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Critical Review by Patricia Hart
SOURCE: A review of The Stories of Eva Luna, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 252, No. 9, March 11, 1991, pp. 314-16.
An American critic and educator, Hart is the author of Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende (1989). Below, she discusses Allende's narrative structures, characters, and use of magic realism in The Stories of Eva Luna.
Critics of Isabel Allende's first book, The House of the Spirits, seized on her blending of magic, hyperbole and realism to insist that it was a shallow ripoff of Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, without perceiving her vast fundamental differences from the Nobel laureate or that most of the superficial similarities to One Hundred Years of Solitude were ironic, even parodic. Such an evaluation reveals ignorance of the broad tradition of magic realism in Latin American fiction by assuming that García Márquez invented and patented the family saga or the mingling of the real, the hyperbolic and the impossible. It also ignores the monolithic machismo that the tradition supposes. For example, any student of Latin American literature knows that Alejo Carpentier's 1953 work The Lost Steps was a landmark mixture of the marvelous and the real, and reveres it as a hauntingly written masterpiece about a continent's search for cultural identity. But most readers in the 1990s also realize that its plot (in which the protagonist finds and loses a paradise defined by the fact that the women are unliberated short-order cooks, riverbank laundresses and sex slaves) is also a macho crock. We loved Mario Vargas Llosa's The Green House and laughed out loud at Pantaleón and the Visitors, but we knew at the same time that their frivolity had little to do with the real-life miseries of prostitution. We venerate García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch and One Hundred Years of Solitude, but before Love in the Time of Cholera we sometimes found his women incomprehensible monuments of masochism, inscrutably alien. What better ameliorative to all of this than to make room on the shelf alongside the masters of the Latin American "Boom" for the works of Isabel Allende—a writer in the business of bending tradition to fit herself.
In The Stories of Eva Luna, Allende's fourth work translated into English, lush, hyperbolic reality, a female sensibility and some none-too-subtle parodying of male stars of the Boom are again key elements. In it are twenty-three tales that the picaresque and eponymous heroine of Allende's previous work, Eva Luna, supposedly recounted to friends, lovers and companions—stories that were alluded to but not included in the novel. Eva's narrative voice is the unifying thread, and what she can have experienced or been told the limiting factor. Despite these restrictions, the range of stories is quite broad and demonstrates Allende's ability to move easily from one stratum of the social register to another. Like a rogue in the best tradition of the Spanish picaro, Eva has run the gamut of her society from top to bottom, and in these tales its three most powerful groups—the church, the army and the landed gentry—are represented, as are the poor and the alienated: sheepherders on the pampas, dispossessed Indians, Jewish immigrants, circus performers, prostitutes and housewives. Allende's flexible, fluid prose is rendered beautifully in English once again by Margaret Sayers Peden. For example, herds of sheep in the south are "clouds trapped against the ground"; a mudslide buries a town in "telluric vomit"; and a murderer's house stuffed with rotting fruit becomes "an enormous beast in process of putrefaction, tormented by the infinite diligence of the larvae and mosquitoes of decomposition."
But perhaps the stories are too short to allow Allende to do what she is best at—to fall in love with her characters, and show them to us in all their complexity. A major strength of her novels lies in their telling of one story from many different, often contradictory, points of view, and in their illumination of the common humanity of the disparate figures to whom she gives life. Thus, she finds a middle ground of understanding between people whose ideologies set them poles apart. Her characterization of Esteban Trueba in The House of the Spirits, far from being an apology for General Pinochet, as some have so wrongheadedly insisted, is rather a reminder that the way to military dictatorships is paved with ordinary-looking people. Allende's character reminds us that torturers often love their children and look not so much like horned monsters as like the man next door. With the exception of "A Discreet Miracle," in which classes and ideologies exist in delightfully presented tension, these Eva Luna tales are not developed enough to allow individually for Allende's traditional ambiguity. Nevertheless, separate stories alternate points of view and social position to achieve much the same effect collectively.
Parodic versions of Boom authors abound. In "Wicked Girl" for example, the prepubescent Elena Mejías attempts to seduce her stepfather, who repels her in disgust but later becomes obsessed with the incident and fantasizes about the child, even after she is sent away to boarding school. When he at last confronts the grown-up Elena, she has forgotten the incident. Where a cruelly perverted child destroyed the adults in Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother, here the terms are inverted (and much more realistic). The child may have fleeting sexual longings, but it is only in the adult that these can have hardened into perversion. The "magic" here is that Allende spares the child from lasting harm.
Later, in "Toad's Mouth," told in a style that cleverly mocks Vargas Llosa's Pantaleón, the energetic Hermelinda sells herself to sheepherders on the cold southern plains, inventing erotic games to alleviate boredom. In the one alluded to in the title, a man who succeeds in tossing a coin that lodges in Hermelinda's vagina from a distance of four paces earns two hours alone with her. With this crude playing off of the Cinderella myth, Allende is not out to prove that she can be as raunchy and insensitive as her male counterparts, but to expose fairy-tale brainwashing. The "perfect fit" that in Cinderella is coyly expressed as shoe size here is rendered literally. Moreover, in the fairy tale, the prince offers a palace, riches and station; Cinderelia her virtue and beauty. Here the equation is noted in vigorous shorthand—the woman offers sex and the man money.
In "Walimai," the reality of prostitution is even more clearly dealt with. Unlike García Márquez's Eréndira, who services infinite hordes of men and emerges unscathed and triumphant, this young Indian woman, tied by her ankle to satisfy endless rubber workers in the jungle, finds only degradation and death.
Ironic references, in fact, are the only real similarity to the Boom authors that I see in these stories. Juan Manuel Marcos has written that calling Allende an ape of García Márquez is like calling Cervantes a plagiarist of the chivalric tradition, and that Don Quixote is not a pale imitation of Amadis but his gravedigger. Otherwise, a host of different and more appropriate comparisons suggest themselves. Like the James Joyce of Dubliners, Allende builds each of these stories to a moment of epiphany; like the Edith Wharton of Roman Fever, she poises her characters on the brink of a moment of social change, so that they often seem to be struggling with one foot in the nineteenth century and one in the twentieth. Like Jorge Amado, Allende can spin a funny, sensual yarn, but like Clarice Lispector or Luisa Valenzuela, she can use her narrative skills to remind us that parallel to our placid and comfortable existence is another, invisible universe, one where poverty, misery and torture are all too real.
This section contains 1,274 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)