Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Ruth Behar

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 1,814 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ruth Behar

Critical Review by Ruth Behar

SOURCE: "In the House of the Spirits," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 2, November, 1995, p. 8.

Below, Behar praises Paula as "immensely life-affirming."

"Listen, Paula, I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost." With those simple, enchanted words, the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende begins Paula, a memoir of devastating passion dedicated to her daughter. Sadly, unlike Sleeping Beauty, Paula Frias Allende will never awaken to hear her mother's tale. She has fallen, at the age of 28, into a sudden coma caused by the rare illness of porphyria, which has left her speechless, motionless, lost in an angelic stupor that is broken only rarely by tears and trembling. As her mother unfolds her tale, patiently seeking to awaken Paula and bring her back to the world of the living, Paula edges closer to death. By the end, she becomes a gentle spirit who appears to her mother in the night, asking to be released from the suffering and weight of her body. Allende must finally confront a harsh truth: not only that her tale won't save her daughter, but that she must cease her storytelling altogether, for it is keeping Paula strapped to a reality she no longer inhabits.

Paula, despite the title, is not a biography or even an account of the life of Isabel Allende's daughter. It is Allende's own autobiography, told to a daughter who has entered a limbo between life and death. Paula's entrance into that border zone becomes the occasion for Isabel Allende to tell her own life story. The dying daughter becomes a mirror in which the mother reaffirms her reality and comes to terms with the decisions she has made as a woman and a writer. In the cruelest possible twisting of the order of things, Paula must die before her mother, must become a daughter who gives birth to her mother. This unflinchingly honest self-portrait becomes Allende's parting gift to her daughter.

How inspiring it is for any woman who feels she has yet to do the work that really matters to read Isabel Allende's story of how she found her calling as a novelist. Allende recalls, "New Year's, 1981. That day brought home the fact that soon I would be forty and had not until then done anything truly significant. Forty! that was the beginning of the end, and I did not have to stretch too much to imagine myself sitting in a rocking chair knitting socks." Unable to imagine what she might do that would seem significant in her own eyes, she makes a number of sensible New Year's resolutions. She resolves to stay indefinitely in Venezuela, where she'd gone into exile with her husband, her two children, her mother and her stepfather in 1975 after General Pinochet toppled the democratic government of her uncle, Salvador Allende, and instituted a regime of repression, torture and terror. She resolves to continue working steadily at a school in Caracas for children with emotional problems, which will provide security and stability. And she resolves to "sacrifice love" for the "noble companionship" of a good husband, for whom she no longer feels any passion.

"The plan was entirely rational—and it lasted not quite a week," Allende tells us. On January 8, in a phone call from Santiago de Chile, she learns that Tata, her beloved grandfather, soon to turn one hundred years old, is dying. She begins to write a letter "to tell him he could go in peace because I would never forget him and planned to bequeath his memory to my children and my children's children." That letter, like a wild weed, quickly and unexpectedly grows into the five hundred pages of her novel, The House of the Spirits, and it is Paula who, in another strange gesture of premonition, tosses the coin that helps Allende choose the title of the book that will completely change her life.

Not long after, Allende writes a second novel, Of Love and Shadows, to prove to her literary agent in Spain that she is a serious writer and not just the accidental lucky author of a bestseller. All her sensible plans for a quiet and predictable life joyfully unravel. She quits her job at the school, gracefully undoes her marriage in a single afternoon and lets passion sweep over her in California, where she meets Willie, a cowboy-booted lawyer who'd given up on women, and overnight convinces herself and him that they have found in each other the passion of a lifetime. Sound romantic? Well, it is, and Allende, a magical writer, makes you believe that "happily ever after" is still possible, and in the very prime of a woman's life.

Now, Allende desperately wishes she could trade her life for her daughter's life. She is a privileged woman, in that she can afford to be present constantly at Paula's bedside and can hire others to help with all the complicated details of her daughter's daily care. But like Job she struggles with God, asking why her daughter had to be anointed early, so early, as a spirit? For a writer whose first best-selling novel was entitled The House of the Spirits, it is ironic to see that fictional house of spirits transformed into her real-life daughter's home.

