The House of the Spirits

by JDP

Allende’s inventive synthesis of substance (politics, magic, family, and history) is left to languish in its presentation; the result is a novel that induces the reader to plow ahead quickly more out of frustration than enjoyment.

Isabel Allende / Chilean / 1982 / 488 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin

I was rooting for Isabel Allende. I had grown tired of every conversation about Latin American literature degenerating into the participants’ respective stances on the merits of Garcia Márquez. I was eager to find a female voice that I could add to the pantheon of great Latin American authors. I was interested in the political history of Chile, whose citizens elevated to government the first democratically elected Marxist president on the Latin American continent only to have him deposed by a military coup a few years later. (This famous president’s name was Salvador Allende, Isabel’s distant cousin, so you know that the author comes from good political stock.) I wanted to explore another major work in the hallowed tradition of “magical realism” to see if my earlier misgivings about the technique were well founded. If nothing else, I wanted to prove that some of my Latin American friends were wrong about her, that it was okay to read Cortázar in December and Allende in January and still find good things to say about each despite the damning juxtaposition.

Alas, they were right and I was wrong. She writes as if she were Garcia Márquez’ kid sister.

More than any author I’ve read since Hemingway, however, Allende’s critical reception has been bipolar. Reviled in Chile and described throughout Latin America as a talentless hack, she has nevertheless garnered immense accolades internationally and I first came across the novel in the course of rifling through the Everyman’s Library’s online collection (they tend not to pick up bad novels). Harold Bloom has somewhat famously disparaged her as being immensely overrated while just recently she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I told my friends that I had picked up her novel and they were repulsed. The House of the Spirits was labeled by one to be “beach reading for old women.”

For the sake of commencing with a review that is not hopelessly monotonic (and in the interest of being charitable to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Everyman’s Library, the New York Times book review, and the good people at Cosmopolitan magazine, which, in their substantial literary estimate, also gave Allende high marks) I thought I’d try to explain why the book begins well, boasts some really interesting ideas, but ultimately fails to bring much of anything to fruition. I begin with a summary.

The House of the Spirits focuses on the travails of one family throughout most of the novel, but by the end it has become somewhat evident that we’ve moved into a discussion of Chile as a nation. The narrative tracks the Trueba family through three (or maybe four or ten) generations of offspring and it is in this expansive domestic setting that Allende metes out scathing commentary on the subject of patriarchy in traditional Latin American society. The novel is “magically realistic” in the sense that there are soothsayers and clairvoyants popping out of the woodwork, but little else transpires that justifies applying the label. In fact, as the book progresses, it takes on a more historical perspective and certain major figures in Chilean history (like Salvador Allende and the famous poet, Pablo Neruda) make appearances under generic monickers like “The President” or “The Poet.” Both of these men were instrumental in ushering in socialist governance to Chile and both met unfortunate ends when this government was unseated by Pinochet at the helm of the Chilean armed forces. The ensuing years would be among the darkest in Chilean history as the country sank into a quasi-fascistic quagmire where its citizens were heavily censored, tortured, and frequently murdered. In sharp contrast to the book’s more elemental aspects, Allende eventually sinks us into this disarray with cold empiricism.

But her empiricism doesn’t ring with truth, especially after having recently read Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat with its stoic insight into the nascent hours of democratic governance in the Dominican Republic. I’m not extolling the savagery of his account; indeed, it was at times too much for me. The point I’m venturing, though, is that the palpable dread Vargas Llosa conjures is absent from Allende’s account. The humanness of his characters is nonexistent in Allende’s world where describing a character’s familial relationship to all the other characters in the book is more important than making the reader care about the character in the first place. To this end, the phenomena Allende intends to be surprising are not. When Character X turns out to be the child of the long lost mother of the aunt of Character Y, this is not nearly the watershed moment it’s supposed to be. When something draconian befalls Character Y at some later point in the novel, it’s not immediately clear how I should react. If the worst of her problems is that she’ll never get to see X again, then I don’t think I care either way.

The writing is at times painfully facile and Allende employs an annoying habit of foreshadowing cataclysmic events with disastrous one-liners akin to: “She told him that she loved him so much that she would die for him. Little did she know that one day, she would.” This sort of technique works against her better ideas in two important capacities. First, it is simply bad writing because it pushes the issue one sentence too far. This isn’t so much foreshadowing as it a wholesale plot spoiler. Secondly, it directly undercuts the emotional impact of the event itself (which won’t occur for another 200 pages, mind you, and, by the time it finally rolls around, the garnered reaction is “Phew, finally.”)

The novel is (refreshingly) feminist in nature and (pleasantly) Marxist in tone. Additionally, the basic strategy of projecting the conflicts of the family writ large into the conflicts of the nation as a whole is a good one. But I’m not sure that the underlying ideological and philosophical tensions are ever given their fair share of consideration. It’s almost as if we’ve been subjected to a familial melodrama with some big ideas flying around just above our heads. I kept waiting for the gravity of the situation to come to the fore, but the author never took the bait. Instead, the novel peters out into a pedantic denouement that can be summarized thusly: “All the capitalists realized that maybe communism wasn’t so bad after all and that we are all connected in a large family.” I cannot recommend to anyone the 488 pages of work it takes to draw this conclusion.

Rating: 2 / 10

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