Literary Expression of Traumatic Symptoms

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During the 1990s, the concept of trauma entered the American cultural spotlight and found its place in the spheres of ‘‘psychoanalysis, psychiatry, sociology, and even literature,’’ as Cathy Caruth writes in the book Trauma and Experience: Explorations in Memory. The public interest in the literature of this issue became apparent when autobiographical works focusing on a traumatic experience, such as Angela’s Ashes, My Sergei: A Love Story, and Tuesdays with Morrie, reached and stayed on national bestseller charts throughout the decade.

The symptoms of trauma, as outlined by Caruth, are the following: intense personal suffering, avoidance or delay in emotional response that is too overwhelming to be experienced all at once, repetition and reliving of the experience in an attempt to recapture it, and the sufferer’s becoming possessed by the overwhelming event. Underlying these symptoms is the sufferer’s sense of fragmentation, disorientation in space and time, an apparently irrational desire to hang onto the trauma as a definition of self, and, if it is a trauma of loss, to retain a kind of memorial to the deceased within oneself. In her autobiography dedicated to her daughter, Allende finds an outlet for at least some of her traumatic symptoms by recording them in her writing and in the process creates a document that testifies to her pain and survival.

Allende exhibits several traumatic symptoms as she writes Paula; the two story line threads (of the narrator’s past and of her daughter’s present) reflect the return of old traumas from her life. The most obvious traumatic event—the one that propels her into writing the book in the first place—is Paula’s sudden tragic illness and the deterioration of her condition while she is in a coma. Allende’s response of beginning a letter to her daughter can be seen as a form of avoidance of pain; in the beginning of the book, as she introduces the agonizing circumstances of her writing, she states: ‘‘I plunge into these pages in an irrational attempt to overcome my terror.’’

Allende’s choice of the book’s content also speaks of her need to escape the painful present as she reverts to memory and returns to the past—far from Paula’s imminent tragedy. By writing of her own past, not exclusively Paula’s, Allende signifies Isabel Allende’s uncle, Chilean President Salvadore Allende her desire to find self-affirmation outside her suffering as well as to remove herself from the source of unbearable pain. This attempt repeatedly fails because the author cannot help but return to the inanimate figure in the hospital bed. Allende speaks of her fear that Paula will not wake up intact from her coma, of guilt at placing her in a hospital where she was misdiagnosed and mistreated, of struggling not to lose hope in face of the doctors’ grim predictions, of not being able to survive the loss; she speaks of these emotions in temporally distributed intervals, placing enough textual distance between them to make them manageable. Thus, the structure of the book demonstrates the author’s way of coping with the trauma of Paula’s illness. Further, the author documents a typical defense mechanism of trauma victims who are too overwhelmed by the event to face its horror in reality: she describes several dreams in which her worst fears are expressed, thus finding an outlet for her feelings in nightmares. The most disturbing dream is one in which she sees her daughter’s death and cannot prevent it:

I dreamed that you were twelve years old, Paula . . . You were standing in the center of a hollow tower, something like a grain silo filled...

(This entire section contains 1727 words.)

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with hundreds of fluttering doves. Meme’s voice was saying, ‘Paula is dead.’ You began to rise off the ground . . . I tried to hold you back by your clothing; I called to you, but no sound came.

An important way in which the text reflects Allende’s traumatization is the juxtaposition of past and present events: when she accepts the news of Paula’s brain damage and loses hope for her full recovery, the author also reaches the peak of pain in the story of her life—her unwanted exile in Venezuela after the assassination of her uncle, Chilean president Salvador Allende. This mirroring of an old trauma with a new one shows a repeating pain in the author’s life, in both cases caused by unwanted abandonment, first of her country (which at the time did not have a chance of ‘‘recovery’’), then of her hope for Paula’s physical and mental recovery from her illness. Other losses come into the story as well: that of Meme and Tata (grandparents who die years apart, leaving both emptiness and fulfillment in the author’s heart), of her own father who deserts the family before she can ever remember him, of her favorite uncle, of her brothers who become estranged, of her first marriage, which disintegrates while in exile, and so forth. These painful experiences range from personal to national, showing that trauma as a phenomenon exists and shapes not only individual lives but the lives of cultures, histories, and societies as well. When the doctors test Paula’s peripheral nerves by administering electric shocks to her arms and legs, Allende is ‘‘thinking of all the men and women and children in Chile who were tortured in a very similar way with electric prods.’’

