THE STORIES OF EVA LUNA By Isabel Allende Translated from the Spanish By Margaret Sayers Peden Atheneum. 330 pp. $18.95
THERE ARE 23 stories in Isabel Allende's latest book, her fourth work of fiction in less than a decade. The collection is, nominally, told by Eva Luna, the adventurous narrator of Allende's popular novel by the same name. But those readers looking for more of Eva Luna and her lover, Rolf Carle, are in for a disappointment -- the two appear only in the first three pages and the final story.
"Tell me a story you have never told anyone before," Rolf Carle tells Eva in a prologue to the collection, and she does, 23 of them. The spirit of Scheherazade is invoked by two quotes from The Thousand and One Nights that begin and end the book. There is, nevertheless, a certain amount of misdirection involved in titling this collection The Stories of Eva Luna for the part Eva Luna plays in these stories is miniscule, compared with the part she plays in the eponymous novel. Nonetheless, there is much to admire in them.
Most of these stories are tales -- the characters are either larger than life or else, strangely, somehow smaller than life (one old woman literally disappears in the arms of a man who has just proposed to her). There are grand passions, heroic rebels, wicked despots, wicked rebels and heroic despots. Sometimes miracles occur. The women are often impossibly beautiful, the men impossibly gallant. Yet for the most part Allende has given her characters dignity and humanity and when they suffer, it is usually a felt suffering and not the romantic maundering of stick-figure imposters -- usually.
These tales are not "magical realism" -- an inadequate phrase if ever there was one, since there is always magic in reality. Allende makes it clear that overweening passion, made concrete in the miraculous, is a possibility in the world. When a man shoots the son of a village's beloved schoolteacher, the villagers go beserk and fling mangos through his windows until his house is full of them. "After a few weeks, the sun had fermented the fruit, which burst open, spilling a viscous juice and impregnating the walls with a golden blood, a sweetish pus, that transformed the dwelling into a fossil of prehistoric dimensions, an enormous beast in process of putrefaction, tormented by the infinite diligence of the larvae and mosquitoes of decomposition."
The memorable pieces in this collection combine extravagent plotting with a piercing awareness of human nature. There is the "Wicked Girl" who takes an adolescent fancy for her mother's lover and, sneakily, while he's half-asleep, manages to get him to make love to her on a Thursday afternoon. Later the lover becomes obsessed with this "wicked girl" but when they meet again, years later, he is devastated, for "she did not remember any particular Thursday in her past." There is Fortunato, who spends a fortune in vulgar ways, trying to win the heart of his beloved, and who succeeds finally by dazzling her with what he knows best: the compelling magic of a circus. There is Hortensia, who loves a man so simply and so deeply she's willing to spend her life in a pit in the ground, wasting away until she "resembled a tragic circus monkey."
WHEN Isabel Allende is at her best, she is very good, but when she's not, she's irritating to say the least. In some of these tales, for instance, there are prostitutes with hearts of gold who sincerely like what they do, which in one story means having men throw coins between a woman's legs in competition for her favors. That unfortunate tale is called "Toad's Mouth" and ends with the prostitute falling in love with a man who has particularly good aim. And there is an unsettling tendency for raped women to fall in love with the virility of their rapist, a theme Allende has in common with the generic romance novelists and a theme I hope she transcends in the future
Allende is a real talent, an amazingly prolific one. In her stories there are palpable life and death risks, the risks of passionate love, the risks of passionate belief, of convictions and honor. Although many of her perceptions of the roles of women and men are bothersome, still her work is a welcome addition to a body of contemporary fiction in which it seems the greatest threat is malaise, where the only risks are the thought of a distant old age, or substance abuse, or else, creeping boredom. The stories of Eva Luna may even enrage, but in the end it is a collection of tales worth reading. Leigh Allison Wilson's most recent book is a collection of stories, "Wind." She teaches at the State University of New York College at Oswego.