Isabel Allende | Critical Essay by Edna Aguirre Rehbein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 4,043 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Edna Aguirre Rehbein

Critical Essay by Edna Aguirre Rehbein

SOURCE: "The Act/Art of Narrating in Eva Luna," in Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels, edited by Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, Peter Lang, 1991, pp. 179-90.

In the following excerpt, Rehbein maintains that Allende manipulates language and the narrator's voice in Eva Luna to represent a changing reality in the narrative.

Cuando escribi Eva Luna, por primera vez me sente a escribir una novela y quise escribir una novela en varios niveles. Una novela que fuera como contar un cuento y que fuera la protagonista contandoles a otros el cuento de su propia vida. En Eva Luna puse muchas cosas: queria decir, por ejemplo, lo que significa poder contar, como a traves del contar se van ganando espacios, se va ganando gente, se seduce a un lector…. el poder contar cuentos es como un tesoro inagotable … [Isabel Allende, personal interview, 5 January 1989]

In Eva Luna, Isabel Allende's third novel, the author focuses on two closely linked aspects of story-telling and/or of narrating. On the one hand, she experiments with the act of narrating by creating a story in which the roles of Eva Luna, the protagonist, Eva Luna, the narrator, and the role of the character in the soap opera Bolero (written by the protagonist) are at first separate, but then seem to converge into one. The resulting intertextuality and self-reflexivity create various levels of fictionalization leading the reader to question "reality" within this fictional setting. The other aspect which Allende examines is the art of narrating, as she experiments with the text and demonstrates that the slightest manipulation of language can create or transform reality. An individual's adeptness in utilizing language, thus constructs a particular reality. These two aspects of narration, so skillfully crafted by Isabel Allende, are inseparable as they work together to create or change textual "reality" to meet the narrator's liking.

Though at first this work appears to be like many other narratives, it is clear that Allende intends the novel to be more than merely another autobiographical first person account told by the narrator. Allende's intentions for the novel are clearly stated by her protagonist at the end of the novel when Eva states that perhaps all of what has taken place in the story has occurred "de acuerdo al principio de que es posible construir la realidad a la medida de las propias apetencias." In the same way that Eva Luna can mold "la Materia Universal" into anything she wishes, Allende and Eva also mold reality according to their liking. In this text, the very act of narrating becomes integrated with the plot of the novel, as the protagonist first learns to tell stories orally, then blossoms from a state of illiteracy, learning to read and then to write, and finally, writes her own story. For Eva, the narrator, and for Eva, the protagonist, the text becomes one long process of learning about the power of expression, be it in written or spoken form.

The importance of revealing or telling about events is seen throughout the novel as other characters also occupy themselves with this activity. Rolf Carle, the Austrian immigrant who becomes a photojournalist in South America, finds it extremely important to reveal the true story when he reports on political activities. His desire to tell the "official truth" is often frustrated either because the government will not allow it, or because to do so would compromise and endanger the guerrillas' lives. Huberto Naranjo, the guerrilla leader, occupies himself with obscuring the true story, molding it to conform to his needs and even changing his name when necessary. Eva acquires this gift of story-telling from her mother, Consuelo, who often engaged in this activity.

Eva's skill is very powerful as it not only serves as entertainment for herself and others, but becomes crucial to her survival. She at times uses it in exchange for food and shelter. Allende explains, "Eva Luna, la protagonista de mi novela cambia sus cuentos por comida, por techo, despues por amistad, por amor …" Toward the end, this skill becomes her profession when she begins working as a writer. More significant, however, is the fact that throughout her life Eva, the protagonist, relies on her stories to remove her from difficult situations. As she struggles to survive, she relies on their magical power to transport her from the harsh reality by which she is surrounded, to a prettier, more acceptable world which exists only in her dreams or memory. It is through this process, for instance, that as an adult she is able to continue experiencing the "existence" of her mother who died when she was only a small child. Isabel Allende's complex story is a reflection of her own belief in the magical power of the word and the narrative as Eva, the narrator, becomes the active agent involved in molding reality and consequently the outcome of the novel.