Allende’s recollections of these various traumatic events serve a twofold purpose in the text. First, they reveal what the author has already survived and how she and those around her dealt with these losses; and second, they document her attempt to survive the tragedy at hand, perhaps by remembering the coping strategies she used in the past. Admittedly, the most powerful strategy for Allende is writing; at the beginning of the book, she says to Paula that her first novel (The House of the Spirits) began as a letter to her dying grandfather in an effort to deal with the pain she felt about his death and her own life in exile. Writing can be an effective way to relive the traumatic experience without being overwhelmed by it. In fact, Allende relates the accumulation of her life’s traumas to her need to organize her memories so that she can deal with Paula’s situation. Trying to fight off the sufferer’s disorientation in time, she writes: ‘‘I am trampled by memories, all happening in one instant, as if my entire life were a single, unfathomable image.’’ The text further reveals the traumatic nature of Allende’s memory in its uncontrollability: ‘‘My past has little meaning; I can see no order in it, no clarity, purpose, or path, only a blind journey guided by instincts and detours caused by events beyond my control.’’ Yet, writing has the benefit of giving trauma shape and some unity and of taking it from the abstract realm of one’s mind into the concrete realm of text:

Looking back, I view the totality of my fate and, with a little luck, I shall find meaning for the person I am . . . My grandmother wrote in her notebooks to safeguard the fleeting fragments of the days and outwit loss of memory. I am trying to distract death.’’

Another symptom of trauma apparent in Allende’s writing of Paula is a sense of fragmentation she repeatedly describes. For example, when her husband Willie visits her in Madrid, the author experiences her physical existence once again and reaffirms herself: she touches parts of her body and rediscovers life in it. Putting these parts together is a process that Allende employs in writing the book itself—taking pieces of her past, segments of memory, and putting them together into an autobiography. That way, she can once again find stability in a life ruptured by sadness. After months of feeling overwhelmed by Paula’s tragedy, the author attempts to reestablish a sense of self outside the trauma that has come to define her everyday existence: ‘‘This is me, I’m a woman, I’m Isabel, I’m not turning into smoke, I have not disappeared.’’

The fact that Allende wrote an autobiography at this point in her life can be seen as an effort to negotiate the importance of the traumatic event as well as to let go of it. In preserving her feelings of loss and desperation in text, Allende manages to retain the event—in a way, ‘‘saving’’ the trauma on paper—and thus acknowledges the significance of losing Paula from her life. However, because the author writes about her life’s experiences in the book, she also recognizes and reestablishes herself through the cycle of life that keeps her going. The fact that the book about the mother’s life is dedicated to her dying daughter is a recovery that works in two ways: although she has created a tangible memorial to Paula, Allende has also contextualized the event as a part of her existence instead of the other way around. By the book’s end, it becomes obvious that the author has learned to negotiate with her feelings and that she is ready to let Paula go into the spiritual realm that encompasses all existence: ‘‘I am the void, I am everything that exists, I am in every leaf of the forest, in every drop of the dew, in every particle of ash carried by the stream, I am Paula and I am also Isabel, I am nothing and all other things in this life and other lives, immortal. Godspeed, Paula, woman. Welcome, Paula, spirit.’’

Overall, Allende’s autobiography is an ultimate testimony to survival after a tragic loss. The style and structure of Paula ultimately reveal the writer’s state of mind although many other textual elements counter her record of her suffering. The book’s humorous and buoyant tone, picturesque descriptions, magical depictions of everyday reality, and a cast of life-affirming personae are nevertheless delicately balanced against the author’s painful attempts to deal with trauma in her life as well as in her literary work. An exemplary document of private as well as public trauma, Paula is a case study of the presence of an author’s emotion in literature.

Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, Critical Essay on Paula, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

The Life Force of Language

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The night before this interview I attended a talk by Isabel Allende at Georgetown University—a stop on a long publicity tour for her memoir, Paula (HarperCollins). Allende spoke about her book, which she began in 1991 in a hospital in Madrid, where her daughter was being treated for porphyria. A beautiful, intelligent, active young woman in her late twenties, Paula had just married a young Spaniard. She was working as a volunteer with poor children at a Catholic school in Madrid when she became ill. Although porphyria is rarely fatal, due to an error in procedure, an accident, or some other unknown circumstance, Paula never came out of her coma and died on December 6, 1992. In spite of the fact that Paula was engendered by a tragedy, this is not a sad book, for Allende emphasizes the beautiful moments she spent with her daughter as much as the physical destruction caused by the disease.

