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Critical Review by Suzanne Ruta
SOURCE: "Lovers and Storytellers," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 9, June, 1991, p. 10.
Ruta is an American fiction writer and critic. In the following review of The Stories of Eva Luna, she describes Allende's stories as "mini-epics, mini-tragedies or even mini-sagas."
In her first novel, The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende threw a veil of sweetness and light over a bitter period in Chilean history: her uncle Salvador Allende's coming to power, the destabilization and 1973 coup and its bloody aftermath. Her fidelity to the magic realist formula that Alejo Carpentier invented and Gabriel Garcia Marquez popularized and then discarded, worked because history provided ample ballast and counterweight to her flights of fancy. There was something a bit precious about the story of grandmother Clara, mother Blanca, daughter Alba, all three names meaning bright, white, light (and Alba had green hair besides!), but it took courage to turn the ugly reality of 1973 and after into a kind of fairy tale. I read it and wept.
I've been less enthusiastic about her recent work, the novel Eva Luna and now The Stories of Eva Luna, set in Venezuela, where Allende sought asylum in 1973. It's not the change of venue that disturbs me. Venezuela is a great subject. It's Allende's glib, sentimental treatment of it, and her cutesy allusions to other writers' inventions, that I dislike. Eva Luna is a magical realist Horatio Alger story about a girl from the back-country with a half-Dutch mother and an Indian father, who lifts herself out of poverty and ignorance to become a great storyteller. She finds the love of her life in an Austrian photojournalist who bears terrible hidden wounds from his childhood in the Nazi years. The Stories of Eva Luna is a collection of tales the fictional Eva tells her lover, trying to help him break free of the cool, distant persona he's made for himself and get in touch with his feelings again. Thus, although it's a string of not always connected stories, the framework—a troubled man and his helpful lover—gives it the density of a novel.
Both Eva Luna and Stories are Allende's tribute to the country that gave her asylum. The very name Eva Luna is nearly an anagram of Venezuela. Allende celebrates the country's exuberant vegetation, the layers of history (Stone Age tribes and satellite dishes) that coexist in it; the mix of races and peoples (Native American, Hispanic, Arab, Jewish, northern and southern European) that intermarry here; and the social upheavals (revolution, oil boom, oil bust) that make it, rather like the US, a land of violence and opportunity.
"I like this country," an immigrant says in Eva Luna. "Rich and poor, black and white, a single class, a single people. Everyone thinks he's king of the mountain, free of social ranks and rules—no one better than anyone else either by birth or money." "Don't be deceived by appearances," a native-born friend says. "This country has as many layers as phyllo dough." But Eva concludes, "Even allowing for a history of colonization, political bosses and tyrants, it was the promised land."
In this land of violent opportunities, love is the great crap shooter, rolling out the dice in new and unheard-of combinations. Love stirs the melting pot, hastening a democratic, multicultural fusion. Age, class, race, none of it counts. What my activist feminist nineteen-year-old daughter calls the p.c. pussy posse—feminist puritan critics—was shocked at the number of May-December matches in these stories. Is Allende buying into patriarchy? It's true she portrays a young woman from Vienna who falls for a local tyrant 40 years her senior, and a girl of eleven who conceives a passion for a man in his thirties. But there's also a vulgar showbiz tycoon who goes ape for a blasé society matron; a bandit in love with the wife of a hanging judge; a peasant girl who seduces a presidential candidate. Like the rain forest, the country inspires all kinds of genetic/erotic experiments.
Unfortunately, only a few of the stories in this collection do justice to the rich material. The rest seem to be more form than substance, as if Allende had taken her Scheherezade disguise too seriously. Other moderns, of course, from Proust to Rushdie, have acknowledged a heavy debt to the Thousand and One Nights, but only Allende, in the epigraph to Eva Luna and a postscript to Stories, actually identifies herself with the legendary figure.
Now, I share her longing for a revival of the storyteller's art. Realism moves on feet of lead. It came into literature at the same time as commodity fetishism, with the industrial revolution. Storytelling, on the other hand, as Walter Benjamin explains in his lovely essay on Leskov, is rooted in artisanal cultures. Time has not yet been materialized, thickened, slowed to a tussle with a world full of manufactured objects. Years pass in a sentence; a lifetime in a paragraph; generations in a few pages.
Allende's stories are often mini-epics, mini-tragedies or even mini-sagas. She doesn't show us life in camera close-up. What she gives us is more like the open narrative space of early Renaissance painting or the eighteenth-century baroque primitives who transferred the Bible to the walls of Latin American churches. No one is ever alone in the panel or on the page. Nearly every story has a large cast of characters, and each character has her or his well-defined role in relation to the others. The only trouble is that when Allende adopts this format, it's like fake folk art. Coming from a sophisticated late-twentieth-century author, it can seem mannered, coy and sentimental.
Take "Clarisa," for example, the story of a devout Catholic; born "before the city had electricity, she lived to see the television coverage of the first astronaut levitating on the moon." With the feminine resilience and down-to-earth good sense Allende gives nearly all her heroines, Clarisa is able to make an anticlerical left-wing politician collaborate with the Jesuits for the good of the community. She's so clever she even manages to have two healthy children by the left-wing politico without losing a bit of her reputation as a Catholic saint.
