Ostensibly, Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits is the story of Esteban Trueba and his progress to raging old age. But of course it is much more than that. It is a breathtakingly geological work: full of sediments and deep time -- a complicated, intricately built book about three generations of family, about sex and the spirit, about the impossible dealings between men and women, about city and hinterland, about the politics of art and the art of politics, about a nation reeling through difficult history. It is, although I've heard the author deny it, an intensely feminine work.
What captivates me about this novel is its expansiveness, its inclusiveness, its humanity, its ability to compress so much life between the covers of a single book.
Some questions to consider:
On Women: Esteban Trueba's life may appear to be Allende's timeline, but her book is really about women coping in a man's world. Women are often transparent in a Latin context, their roles greatly overshadowed by the men -- note Allende's names for heroines, Nivea, Clara, Blanca, Alba (all suggest pallor and light) -- but the women in House of the Spirits have special powers, play subversive roles and, in the end, become the fulcrum of the story. Note how each needs to find a way to escape the tyrannies of a macho society: For Nivea, it's her otherworldliness; for Clara, it's a psychic life and social work; for Blanca, it's her forbidden love for a powerless indio; for Alba, it's revolution. These women seem radically different on the surface, but are they, in fact, variations on a single type?
On Men: The patriarch Esteban Trueba builds the world as his family knows it -- he raises a plantation out of the dirt, gives himself a place among the nation's mighty -- but he also rapes, plunders, lies, bullies. His bastard son begins as a pitiable creature but acquires despotic power through a police uniform. An eccentric uncle is vain, undependable, bizarre. Do these characters have redeeming qualities? Is the picture Allende paints of men altogether negative?
On History: Antonio Machado, the great Spanish poet, once said "Tambien la verdad se inventa (Truth can also be invented)." Allende "invents truth" here by making her novel a sweeping history of Chile. This is evident in: Trueba's cruel relation to his peasants, a racial divide that has marked Latin American culture since the 15th century; the two-tiered hierarchy of a landowner's "legitimate" and bastard children; the ongoing struggle between military men and revolutionaries; a coup that feels a great deal like the real-life installation of Gen. Pinochet after the 1973 assassination of liberal President Salvador Allende (the author's uncle); the constant references to the Great Poet, who is none other than Chile's Nobel Prize-winner, Pablo Neruda; the character of Pedro Tercero (Blanca's lover and Alba's father), a total reinvention of Victor Jara, a real musician whose hands were maimed as punishment for his rebellious songs. The hunger, the misery, the politics, the tortures: All these themes are excellent sources for discussion. Is this, then, a political novel?
On Magic: Critics often say that writers are treading on Garcia Marquez territory if they write about ghosts or levitations or strange possessions of the soul. But in truth these are deeply Latin American preoccupations, forged over centuries by the fusion of indigenous American, Spanish and African faiths. The term "magical realism" (a phrase first used, I believe, by Alejo Carpentier) gets tacked onto novels as if use of the supernatural for Latin writers were a literary device. It is more a way of life, a constant presence in the mindset. Latins give much weight to dreams, fears, obsessions; these are as haunting as ghosts, as visible as magic. When Clara makes the piano play from across a room, or sees the future, is it a natural, integral part of the storyline? Think of American works -- books (Malamud's The Natural), movies ("Hello, Again"), short stories (Steven Millhauser's), even TV programs ("I Dream of Jeannie") -- that employ magical elements. How do they differ from the magic here?
On Style: The last Book Club selection, Peter Taylor's The Old Forest, tells a story about privileged vs. unprivileged classes, men vs. women and the way sex can upend whole divisions of culture. Think about Taylor's "easy women" and Allende's influential whore. Think about the ways these stories compare. The similarities can be surprising.
I look forward to discussing Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits online with you at www.washingtonpost.com on Wed., Oct. 25 at 2 p.m. Please send all written comments either to firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail to The Forum, Book World, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Wash. D.C. 20071.