In her presentation, Allende spoke of the most difficult moments of her long, hard ordeal, but she also read humorous passages about her own life, including one in which she recounts her experiences as a chorus girl at the follies, when she was researching an article for a feminist magazine. I was impressed with the ease with which she passed from terribly painful to amusing segments of the book, laughing and provoking laughter, telling embarrassing anecdotes, answering difficult questions. Small, pretty, and very sharp, in front of an audience Allende is a professional in complete control of her medium—perhaps due to the long years she worked on Chilean television. It was obvious that this presentation had been carefully orchestrated and rehearsed, one of many that she was giving to promote her new book in countless cities. And yet, one sensed terrible sadness behind the protective shield. After the talk, several listeners remained in their seats sobbing disconsolately.

I asked Allende where she found the strength and vitality to do these presentations night after night, week after week—how she could go on talking about Paula and laughing, how she managed to get on with her life—because her energy was indeed amazing. ‘‘When the idea to do this book tour came up, I was terrified,’’ she admits. ‘‘I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. Obviously because the topic is very hard for me to deal with, and also because it’s all still very fresh in my mind. Two things have helped me a lot. One is people’s reaction. There’s a marvelous energy that the public transmits. You can feel people’s affection, their openness, their tolerance, their understanding. So many people come up to me with a letter they’ve written on the back of a ticket, a little note, or a gift to tell me that they’ve lost someone close . . . Or often very young girls who identify with Paula . . . The second thing is that I read these texts in English, and the language constitutes a filter. These aren’t the words that I wrote; they’re the words of my translator, and that creates a little space between the text and me, which helps. But those few times I’ll have to do it in Spanish I think will be very hard.’’

In her talk at Georgetown Allende spoke of the mask of language she hides behind. Nevertheless, people penetrate that mask and feel her pain. ‘‘It’s that the pain is always there,’’ she explains. ‘‘It’s part of my nature. It’s like wrinkles and grey hair. Those things are part of me now. I welcome a feeling that I know will be with me the rest of my life. Each time I see a long-haired girl in blue jeans walking down the street, I think it’s Paula. And often I find myself with my hand on the phone ready to call her—because I called her all the time, almost every day—and then I realize that there’s no place to call her. What I’m saying is, that’s going to be with me always . . . and I have to live with it.’’

Four years ago Allende was at a party celebrating the publication of The Infinite Plan (HarperCollins), feeling elated, triumphant, thinking that she had reached the high point of her career, when she received the call that Paula was in the hospital. When she arrived at the intensive care unit and was informed of her daughter’s state, she was convinced that Paula would get better. She began to write during the long hours of waiting at the hospital; it was a way of killing time. Besides, she thought that Paula might not remember certain things when she awakened, and the book—a long memoir of the author’s life with family anecdotes and descriptions of the political situation—would serve to orient her.

‘‘My mother told me: ‘Write or you’ll die,’’’ says Allende, ‘‘and I started to think that as long as I wrote, Paula would stay alive. It was a way of defying death. My mother saw the end way before I did. Life is full of signs and premonitions, if only we knew how to read them. I had a lot of trouble coming to terms with the truth.’’

Allende began jotting down her thoughts and recollections on a yellow pad. She didn’t intend to write a book, so the procedure never became a literary project. ‘‘At least not while I was writing,’’ she says. ‘‘Now it is, because it’s out of my hands. But writing was so tied to everything that happened . . . From the moment when Paula got sick I began to write, and I wrote during the entire year she was ill and during the fist year of mourning. It was like part of the process, I never separated it completely. There are no variations in an illness like this one, nothing ever happens. There are no reactions. I wrote a lot of letters to my mother . . . when I went back over them I saw that none of them revealed any kind of change . . . Everything is the same from the first day to the last. Writing was a means of separating the days, of allowing time to pass and fixing it in my memory. It was like, by writing the day, the day happened. Without that, everything was the same. Writing was so tied to the process of grieving and also trying to help Paula that the book never developed an independent life. It’s just that it wasn’t a book. It started to be a book a lot later. So it never had its own life. When I wrote the last draft of the book, we still hadn’t decided whether or not to publish it because I wasn’t really writing it for anyone but myself, first of all, and then for my son, Nicolás, and my grandchildren. Porphyria is a genetic problem. Nicolás may have it. It might possibly show up in the children. It’s a dominant gene, so it’s very possible that the children have it. I thought it was important to leave them a testimony of what happened. Who knows when it might happen again?’’