At first glance, the novel appears to be merely another first-person account of someone's life: Eva narrates her life story. The first chapter provides background information on Eva's mother, Consuelo, who was orphaned and raised by monks and then went to work for various people; it also tells of Eva's birth. Already in this first chapter Allende introduces the key role played by story-telling and the concept of reality made pliable and changeable through the use of language. Eva's mother, Consuelo, is clearly gifted with the magical powers of story-telling.

Mi madre era una persona silenciosa, capaz de disimularse entre los muebles, de perderse en el dibujo de la alfombra, de no hacer el menor alboroto, como si no existiera; sin embargo, en la intimidad de la habitacion que compartiamos se transformaba. Comenzaba a hablar del pasado o a narrar sus cuentos y el cuarto se Ilenaba de luz, desaparecian los muros para dar paso a increibles paisajes, palacios abarrotados de objetos nunca vistos, paises lejanos inventados por ella o sacados de la biblioteca del patron; colocaba a mis pies todos los tesoros de Oriente, la luna y mas alla, me reducia altamano de una hormiga para sentir el universo desde la pequenez, me ponia alas para verlo desde el firmamento, me daba una cola de pez para conocer el fondo del mar. Cuando ella contaba, el mundo se poblaba de personajes, algunos de los cuales Ilegaron a ser tan familiares, que todavia hoy, tantos anos despues, puedo describir sus ropas y el tono de sus voces. (emphasis added)

Eva continues,

Ella (la mama) sembro en mi cabeza la idea de que la realidad no es solo como se percibe en la superficie, tambien tiene una dimension magica y, si a uno se le antoja, es legitimo exagerarla y ponerle color para que el transito por esta vida no resulte tan aburrido.

At the end of this first chapter, it is also apparent that Eva, like her mother, believes in her own ability to transform reality. She explains, "Una palabra mia y, ichas!, se transformaba la realidad."

The second chapter begins with the life story of Rolf Carle, a young Austrian boy whose life develops parallel to Eva's. The narrator alternates between a chapter about herself and one about Rolf throughout the remainder of the novel until the last three chapters when their lives intersect and they fall in love. In subsequent chapters, the reader learns about Rolf's own involvement in story-telling through his use of film.

By the third chapter, Eva has actively begun using her story-telling to achieve a number of goals. Eva describes how she told stories to Elvira, her madrina: "Me enrollaba junto a Elvira y le ofrecia un cuento a cambio de que me permitiera quedarme con ella." To Huberto Naranjo, the street-wise young boy who helps her survive, who later gets involved in guerrilla warfare, and then becomes Eva's lover, she offers some of her stories as entertainment and compensation for taking care of her: "Me acurruque entre los papeles y le ofreci un cuento en pago de tantas y tan finas atenciones." It is through Huberto's insistence that she begins to learn to read.

Eva's ability to create or invent continues to become stronger and more evident. Later, when she finds herself alone again and feeling totally abandoned, Eva resorts to using her imagination to "magically" retrieve her mother who died when she was young.

Escondi la cara entre las rodillas, Ilame a mi madre y muy pronto percibi su aroma ligero de tela limpia y almidon. Surgio ante mi intacta, con su trenza enrollada en la nuca y los ojos de humo brillando en su rostro pecoso, para decirme que esa trifulca no era nada de mi incumbencia y no habia razon para tener miedo, que me sacudiera el susto y echaramos a andar juntas. Me puse de pie y le tome la mano.

And "… la presencia visible de [su] madre …" continues to accompany her through her troubled days in the streets while she looks for a home.

It is not until she goes to live with Riad Halabi, however, that she actually learns to read and the next phase of her creativity is initiated. Halabi, who finds her on the streets, take her to work with him in his home in Agua Santa. He becomes like a father to her takes a special interest in educating her, finding her a tutor, buying her many books, and teaching her to read. Halabi not only teaches her to read and write, rather more notably, he is the one who makes her an "official" person by acquiring a birth certificate for her. Later Eva reflected on his generosity,

Riad Halabi me dio varias cosas fundamentales para transitar por mi destino y entre ellas, dos muy importantes: la escritura y un certificado de existencia. No habia papeles que probaran mi presencia en este mundo, nadie me inscribio al nacer, nunca habia estado en una escuela, era como si no hubiera nacido, pero el hablo con un amigo de la ciudad, pago el soborno correspondiente y consiguio un documento de identidad, en el cual, por un error del funcionario, figuro con tres anos menos de los que en realidad tengo.

