Isabel Allende | Critical Review by John Butt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 1,051 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Butt

SOURCE: "After Pinochet," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4826, September 29, 1995, p. 28.

In the following review of Paula, Butt contends that Allende's "defenceless optimism" and "effusive generosity" are effective in her memoirs but not necessarily in her fiction.

Paula is a confessional autobiography written to relieve anguish during the many hours Isabel Allende spent in hospital waiting-rooms while her daughter (Paula) lay in a coma caused by porphyria. Hispanic writers are usually furtive about private matters, but life in California has converted Allende to the North American passion for letting it all hang out. This sometimes embarrassingly frank book reveals much about the author and the motifs and inspiration of her novels.

Allende's gift for story-telling carries Paula, although apart from the trauma of 1973 (Pinochet's coup) and Paula's tragedy, she has no obvious right to complain that "with a brutal expenditure of energy I have been rowing upstream all my life". Until the odious Pinochet seized power, her existence was, if not charmed, at least interesting and comfortable. It would also have been irreproachably bourgeois, had her father not decamped and her mother taken a lover. This caused much clucking in the salons of Santiago, but "Uncle Ramon" had a successful diplomatic career and became Chilean ambassador to Argentina. Young Isabel was smothered with love. She worshipped her maternal grandparents and her mother, all, like her, great tellers of fantastic tales; she also loved her paternal grandparents, despite their right-wing views. In fact, she seems to have adored and been adored by everyone; if there were exceptions, she does not dwell on them. She was educated in (presumably) expensive foreign schools and lived in Bolivia and Lebanon as the pretty daughter of a well-to-do, lively and cosmopolitan family. There are occasional hints about money worries, but it almost seems that these may have been included for form's sake.

Sex is as prominent in these memoirs as it is in Allende's novels: many things, from relationships to landscapes, are measured against it—a Chilean forest stirs in her "a feeling more intense than any orgasm". But apart from an encounter with a local fisherman when she was eight—he was mysteriously murdered before any damage was done, to her disappointment apparently—she remained an innocent until her marriage to a bien-pensant Anglo-Chilean at the age of nineteen or twenty. She thought the lump in her fiancé's trousers was his motor-cycle keys and was convinced that honeymoon cystitis was syphilis, which is puzzling in view of her claim in March 1989 on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week that she "was never a virgin". The marriage lasted for twenty-five years, sixteen of them blissful, and it produced two fine children. She wrote a regular newspaper column of gossip, fashion tips and horoscopes, became well known in Chile as the writer and presenter of a popular television programme, and translated Mills and Boonish novels. She thus began the fateful year of 1973, as a thirty-one-year-old, with no political ideas beyond a few mild notions about the unfairness of men's treatment of women and a slight hippiness (she painted flowers on her car). She was happy to serve her husband breakfast in bed every day and keep house while he was at his business or the golf course: "we loved each other and were good companions."

And so she might have continued but for General Pinochet. She actually got off remarkably lightly. Despite her clandestine work for victims of his coup, and despite her surname and family ties with her uncle Salvador Allende, about whom the book is uninformative ("Who was he? I don't really know"), she was never arrested, imprisoned, tortured or raped, her family was not harmed and she could afford black-market food. Given her notions about human niceness, she was totally baffled by the appearance of informers and torturers and by the brutality of soldiers "who themselves came from the lower social classes…. For me it was a total surprise to discover that the world is violent and predatory." After receiving a death-threat, she left for Venezuela, where her troubles really began.

The upheaval of exile seems to have sparked a deep need in Allende for romance and sex. Tiring of her saintly husband, she had several affairs and fell in love with a dashing Argentinian. He had the wrong star-sign, so she returned to her (irritatingly) forgiving husband and stayed another nine years. During this time, she temporarily revived his business fortunes with Amerindian magical spells. The money from her first novels enabled her to leave him finally when he was again down on his luck; she does not defend her actions. After several more love affairs, a one-night stand with a twice-divorced and heavily tattooed Californian improbably blossomed into her current blissfully happy marriage. But for a skull on one arm, Allende's husband has had all the tattoos removed, which, apparently, supports her theory about the power of love.

Paula never recovered from her illness. She died in California in late 1992, after months of coma, a harrowing ordeal described here in unforgettable detail.

The personal qualities which make Paula a moving and attractive book—defenceless optimism ("I never, ever imagined that the blow would fall on one of my children"), effusive generosity, an enormous, even disruptive, capacity for love, a rage for fairness, a winsome credulousness and beguiling if wearying self-absorption—are not always effective qualities in Allende's novels. At worst, her fiction is sentimental and escapist. There are too many shadowy ghosts lurking in the wings; too much significant dreaming, fated encountering, horoscopy and clairvoyancy. Love scores too many easy goals; too many sighing heroines find meaning in the arms of left-wing hunks, too many scoundrels have hearts of gold.

But the formula obviously works for millions of readers, and this book suggests that the secret may be the likeable, unaffected, kindly, slightly dotty personality which glows through in Allende's novels. And, her books are, in fact, a real force for good. She, more than anyone else, has brought the attention of readers throughout the world to the evil of right-wing Latin-American dictatorships, particularly the sadism and mediocrity of Pinochet's restoration of "Christian civilization". Faith in the redemptive power of romance, as portrayed in her novels, may not be fashionable or sophisticated, but it is hardly the worst intellectual sin a person can commit.

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This section contains 1,051 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Butt
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