THIS FIRST NOVEL by a Chilean journalist comes to the United States after a great success, both commercial and critical, in Europe. At first glance it is tempting to suggest that this is explained by the author's minor celebrity -- she is a niece of Salvador Allende Gossens, the leftist president of Chile who was ousted in 1973 by a military junta that described his subsequent death as a suicide -- but the novel itself indicates otherwise. The House of the Spirits does contain a certain amount of rather predictable politics, but the only cause it wholly embraces is that of humanity, and it does so with such passion, humor and wisdom that in the end it transcends politics; it is also a genuine rarity, a work of fiction that is both an impressive literary accomplishment and a mesmerizing story fully accessible to a general readership.
Like so many other writers now at work in Latin America and elsewhere in the "third" world, Isabel Allende is very much under the influence of Gabriel Garc,ia M,arquez, but she is scarcely an imitator. Like Garc,ia M,arquez, she has created a world that interweaves the real and the fantastic, she has devised a colorful, ironic language with which to describe it, and she has addressed herself to the contemporary Latin American political and social situation. But her narrative method is more conventional, her prose is less flamboyant, and her politics are less insistent. She is most certainly a novelist in her own right and, for a first novelist, a startlingly skillful, confident one.
Her story takes place in a "country of catastrophes," a "half-forgotten country at the end of the earth" that could be Chile or just about anywhere else in Latin America; like Garc,ia M,arquez' Macondo, it is a Latin everyland where the wildness and mystery of nature are always close at hand, where the very rich and the very poor coexist in an uneasy intimacy that constantly threatens to dissolve into open conflict. The very rich in this story are the family of Esteban Trueba, an energetic, willful man whose "most salient trait was his moodiness and a tendency to grow violent and lose his head"; the very poor are the peasants who farm his lavish estate in the countryside, for whom "time was measured in seasons, and thought by generations," who have been taught by hard experience "that in the end the fox always eats the hens, despite the subversive ballads that were traveling from mouth to mouth preaching just the opposite."
Esteban is the only character who lasts through the novel's beginning around the turn of the century until its conclusion sometime near the present, yet he is not really its central character. That distinction is shared by three women: his wife, Clara, his daughter, Blanca, and his granddaughter, Alba. They are an extraordinary trio, of whom Clara is the most extraordinary. She is possessed of supernatural powers and as a girl is known as Clara the Clairvoyant because, among other things, she can "interpret dreams," "predict the future and recognize people's intentions," and "move objects without touching them." What is more extraordinary about her, though, is her character, which is compounded out of such seemingly contradictory elements as resilience and ethereality, playfulness and silence, dependency and unconventionality.
As did her mother, an outspoken suffragette, Clara exists in a world of macho dominance yet refuses to accept its dictates uncritically. Within her marriage, Esteban may contribute the sound and fury but she is clearly the stronger partner; while she had determined to marry a man she did not love, "Esteban Trueba's exaggerated love for her was without a doubt the most powerful emotion of his life, greater by far than his rage and pride," thus rendering him helpless before her whim. Esteban is a thundering leader of the Conservative Party, stubbornly upholding the old order; Clara quietly tells him that "you can't keep the world from changing."
THOSE WORDS prove true in ways that eventually shake the Trueba family to its foundations. For Esteban, none of these is more traumatic than his daughter's romance with Pedro Tercero Garc,ia, the son of a peasant who, as a young man, becomes a passionate ally of the socialists. Their love is "a marriage of body and soul," one that continues undiminished long after they are separated by Pedro Tercero's wanderings and Esteban's murderous wrath:
"The only man in her life was Pedro Tercero, for she was born to have one love. The strength of this immutable desire saved her from the mediocrity and sadness of her fate. She was faithful to him even in those moments when he lost himself in a sea of straight-haired, long-bone nymphs, and never loved him any the less for his digressions. At first she thought she would die every time he moved away from her, but she soon realized that his absences were only as long as a sigh and that he invariably returned more in love and sweeter than ever."
The fruit of this love is an illegitimate daughter, Alba, who moves to the center of the story as Clara and Blanca gradually fade away from it. That she is the daughter of Pedro Tercero is a cause of bottomless rage to Esteban, who by now is a prominent conservative member of Congress, yet Alba herself is the consuming joy of his old age -- to whatever extent, that is, he is able to find any joy in what becomes a terrible time. To the astonishment of all, a socialist government is elected, a government that Esteban and his allies on the right immediately seek to sabotage; within hours of the election "the country had split into two irreconcilable groups, a division that began to spread within every family in the land." The poor control the government but the rich control the economy, a power that is quite sufficient to cripple the administration -- of which Pedro Tercero has become a member -- and to generate momentum for a military coup.
One indeed takes place, and for Alba it is unspeakable: "She felt that everything was made of glass, as fragile as a sigh, and that the machine-gun fire and bombs of that unforgettable Tuesday had destroyed most of what she knew, and that all the rest had been smashed to pieces and spattered with blood." But for Esteban it also becomes unspeakable. He had believed that military action "was a necessary step for the return to a healthy democracy," but it does not take him long to realize that "the Army's action, whose purpose had been to eliminate the threat of a Marxist dictatorship, had condemned the country to a dictatorship far more severe, one that, to all evidence, was fated to last a century."
This realization helps soften Esteban and leads to a reconciliation with Pedro Tercero that is most affecting, but Allende does not allow herself the luxury of granting him a political conversion. What he comes to understand at the end of his days is not that one side or the other was right, but merely that nothing is immutable, that "a world he had thought was good had crumbled at his feet." Allende has both the tolerance and the wisdom to understand that there is lamentable human loss when any world crumbles, even if it was not a good one, and thus the cantankerous Esteban emerges at last as a deeply sympathetic figure.
It is this desire of Allende's to understand all people, and if possible to love them, that allows The House of the Spirits to rise far above its evanescent political concerns. It is a novel not about ideas or causes but about people, who move "down through the centuries in an unending tale of sorrow, blood and love." For all the elements of fantasy and magic with which Allende has imbued them, they are as real a group of people as one could hope to meet -- and there are many more of them than have been mentioned here. Every bit as real is the world in which they live, a world Allende has created out of the reality of Latin America and the fecundity of her own imagination. The result is a novel of force and immediacy, compassion and charm, spaciousness and vigor. It can only be hoped that American readers will respond to it as enthusiastically as those in Europe already have.