Nevertheless, today book publishing has become a commercial enterprise. Under the circumstances, marketing Paula must have been tremendously difficult for Allende. ‘‘I never had to do this before The Infinite Plan,’’ she explains. ‘‘When I changed publishers, HarperCollins stipulated in the contract that I had to do book tours. And I did the one for The Infinite Plan under terrible conditions because my daughter had died some six months before. I had to go all over the country, to eighteen cities, talking about The Infinite Plan, which didn’t have anything to do with Paula’s story, with a truly broken heart. So that was a really traumatic experience. This time, as well, I approached it with certain terror, but it hasn’t been so bad. Of course, I don’t think of it as selling the book. Instead, I think of it as talking about Paula. And somehow a sort of spiritual clearing forms in which I can take refuge, even on this trip, because the topic is a spiritual one.’’

There has been a lot of talk about the influence of other writers, especially Gabriel García Márquez, on Allende’s work. However, in Paula there can be no question of imitation. The tone is intimate and the voice, absolutely authentic. The author insists that the question was raised years ago with respect to The House of Spirits (Knopf, 1985) but hasn’t come up since. ‘‘I believe that every story has its own way of being told, every story has its own tone,’’ she says. ‘‘I had never written nonfiction before . . . well, of course, when I was a journalist, but I’d never written a whole book that wasn’t fiction. But the tone of this book is very different from that of the others. This one is written the way I speak.’’

Allende believes that Paula is different from everything else she has written. ‘‘I can’t judge it from a literary perspective,’’ she says, ‘‘and I can’t compare it with other books because it would be unfair both to this book and the others; they’re two different genres . . . I don’t know what I’m going to write in the future. I don’t even know if I’m going to write. I feel that during my whole life I was preparing to write this book. And what comes after, I don’t know. I have the impression that nothing. All I feel is a great emptiness.’’

As for her evolution as a writer, she says: ‘‘I’ve learned very little. I’ve learned to cut a lot, to be more and more critical of my own work. But I have the impression that for each book you have to start from scratch. I know certain things that I’ll never do again. For example, I can’t try to force the story or the characters in a particular direction because I have a preconceived notion of how things should be, because that doesn’t work for me. When I try to do that, everything falls apart. I have to follow the natural course the story takes all by itself. As if I could just interpret something that’s in the air, but not create something new. That’s something I’ve learned. And I’ve learned to be disciplined. I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in work. In my case, inspiration doesn’t cut it; what cuts it is sitting all day, six or eight hours, and working. And that’s something I know now, so I don’t even wait for the story to fall out of the blue because I know that won’t happen. And to edit, to do a lot of editing. But I always have the impression when I start on a new project that I don’t know anything. Nothing.

‘‘It seems to me that all my books are written differently. The House of the Spirits has an oneiric, magical tone. Of Love and Shadows (Knopf, 1987) is a police story that could have been written by a journalist. Eva Luna (Knopf, 1988) has a very different tone because there’s a strong element of irony; it’s a book that can be read on a lot of different levels. On the first, it could just be the story of Eva Luna; on another, the story that she invents about herself; on another, the soap opera that she’s writing about the story that she’s inventing about herself. There are a lot of steps to reading it. And that sensation of peeling an onion, I had it while I was writing. It’s very different from my other books. The Infinite Plan is a story that was already there. My job was to re-create it, but all the characters already existed, and the entire story existed. Even the title existed because my husband’s father was the one who invented the religion called the Infinite Plan, and that’s where the story came from. So I even stole the title from him. Everything!’’

Allende also has a popular collection of short fiction, The Stories of Eva Luna (MacMillan, 1991). ‘‘People are always asking me for stories, but they’re difficult to write,’’ she says. ‘‘Stories are like apples. They come to you whole, round. Any little thing that’s off, the story is ruined. There’s one advantage, though: it’s that you can work in segments, in segments of time. In two or three weeks, you can write a story. On the other hand, a novel is a commitment that can last two, three years. It’s like falling in love. On the other hand, a short story is like a one-night stand!’’

