grandfather he's perfect.

There are some fine sketches about her mother's life, although clearly not about all of it. She is freer to talk about her brothers, Juan and Pacho; they come alive in her memories of them, as do the three years of the three children's lives in Lebanon when Tio Ramon is appointed Chilean consul to that country. And there are graphic details of Isabel's long but somehow cool first marriage to Michael, Paula's father.

At 17 Isabel avoided the university and went to work for a branch of the U.N. and, in the years before the coup, became a TV star, a newspaper columnist, a well-recognized personage in a country and a culture not known for independent women. During those years she developed into a committed feminist and democrat, convictions she carried into her lives in exile and her marriage to Willie, her current husband, in the United States.

Most impressive is her account of the conditions that existed during the first three years of Salvador Allende's Popular Unity party, when Chile's natural resources were nationalized and great land reforms were brought about, all of them to be reversed after the military coup in 1973. We catch fleeting glimpses of the aging poet Pablo Neruda and are given a poignant picture of what it means to be exiled from a country one loves. It is during these scenes that we lose sight of the author posing as informant to the comatose Paula, and see her in her role as skilled novelist and accomplished memoirist.

But do not misunderstand: The sad frame for these stories, the long bedside spells in the hospital in Madrid, and then in California when Isabel brings the dying Paula to her house in California, and the day of her death when Isabel accepts her daughter's presence as a spirit while bidding farewell to her body, are in themselves important to [Paula]. They are poignant elegies to a great maternal love.

But finally, Isabel is able to abandon what some called her obsession with keeping Paula alive. She writes: "Perhaps we are in this world to search for love, find it, and lose it." Memoir, autobiography, epicedium, perhaps even some fiction: they are all here, and they are all quite wonderful.

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This section contains 1,104 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Doris Grumbach
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