Indeed, the premonitions of her fiction haunt Allende throughout the writing of Paula. Especially eerie to her is the foresight embedded in her short story, "And of Clay Are We Created," which was inspired by the 1985 avalanche in Colombia that buried a village in mud. Among those trapped was Omaira Sánchez, a thirteen-year-old girl who became the focus of attention of news-hungry photographers, journalists and television cameras that fixed their curious and helpless eyes on the girl who kept her faith in life as she bravely met her death. In that horrid audience of onlookers, there was one man, a reporter, who made the decision to stop observing Omaira from the lens of his camera and lay down in the mud to offer her what comfort he could as her heart and lungs collapsed. Allende, who was obsessed by "the torment of that poor child buried alive," wrote her story from the perspective of a woman—and she was that woman—"who watches the televised struggle of the man holding the girl."

Allende assumed that once the story was published (in The Stories of Eva Luna), Omaira would disappear from her life. But Omaira, she discovers, is

a dogged angel who will not let me forget her. When Paula fell into a coma and became a prisoner in her bed, inert, dying slowly before the helpless gaze of all around her, I remembered the face of Omaira Sánchez. My daughter was trapped in her body, as the girl had been trapped in mud. Only then did I understand why I had thought about her all those years, and finally could decipher the message in those intense black eyes: patience, courage, resignation, dignity in the face of death.

She reaches a paradoxical conclusion: "If I write something, I fear it will happen, and if I love too much, I fear I will lose that person; nevertheless, I cannot stop writing or loving…."

Like the reporter who joins the girl in the mud, Allende, too, relinquishes the detached observer position. For her, this means exiling herself from the territory of fiction, which in the past has allowed her to invent the destinies of her characters and so removed reality to a safe and controllable distance. Until her daughter fell ill, she remarks, she much preferred to write fiction. But with Paula's descent into death, Allende comes to feel she can only write about the world that lies insistently before her, as if

a dark curtain has separated me from the fantasy world in which I used to move so freely; reality has become intractable…. Everything is suspended, I have nothing to tell, the present has the brutal certainty of tragedy. I close my eyes and before me rises the painful image of my daughter in her wheelchair, her eyes staring toward the sea, her gaze focused beyond the horizon where death begins.

The pages of the memoir that Allende writes at her daughter's bedside in a Madrid hospital and later in her home in California are

an irreversible voyage through a long tunnel; I can't see an exit but I know there must be one. I can't go back, only continue to go forward, step by step, to the end. As I write, I look for a sign, hoping that Paula will break her implacable silence and answer somehow in these yellow pages …

Paula is a heartbreaking lament, written with the charged poetry that emerges at those times when there is an urgent need to speak, though one knows that words, no matter how ravishingly spoken, will change nothing. Isabel Allende couldn't save her daughter by writing Paula, nor even by enlisting every kind of therapy and remedy, from the most advanced biomedical techniques to acupuncture and astrology. And yet it is a tribute to Allende's skill as a writer and the depth of her soul-searching that Paula, written on the eve of death, is immensely life-affirming. This is one of those unusual books about suffering that has no use for pity, that manages, somehow, in a situation of utter depletion, to give much more to the reader than would have seemed possible. One reads Paula with gratitude for the way it poignantly marks the loss of a daughter while restoring faith in the power of language to free those of us women who are still in this world and still caught in the labyrinths of our own lives. And Margaret Sayers Peden's translation into English is so exquisite that the unpretentious lyricism of Allende's Spanish seems to glow on the page.

In the face of her daughter's dying, Allende may have felt unable to write fiction, but like Eva Luna, the protagonist of her third book, she has clearly set out to live her life "like a novel." Or at least, to her daughter, Paula, to try to awaken her, she tells her life as if it were a novel. In that novel of her life, Isabel Allende emerges as a woman who isn't afraid of her own desire, or her own happiness. She is able to admit, at one of the worst moments of her grief, "I have lived nearly half a century, my daughter is dying, and still I want to make love. I think of Willie's reassuring presence and feel goosebumps rise on my skin, and can only smile at the amazing power of desire that makes me shiver despite my sorrow, even push death from my mind." Embracing life and love with all her might, Allende honors the memory of Paula and lets her go, gently, back out into the universe.

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This section contains 1,814 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ruth Behar
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