Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Mira Schwirtz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 824 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mira Schwirtz

Critical Review by Mira Schwirtz

SOURCE: "Paula Remembered," in San Francisco Review of Books, May-June, 1995, p. 10.

In the following review of Paula, Schwirtz states that Allende's depiction of her personal pain is intense and excruciating.

In Chilean author Isabel Allende's life, two tragic twists of fate marked sharply divergent trajectories along which her life unfolded. Their imprint indelibly stamps all of her writing. One was the 1973 Chilean military coup that established Auguste Pinochet's totalitarian government and led to the Allende family's exile to Venezuela. The other was her daughter Paula's grave illness in 1991 that placed the young woman in a coma from which she never recovered.

The violent end of her uncle Salvador Allende's socialist administration and the subsequent years of torture, imprisonment, and death of many innocent Chilean citizens is chronicled in many of Allende's books. It also plays a major role in this new book of nonfiction [Paula], but here it figures as a disturbing blot in a memoir spanning Allende's fifty years. Far more terrifying is the end that hovers on the story's outer perimeter, the lid inexorably closing on author and reader as Paula's prognosis become less and less hopeful.

As Allende's life rolls forward to meet the present, Paula languishes first in a hospital bed in Madrid, then a clinic in California after an exhausting, 20-hour flight home hooked up to life-support, and finally, in the author's Bay Area home. Allende carefully describes her own and her family's anguish as they keep their hopes alive and endure a bitter struggle to remain patient, not despair, and come to terms with their tragedy. Some of her family look to their faith; Allende sustains herself with the love of family and friends, her own soul's wellspring of hope, an iron will, and a belief in spiritual communication.

To take refuge from this unthinkable loss, Allende delves into her history, taking us on a memorable journey through her childhood in Chile, her marriage, exile, divorce, move to California, and second marriage. Anecdotes and character sketches about her parents and grandparents, her in-laws, lovers, friends, and co-workers are woven within the narrative at every turn. There is Allende's stern and dignified grandfather, a regal patriarch who cares for his daughter's family after Isabel's father disappears; her beautiful, long-suffering mother who tells her three children stories each night; Allende's son-in-law, Ernesto, whose devotion to his wife and determination during her coma create some of the most wrenching scenes in the book.

Salvador Allende appears here, too, although the author was never in close contact with her uncle. She recalls family picnics with the entire Allende clan and the socialist candidate racing down a grassy slope with all the children. Allende's spare writing evokes the richest details, from a breathtaking description of the Chilean landscape to the adolescent turmoil of a first love.

These, and a hundred other absorbing scenes, are a gratefully received, temporary respite from the reality on the other side of their shimmering images. The felling of suspension as we wait for Allende to draw out of her memories and again raise the curtain on her personal pain adds a color and an intensity to the book that is almost excruciating. Yet she controls the narrative skillfully—never hastening the pace—examining and telling her story with a straightforward, unreserved interest.

As in all her books, the boundary between reality and the world of the dead is porous. The spirits of her grandmother and of her daughter, imprisoned within her comatose body, appear to Allende in her dreams, offering her direction, hope, and toward the end, entreaties that she let her daughter go. It is through this personal mysticism that Allende attempts to transcend her loss, and, ultimately, proves to be her salvation.

As I dissolved, I had the revelation that the void was filled with everything the universe holds. Nothing and everything, at once. Sacramental light and unfathomable darkness. I am the void, I am everything that exists, I am in every leaf of the forest, in every drop of the dew, in every particle of ash carried by the stream, I am Paula and I am also Isabel, I am nothing and all other things in this life and other lives, immortal.

Allende likens her visions to the muse, made of the same ethereal stuff, that inspires her work. She confides that it is her attenuation to supernatural energy that allows her "to receive the first sentence in a trance, so the door may open slightly and allow me to peer through and perceive the hazy outlines of the story waiting for me." When in possession of her, it forces her to write without stopping. Although Allende says early on in the book she thought she would never write again after Paula fell ill, it is both admirable and wonderful that her indomitable spirit never failed her in documenting a long and arduous experience with death, a journey that, even in its terrible adversity produced something fundamentally eternal.

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This section contains 824 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mira Schwirtz
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