Her interest in reading becomes a passion and consequently, she begins to write her own stories. She states,

Yo devoraba los libros que caian en mis manos,… mis historias aparecian anhelos e inquietudes que no sabia que estaban en mi corazon. La maestra lnes me sugirio anotarlos en un cuaderno. Pasaba parte de la noche escribiendo y me gustaba tanto hacerlo, que se me iban las horas sin darme cuenta y a menudo me levantaba por la manana con los ojos enrojecidos. Pero esas eran mis mejores horas. Sospechaba que nada existia verdaderamente, la realidad era una materia imprecisa y gelatinosa qua mis sentidos captaban a medias … Me consolaba la idea de que yo podia tomar esa gelatina y moldearla para crear lo que deseara, no una parodia de la realidad, como los mosqueteros y las esfinges de mi antigua patrona yugoslava, sino un mundo propio, poblado de personajes vivos, donde yo imponia las normas y las cambiaba a mi antojo. De mi dependia la existencia de todo lo que nacia, moria o acontecia en las arenas inmoviles donde germinaban mis cuentos. Podia colocar en ellas lo que quisiera, bastaba pronunciar la palabra justa para darle vida. A veces sentia que ese universo fabricado con el poder de la imaginacion era de contornos mas firmes y durables que la region confusa donde deambulaban los seres de carne y hueso que me rodeaban. (emphasis added)

Eva becomes conscious of her own power as the reader of these stories and of the fact that she alone has the power to create everything that occurs in her narrative. At times, her imagined environment becomes preferable to the harshness of life itself.

Eva's ability to change her perception of "reality" to her liking continues to become further developed as she gains confidence through reading. Upon moving into an apartment with Mimi, Eva invents an entire family tree for herself by acquiring old photographs of "toda una familia" and placing them on her wall, thereby creating for herself a valid past as well. The hardest photograph to find, however, is that of Consuelo, her mother. She decides on a portrait of a beautiful woman and feels that one is appropriate because the woman in it "era lo bastante hermosa como para encarnar a mi madre." She goes on to state, "asi deseo preservarla en mi recuerdo" (emphasis added).

Aside from the obvious fact that the previous citation reinforces how Eva is again engaging in molding reality to her liking, this quote represents a pivotal point in the novel because it is one of the first times that the narrator uses the present tense as she relates her life story. Previously, she has been looking back in time at events in her life, in her mother's, and in Rolf's, so she has used the past tenses. It is at this point in the narrative that the lives of Eva, the narrator and Eva, the protagonist begin to converge, and Allende begins to communicate this merging of narrative time and of the protagonist/narrator through her meticulous use of the language. Gradually, in this chapter, and then more suddenly in the next two, there is a shift from the re-telling of events from the past to the recounting of events in the present, as they occur at that moment. This evolution from past to present is seen again just a few pages later as Eva tells of her responsibility for her madrina. She explains that upon coming to the capital city, she finds her madrina, who has been living in terrible conditions in a public nursing home. With Mimi's help, they move her to a privately run attractive care unit. "Mimi pago la primera mensualidad," states Eva, adding, "pero ese deber es mio" (emphasis added).

Shortly thereafter Eva begins to work as a secretary in the military uniform factory and at night, encouraged by Mimi, she writes stories in her cuaderno de cuentos. She begins to see Huberto more, but only when he decides he can come out of hiding. After one of their passionate encounters, Eva reflects on their relationship, once again using the present tense.

