Isabel Allende 1942–
Chilean novelist, short story writer, memoirist, humorist, and children's fiction writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Allende's works through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39 and 57.
A Latin-American author largely known for her fiction, Allende often blends elements of realism and fantasy in her works to examine the tumultuous social and political heritage of South America. She frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of her family to record the violence and repression that characterizes much of Latin-American history. Despite her recurring use of moral and political themes, Allende maintains that she does not intend to create political fiction. "I write about the things I care about," she has stated; "poverty, inequality, and social problems are part of politics, and that's what I write about…. I just can't write in an ivory tower, distant from what's happening in the real world and from the reality of my continent. So the politics just steps in, in spite of myself."
Allende was born in Lima, Peru, where her father served as a diplomatic representative of Chile. Although Allende's contact with her father ceased following her parents' divorce, she remained close to his family—particularly Salvador Allende, her uncle and godfather, who served as president of Chile from 1970 to 1973. As a child in Santiago, Chile, Allende lived with her maternal grandparents, who would later serve as models for Esteban and Clara Trueba, the patriarch and matriarch of the family whose history Allende chronicled in her first and best-known novel, La casa de los espiritus (1982; The House of the Spirits). After spending her adolescence in Bolivia, Europe, and the Middle East with her mother and diplomat stepfather, Allende settled in Chile and became a journalist, working on television programs and newsreels, as well as writing for a radical feminist magazine. Her life changed abruptly in 1973 when a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, resulted in the assassination of Salvador Allende and the overthrow of his socialist government. Although she remained in Chile for several months following the takeover, Allende's efforts to assist the opposition of the new regime ultimately jeopardized her safety, and in 1974 she escaped with her family to Caracas, Venezuela. She has since relocated to the United States fol-lowing a divorce from her husband of twenty-five years and a second marriage to a California lawyer.
Allende's literary career began when she started to write a letter to her dying grandfather, a nearly one-hundred-year-old man who had remained in Chile. "My grandfather thought people died only when you forgot them," the author has explained. "I wanted to prove to him that I had forgotten nothing, that his spirit was going to live with us forever." Allende never sent the letter to her grandfather, who soon died, but her memories of her family and her country were the genesis of The House of the Spirits. This work, set in an unnamed South American country recognizable as Chile, spans six decades and tells the story of three generations of a family shaken by domestic and political conflicts. Allende's 1984 novel, De amor y de sombra (Of Love and Shadows), also takes place in a country where citizens are repressed by the policies of a military regime. The novel concerns two lovers intent on exposing the fate of the desaparecidos, people who were "disappeared" by the dictatorship's secret police. Allende's third novel, Eva Luna (1987), relates the passage of the narrator Eva from an illiterate orphan to a successful television scriptwriter. The story of Eva's maturation alternates with that of Rolf Carlé, an Austrian emigré who becomes a photojournalist; when the two meet and fall in love, their separate stories merge into one. Eva Luna celebrates the storytelling abilities of the narrator, and in Cuentos de Eva Luna (1989; The Stories of Eva Luna), Allende transformed into short stories several of Eva's biographical sketches of persons integral to her development. The Stories of Eva Luna includes pieces originating from real events as well as episodes from the previous novel. Although Allende has acknowledged that not all the stories are told in Eva's voice, the author asserts that "it's her tone" that binds the collection together. Allende has also written a fourth novel, El plan infinito (1991; The Infinite Plan). Reviewer Nelida Kahan has summarized this work as an account of "the traumatic experiences of an American lawyer raised in a broken family in a Chicano community."
The House of the Spirits has generated a great deal of critical attention, due not only to its merits but also to its likeness to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Several reviewers have considered Allende's first novel to be closely imitative of the magic realist style introduced by the "Boom," a literary movement of the 1960s whose members, including García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier, tempered realism with mysticism and hyperbole. They cite such similarities between The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude as their family chronicle structures, magic realist narration, and parallel characters, (including Rosa the Beautiful, who greatly resembles García Márquez's Remedios the Beauty). Other critics have contended that while Allende did utilize the technique of magic realism to chronicle legendary occurrences in the history of the Trueba clan, her own voice emerges in her straightforward, journalistic treatment of realistic events surrounding the military coup. Bruce Allen has observed: "Despite its undeniable debt to One Hundred Years of Solitude, [The House of the Spirits] is an original and important work; along with García Márquez's masterpiece, it's one of the best novels of the postwar period." While reaction to The House of the Spirits has been positive, Allende's fiction as a whole has received mixed reviews. While some commentators regard her works as derivative or melodramatic, most commend her polished technique, including the lushly detailed prose and compelling images which subtly convey her moral and political themes. Some debate has ensued, however, over whether she successfully combines her political ideas with the fantastic elements in her fiction. Much critical analysis of Allende's work has been devoted to her feminist perspective and her depiction of the patriarchal society of Latin America has been applauded, though some critics charge that her portrayals of Latin males are frequently stereotypically macho and that she at times resorts to other clichés about Hispanics. Allende's novels and short story collection have been translated into many languages and have achieved international popular acclaim. Moreover, critics have generally come to value Allende not only as a commentator on the turbulent nature of Latin-American society but also as an author of powerful, humanistic fiction. Some have even placed her in the ranks of the "Boom" tradition novelists she resembles. As Alexander Coleman has asserted: Allende is "the first woman to join what has heretofore been an exclusive male club of Latin American novelists. Not that she is the first contemporary female writer from Latin America … but she is the first woman to approach on the same scale as the others the tormented patriarchal world of traditional Hispanic society."