INÉS OF MY SOUL
By Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
HarperCollins. 321 pp. $25.95
Isabel Allende's new novel, Inés of My Soul , the 15th book she has published in just over two decades, is in many ways her most ambitious. It is historical fiction, set in Spain, Peru (where she was born) and Chile (where she grew up) in the 16th century, the time of the Spanish conquest of Central and South America, one of the bloodiest periods in human history. Its central character is an actual historical figure, Inés Suárez, "widow of the Most Excellent Gobernador don Rodrigo de Quiroga, conquistador and founder of the kingdom of Chile." She is living in Santiago and is more or less 70 years old -- she doesn't know the exact date of her birth, probably in 1507, in Spain, "in Plasencia, in the north of Extremadura, a border city steeped in war and religion" -- and she is looking back on her life in the certain knowledge that her death cannot be far away.
"This novel is a work of intuition," Allende says in her Author's Note, "but any similarity to events and persons relating to the conquest of Chile is not coincidental." Though "the feats of Inés Suárez noted by the chroniclers of her era were nearly ignored by historians for more than four hundred years," they were both real and significant. Essentially, Allende has "merely strung them together with a fine thread of imagination."
Unfortunately, though, the demands of fidelity to basic historical truth have fettered Allende's imagination more than they have liberated it. The novel's best moments are vivid and convincing -- especially in the early pages, as Inés recounts her marriage to Juan de Málaga, "one of those handsome, happy men no woman can resist at first, but later wishes another woman would win away because he causes so much pain" -- but they are separated by too many long, arid stretches, in some cases literally so, as the conquistadors struggle toward Chile through what is now known as the Atacama Desert.
By the time that happens, in 1540 and 1541, Inés has come from Spain to Peru to find her husband, who had gone to the New World in search of its fabled treasure. She learns of his death and is liberated. She tells her story to Isabel, daughter of her late second husband, "my friend and my confidante, the one person who knows my secrets, including some that, out of modesty, I did not share with your father." She says:
"I beg you to have a little patience, Isabel. You will soon see that this disorderly narrative will come to the moment when my path crosses that of Pedro de Valdivia and the epic I want to tell you about begins. Before that, I had been an insignificant seamstress in Plasencia, like the hundreds and hundreds of hardworking women who came here before and will come after me. With Pedro de Valdivia I lived a life of legend, and with him I conquered a kingdom. Although I adored Rodrigo de Quiroga, your father, and lived with him thirty years, the only real reason for telling my story is the conquest of Chile, which I shared with Pedro de Valdivia."
The trouble with that story, in this novel as in many others that have been written about the Spanish conquest, is that while it may seem heroic from the Spanish point of view, it is anything but heroic from the viewpoint of the indigenous people who were slaughtered, enslaved and otherwise broken to the will of Charles I of Spain and his ambitious, ruthless emissaries.
To say this isn't merely to indulge in present-day political correctness, though perhaps there is a bit of that. The unpleasant historical truth is that the Spanish conquest was an atrocity of almost unimaginable dimensions, carried out by the likes of Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortés. Though Allende does not attempt to whitewash the conquistadors -- Pizarro is "a man of about sixty, haughty, with sallow skin, a graying beard, sunken eyes with a suspicious gleam in them, and a disagreeable falsetto voice" -- she cannot resist the temptation to romanticize the feats of the men (and, in this instance, one remarkable woman) who conquered a continent.
The temptation is understandable. In Chile, as in Mexico and Peru, the suppression of the natives -- the Mapuche, the Incas, the Aztecs -- was carried out by extraordinarily small bodies of soldiers who fought against astonishing odds: a hundred men or fewer against thousands. Thus the expedition that set out from Cuzco in southern Peru in January 1540 was "a pathetic group: only eleven soldiers in addition to Pedro de Valdivia -- and me, for I was prepared to wield a sword if the occasion demanded it."
On more than one occasion it did, and Inés rose to the occasion every time. Mainly, though, she served as nurse, cook and miracle worker -- she had a talent for dowsing and found water beneath the desert when the expedition was about to die of thirst -- and as lover and confidante to the charismatic Valdivia. He had served with distinction under Pizarro in Peru, and "in payment for his services, Pizarro had allotted him, for his lifetime, a silver mine in Porco, a fertile and productive hacienda in La Canela Valley, and hundreds of Indians to work them." But money and position don't interest Valdivia. His mission is "to populate Chile with Spaniards and to evangelize the Indians," and "glory, always glory, that was the lodestar of his life." He is as bloodthirsty as the next conquistador, but he has a more tempered view of what the Spanish are up to than most:
"The Chilean Indians called us huincas , which in their language, Mapudungu, means lying people and land thieves. . . . Valdivia was indignant about the stupidity of the Spaniards who were killing off the peoples of the New World. Without the natives, he always said, the land has no value. He died without seeing an end to the slaughter, which has been going on for forty years now. Spaniards keep coming, and mestizos keep being born, but the Mapuche are disappearing, exterminated by war, slavery, and the illnesses brought by the Spaniards, which they cannot withstand."
The relationship between Pedro and Inés is intimate and passionate: "I could not live without him. One day without seeing him and I was feverish. A night without being in his arms was torment. At first, more than love, I felt a blind, reckless passion for him, which fortunately he returned." In time, passion turns into love, but other matters intervene. As Valdivia and his tiny force gain a tenuous hold on the Mapocho Valley and found a settlement there that they call Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura, he becomes infected by the virus of megalomania. He grows more interested in winning other battles and subduing more Indians, and his passion for Inés wanes. Ultimately, she finds her way to Rodrigo, for whom her love "was different from the desire I had felt for Juan de Málaga and my passion for Pedro de Valdivia; it was a mature, joyful sentiment, without conflict, that became more intense with the passing of time . . . until I could not live without him."
As these quotations suggest, the romantic side of Allende scarcely is lost in the battle and blood of this novel. Desire, passion and love between men and women are the essential ingredients of her fiction, and she gives all of these play herein. Somehow, though, the amatory aspects of the novel seem more imposed on the great historical events than flowing naturally out of them. Though the progress that Inés makes from desire for one man to passion for another to genuine love for a third can be viewed as mirroring the progress of Chile itself from an unspoiled state to violent subjugation to nationhood, the connection seems forced. Allende's ambition in taking on the novel's big subjects is admirable, but Inés of My Soul -- the title comes from Valdivia's affectionate term for his lover -- does not fulfill it. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail is email@example.com.