Para Naranjo y otros como el, el pueblo parecia compuesto solo de hombres; nosotras debiamos contribuir a la lucha, pero estabamos exluidas de las decisiones y del poder. Su revolucion no cambiaria en escencia mi suerte, en cualquier circunstancia yo tendria que seguir abriendome paso por mi misma hasta el ultimo de mis dias. Tal vez en ese momento me di cuenta de que la mia es una guerra cuyo final no se vislumbra, asi es que mas vale darla con algeria, para que no se me vaya la vida esperando una posible victoria para empezar a sentirme bien. Conclui que Elvira tenia razon hay que ser bien brava, hay que pelear siempre. (emphasis added)

Whereas previously the narrative has described Eva's life in retrospect, this passage clearly creates the impression that Eva, the narrator is now recounting Eva, the protagonist's life as it is unfolding and developing before her. By merging narrative time in this way, the author dissolves the gap between Eva, the protagonist and Eva, the narrator. At this point in the novel, the two become one.

This evolution of narrative time is intensified in the subsequent sections as Eva quits her work at the uniform factory and dedicates herself to writing on a regular basis. Mimi, who believes in fortune telling, reads Eva's future and affirms that her "destino era contar." Mimi encourages Eva to begin writing screenplays for the soap opera in which she appears and purchases a typewriter for her. The next morning, as Eva anxiously sits down to write, she is filled with a flurry of emotion and inspiration.

Desde que la maestra Ines me enseno el alfabeto, escribia casi todas las noches, pero senti que esta era una ocasion diferente, algo que podria cambiar mi rumbo. Prepare un cafe negro y me instale ante la maquina, tome una hoja de papel limpia y blanca, como una sabana recien planchada para hacer el amor y la introduje en el rodillo. Entonces senti algo extrano, como una brisa alegre por los huesos, por los caminos de las venas bajo la piel. Crei que esa pagina me esperaba desde hacia veinti-tantos anos, que yo habia vivido solo para ese instante, y quise que a partir de ese momento mi unico oficio fuera atrapar las historias suspendidas en el aire mas delgado, para hacerlas mias.

She explains:

Se ordenaron los relatos guardados en la memoria genetica desde antes de mi nacimiento y muchos otros que habia registrado por anos en mis cuadernos. Comence a recordar hechos muy lejanos, recupere las anecdotas de mi madre cuando viviamos entre los idiotas, los cancerosos y los embalsamados del Profesor Jones; aparecieron un indio mordido de vibora y un tirano con las manos devoradas por la lepra; rescate a una solterona que perdio el cuero cabelludo como si se lo hubiera arrancado una maquina bobinadora, un dignatario en su sillon de felpa obispal, un arabe de corazon generoso y tantos otros hombres y mujeres cuyas vidas estaban a mi alcance para disponer de ellas segun mi propia y soberana voluntad. (emphasis added)

Allende adds to the text's complexity by allowing Eva to detail the recording of these events which have already been written by the narrator and have been read previously by the reader in this same novel, thereby leading the reader to question the reliability and chronology of the narrative. Eva explains that

Poco a poco el pasado se transformaba en presente y me aduenaba tambien del futuro, los muertos cobraban vida con ilusion de eternidad, se reunian los dispersos y todo aquello esfumado por el olvido adquiria contornos precisos. (emphasis added)

As she continues to write she begins to speculate about her own future: "Sospechaba que el final llegaria solo con mi propia muerte y me atrajo la idea de ser yo tambien uno mas de la historia y tener el poder de determinar mi fin o inventarme una vida." It is as if narrative time, the action being retold, has now caught up with the present events and Eva Luna has begun to recount her life as it takes place. The implication, therefore, is that she is now beginning to tell her life story as it will transpire in the future, though it has not yet occurred. Eva Luna is now in total control of her destiny: all she needs to do is to write it in order for it to occur in her narrative "reality."

When Eva Luna and Rolf Carle finally meet at a dinner party, she is asked to supply more of her cuentos. Eva's creative powers and the author's utilization of the present tense amidst passages narrated in the past tense are further evidenced. The following passage illustrates Allende's techniques:

Mimi dice que tengo una voz especial para los cuentos, una voz que, siendo mia parece ambien ajena, como si brotara desde la tierra y me subiera por el cuerpo, Senti que la habitacion perdia sus contornos, esfumada en los nuevos horizontes que yo convocaba. (emphasis added)

Whereas the early segments of the novel conveyed the idea of a narrator who was telling about her life as it had happened many years back, the interjection of these comments in the present tense make the text seem like a conversation in the present with some momentary descriptions of past events.

