The House of the Spirits
Since the so-called boom in Latin American fiction during the 1960’s, the idea of the “total novel” has been frequently used to describe and understand the wealth of literature being produced in that part of the world. As Robert Coover has remarked, the “total novel” involves the creation of a work “meant to suggest, at the very least, monumentality, grandeur of vision, transcendent synthesis, technical derring-do.” It attempts to embrace and then re-create reality—the novelist striving to present as many viewpoints and levels of behavior as possible.
The House of the Spirits (published in Spain in 1982 as La Casa de los espíritus) by Isabel Allende, a former journalist in Chile and the niece of deposed Marxist president Salvador Allende Gossens, is another attempt to achieve this total vision. Spanning seven decades and four generations, this striking first novel portrays the tragicomic fortunes of an eccentric and strong-willed South American family, the Truebas. At the same time, it reflects the political, economic, and social turmoil within twentieth century Chile: the tyranny of the landholding elite; the rising resentment of the dispossessed peasants; the growth of labor unions and the conservative reaction against them; the instability of the mining industry; the loss of national autonomy to foreign business interests; the increasing Marxist electoral success, culminating in the presidency of Salvador Allende; and, finally, the military coup in 1973, which led to the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet. This novel, then, with its comprehensive portrait of a country’s life, tries to do for Chile what Carlos Fuentes did for Mexico in The Death of Artemio Cruz (1964), what Gabriel García Márquez did for Colombia in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and what Mario Vargas Llosa did for Peru in Conversations in the Cathedral (1969).
In telling the story, Allende employs both magical and social realism as she reveals the mysteries, terrors, and possibilities embedded within the everyday life of her fictional world. The magical side of Allende’s narrative is evidenced in such unexpected, improbable, and marvelous occurrences as Clara de Valle Trueba moving saltshakers through telepathy and playing the music of Frédéric Chopin on the piano without raising its lid; Clara remaining silent for nine years after the death of her green-haired sister, Rosa the Beautiful (the otherworldly Rosa being very mindful of Remedios the Beauty in One Hundred Years of Solitude); Esteban Trueba becoming aware that his body is drastically shrinking—this exaggerated effect of old age emphasizing the shrinking of his soul; the inextricable blurring of life and death as the Truebas’ urban mansion becomes a haven for ghosts; and the dog Barrabás growing into an almost mythical creature.
This magical realism, however, is muted during the second half of the novel. For Allende, intent on creating an unambiguous protest against authoritarian rule, relies on a more reportorial narrative to portray the military junta’s violence after it overthrows the Marxist president. Yet it would be misleading to suggest that the two sides of Allende’s vision are divorced from each other, for in many passages she blends them to enrich the texture of her work. For example, early in The House of the Spirits, she describes how Clara, through her powers of prophecy, has continually predicted natural disturbances, including the only snow that ever fell on the capital—a snow that froze “to death the poor people in their shantytowns and the rosebushes in the gardens of the rich.”
The novel clearly has many layers of meaning, and the marriage between Clara and Esteban Trueba rests at the heart of its complexity. Their relationship, a mismatch, enables Allende to examine two radically different ways of perceiving and reacting to a violent, often inexplicable world. Specifically, she plays Clara’s respect for the integrity of the individual and for the magical side of life off of Esteban’s authoritarian machismo. Through this contrast, she exposes the limitations and dangers of the patriarchal power structure prevalent in Latin America.
The clairvoyant Clara embodies the novel’s comic spirit, for she believes that the world is not “a vale of tears but rather a joke that God had played and that it was idiotic to take it seriously if He himself never had.” Clara’s almost playful attitude is linked to her transcendent awareness that existence is not only governed by reason and by natural law but also by mysteries outside human knowledge. Thus, by communicating with spirits and performing psychic experiments, Clara persistently resists the masculine expectations that she stand firmly within the reality of everyday domestic life. Instead, she creates an atmosphere where “divine good humor and the hidden forces of nature [act] with impunity to provoke a state of emergency and upheaval in the laws of physics and logic.”
Clara’s “divine good humor” also extends to her relations with other people. Even though...
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