The same right-left conflict is the subject of "A Discreet Miracle," where a sensible woman manages to persuade her brother, a left-wing priest, to pray to a right-wing saint in order to save his eyesight. In both stories the happy ending is a testimony to women's superior flexibility and survival skills.
But in both stories the conflict is set at such a slack level that the victory seems trivial or faked. Clarisa does finally encounter something she can't assimilate into her elastic scheme: waiting for the Pope to appear in Caracas, she sees a pair of homosexuals dressed as nuns. She goes home, takes to her bed and dies of astonishment. An easy, peaceful death. You can read this as a metaphor for the end of an era, but even at that it doesn't amount to much. Compare this story with Cuban Reinaldo Arenas' tragic and passionate "Old Rosa," about a countrywoman who loses her farm to Castro and then goes berserk when she discovers her son in the arms of his gay lover, and it's hard not to conclude that what Allende has written is a fairy tale for feminists.
The heroines of these stories are almost never sad, weary, defeated. They go from strength to strength; their skins are made of teflon. Nothing sticks. Allende wants to give her women readers role models and success stories of their own. But it doesn't work, because too often she leaves the toads out of her imaginary gardens. I had the same complaint with the last chapters of The Color Purple. Allende has a story with the very same plot: a really nasty tightwad and wifebeater gets his come-uppance when his latest mistress shows up pregnant at his house and joins forces against him with his wife. At least in this tale, "The Gold of Tomaso Vargas," the beaten wife is angry and tough and her gradual softening gives the reader something to grapple with. But then there are the too-good-to-be-true tales of a simple-minded girl who loves the same man for 47 years even though he has her locked for most of that time in a moldy cellar. After he's been found out and sent to jail, she shows up every day at the gate with his lunch. Love conquers all? And then there's the simple-minded prostitute who commits suicide with a jug of warm cocoa when her working life is over. And the clever prostitute with a heart of gold who likes to squat and let her customers toss coins into her crotch. Doesn't her back ever get tired?
"She was in the business of solace out of pure and simple vocation; she liked almost all men in general, and many in particular. She reigned among them like a queen bee." This description of the happy hooker (and there are several similar passages in other stories) could apply to Eva Luna, to Scheherezade or to Allende herself; they're all in the entertainment business and proud of their talent. I sense in the weakest stories in this collection the kind of narcissistic confusion Simone de Beauvoir diagnosed in The Second Sex as something women writers are prone to. "She reveals in her writings," Beauvoir says of a certain type of woman, "not her genuine experience, but an imaginary idol built up with clichés…. The trouble is that she too often sees her history as a silly fairy tale. With the aid of her imaginings the young girl hides from herself the reality that frightens her with its crudity, but it is deplorable that when grown to woman she still immerses the world, her characters and herself in poetic mists."
Allende does not fall into this trap all the time, by any means. There are several powerful stories in this collection. "Tosca," for example, deals with just the kind of fantasy-be-sotted woman de Beauvoir mentions. Maurizia Ruggieri is a Venezuelan Emma Bovary, raised not on novels but on opera. She leaves an adoring but practical husband and child to follow a young medical student who shares her love of music. In the oil-fields she goes through all kinds of hardships with him, pretending he's the operatic hero she knows he never was. And then he dies, and in the outpost where she lives alone at 50, her husband and grown son arrive, to build the highway through the town. She's about to approach them in a cafe when "the young man leaned forward, grasped his father's wrist, and said something with a sympathetic wink. Both burst out laughing, clapped each other on the shoulder, and ruffled each other's hair with a virile tenderness and staunch complicity that excluded Maurizia Ruggieri and the rest of the world." She turns around and goes home alone. The moment is powerful—this is precisely the charm of a well-told story—because so much is left unexplained. Allende has found a plot that sums up what is destroyed or left behind in a country on the make. (And she has a great expression for oil welling up from the earth: dragon vomit.)
There's another fine story told, unlike the others, in slow-motion close-up, about two Chilean exiles who meet by chance in a European city. This young man and woman go home together and try to make love. But intimacy brings to the surface the young man's memories of torture. The young woman holds him while he sobs. Later he notices the scars on her wrists, identical to his, and realizes they can meet on common ground. Allende takes it for granted that the woman is the stronger and more composed, and has to rescue the man. He notices her scars only long after she's learned of his.
There can be no happy ending to this story, or to the final tale in the book, which returns to the troubles between Eva Luna and her lover Rolf Carlé. A catastrophe shakes him up, brings to the surface long-repressed memories and feelings. The cool observer has to drop his mask. And yet he's still a wounded man. All Eva Luna's artful solace can't heal him. He'll have to do it for himself. Scheherezade falls silent, acknowledging the limits of her power. Allende's heroines are most credible, moving and exemplary, this story shows again, when they fail. Drop the superwoman disguise and she could be an amazingly good writer.
This section contains 2,076 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)