In Chapter Eleven, Eva who has become involved in helping the guerrillas with their greatest effort against the government, finds that Rolf, who had previously merely been documenting the events, is also now involved in the struggle. While out in the countryside, waiting for the attack to occur, Rolf asks her to tell a story she has never told before. She willingly begins to tell about "una mujer cuyo oficio era contar cuentos." This unmistakably is a reference to herself, Eva the story-teller. The story she continues to tell, however, is even more engaging and insightful as it seems to correspond very closely to the narrator's/protagonist's life story. She states that the young woman met a man who was very sad and was burdened by his past, so he asks her to create a new history for him. She consents, but after she has told the new story of Rolf's life, Eva comments:

Por fin amanecio y en la primera luz del dia ella comprobo que el olor de la tristeza se habia esfumado. Suspiro, cerro los ojos y al sentir su espiritu vacio como el de un recien nacido, comprendio que en el afan de complacerlo le habia entregado su propia memoria, ya no sabia que era suyo y cuanto ahora pertenecia a el, sus pasados habian quedado anudados en una sola trenza. Habia entrado hasta el fondo en su propio cuento y ya no podia recoger sus palabras, pero tampoco quiso hacerlo y se abandono al placer de fundirse con el en la misma historia …

The story that Eva tells Rolf is indicative of what has happened in the novel with respect to her own life and Rolf's, for earlier, Eva too had helped Rolf accept his painful past by changing it for him through her cuentos. Eva and Rolf have become intertwined just as have the two characters in her cuento.

After the guerrillas' successful maneuvers against the government, Eva and Rolf become concerned over how the government will present the news about the occurrence, so they decide to tell the story in the next episode of her soap opera. Eva and Rolf explain that they can avoid any problems with the government censorship because, "siempre se puede alegar que es solo ficcion y como la telenovela es mucho mas popular que el noticiario, todo el mundo sabra lo que paso en Santa Maria." Thereby, Eva uses her fictional media to depict a true incident. Eva's soap opera, Bolero, becomes very popular and receives enormous attention. Mimi plays herself in the television story, while Eva,

… escribia cada dia un nuevo episodio, inmersa por completo en el mundo que creaba con el poder omnimodo de las palabras, transformada en un ser disperso, reproducida hasta el infinito, viendo mi propio reflejo en multiples espejos, viviendo innumberables vidas, hablando con muchas voces.

At the end of the novel, Eva and Rolf leave the city for a while because they are concerned about possible repercussions from the telecasting of their episode depicting the guerrilla actions. While in Colonia, the couple fall passionately in love. Eva describes their kiss, saying:

Se acerco a grandes pasos y procedio a besarme tal como ocurre en las novelas romanticas, tal como yo esperaba que lo hiciera desde hacia un siglo y tal como estaba describiendo momentos antes el encuentro de mis protagonistas en Boiero. A proveche la cercania para husmearlo con disimulo y asi identifique el olor de mi pareja.

The narrator ends the story by stating that they loved one another for a while until their love faded. But then she interjects,

O tal vez lass cosas no ocurrieron asi. Tal vez tuvimos la suerte de tropezar con un amor excepcional y yo no tuve necesidad de inventarlo, sino solo vestirlo de gala para que perdurara en la memoria, de acuerdo al principio de que es posible construir la realidad a la medida de las propias apetencias … Escribi que durante esas semanas benditas, el tiempo se estiro, se enrosco en si mismo, se dio vuelta como un panuelo de mago y alcanzo para que Rolf Carle—con la solemnidad hecha polvo y la vanidad por las nubes—conjurara sus pesadillas y volviera a cantar las canciones de su adolescencia y para que yo … narrara … muchos cuentos, incluyendo algunos con final feliz.

The novel is a prime example of Isabel Allende's belief in the magical power of words and in the concept that books have their own spirit to exist as they wish. Eva, the narrator, is completely in control of the narrative and capable of molding and defining time and reality as she wishes. Allende demonstrates that the act and the art of narrating consist of the skill and talent to change language in order to achieve the desired textual "reality."

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This section contains 4,043 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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