When she’s working on a book, Allende follows a rigid schedule. She has one day—January 8—when she begins all her projects, ‘‘because it’s too easy to put off writing,’’ she says. ‘‘There’s always something better to do, like play with the grandchildren, for example, so I need the discipline of always beginning on the same day. And once I begin, I don’t start any other project until I finish the first one. I write just one book at a time, I never have several projects going at the same time. I write in the morning rather than in the afternoon because I’m more creative and energetic in the morning than in the afternoon. I get up very early, at six, and I go to another town, where I have a study, a garage that my husband fixed up like a study, and that’s where I work. In the afternoon, at about two more or less, I have to take care of my correspondence. There’s always more and more mail; we’re forever waiting for it to crest and die down, but it doesn’t, it just . . . it’s like bureaucracy, it can only grow. Unless it’s contracts, invitations . . . my assistant—who fortunately is also my daughter-in-law, Celia in the book—she takes care of all that. She deals with it . . . she’s really my boss. The letters, the fan letters, I answer them all personally. Because, if a person is kind enough to write me a letter, to look up my address and send it to me, at least I can answer it. That takes quite a bit of time.

‘‘Generally, I type right into the computer a draft into which I pour everything. That’s the part I like best, telling the story, without worrying about how it will come out. And after I’ve written the whole story, which takes about three or four months, I print it and read it for the first time. Then I know what it’s all about. After that, I begin to clean it up, to leave the main story and get rid of all the extraneous material. That’s for a novel, not for a memoir or stories, which are different. And then, there’s a second draft in which the story is there, defined, and another in which I only worry about tension, language . . . I polish it, I polish it carefully . . . I don’t know how long that takes because with the computer you correct and overcorrect and correct again right on the screen . . . I don’t print it each time. And when I have the feeling that it’s pretty much ready, I print it out and send it to my mother in Chile.

‘‘My mom reads it with a red pencil. Then she gets on the first plane she can find and comes to California. We lock ourselves up in the dining room to fight, and we fight for about a month. There’s no better editor than my mother. She’s heartless, absolutely cruel. She says things that would destroy any writer . . . If she weren’t my mother, I’d have killed her already! But I know she does it because she loves me. She demands a lot from me because she loves me so much. She’s not jealous of me, and she doesn’t have a preconceived notion of what will sell, the way an editor from a publishing house might. A professional editor might be thinking . . . well, if we put a sex scene on page 40, we’ll sell more copies. Such an idea would never occur to my mother. She just goes by the quality. She insists and insists. We polish it between the two of us, and then she leaves and I continue polishing the draft by myself, incorporating a large number of my mother’s suggestions, but not all of them, because my mom, for example, is shocked by the fact that I include sex scenes in my books. Sometimes I don’t even show them to her. Now, with the computer, I censor them before she sees them.’’ Allende bursts out laughing, proof that she hasn’t lost her sense of humor. ‘‘If there’s some reference to the pope, I censor that too,’’ she says, still laughing.

Although Allende’s books have been translated into many languages and are praised all over the Western world, she has not been immune to negative criticism. I asked her how adverse commentaries affect her, whether they hurt her or simply roll off her back. ‘‘It depends,’’ she answers. ‘‘There are criticisms that are just negative and others that are malicious. And there’s quite a difference. I can accept that someone doesn’t like what I write for some reason. But at times I perceive meanness in the criticism. Meanness that comes from the fact that I wrote something that someone doesn’t understand for any particular reason. Or because there was antagonism there to start with. Sometimes it’s happened to me that another writer, often a man, criticizes my work, and you can tell from his comments that he is envious. His tone is nasty. That bothers me. But it doesn’t bother me that much, because in reality, public response is what really matters in the long run. There are criticisms that are very destructive. The worst review in the history of literature appeared in the New York Review of Books on Eva Luna. This is an important piece because it goes to all the bookstores, all the libraries, so any students or other people who are studying my work or want to know anything about me, the first thing they’ll do is go to the library and look for criticism, and the first thing they’ll find is that one, which is horrible. A man who is an expert on baseball and took a trip to Latin America wrote it. Someone thought that because he had traveled in Latin America, he was the person to write about Eva Luna. He didn’t understand the book at all, and he tore it apart in the most vicious way possible. And that bothered me because, who is this guy? What moral or literary authority does he have to take a book he didn’t even understand and tear it apart?’’

In spite of being the subject of many studies and theses, Allende admits that she doesn’t keep up with the latest literary criticism. ‘‘I never studied literature,’’ she explains. ‘‘And I haven’t taught it, either. I’ve taught creative writing, which isn’t the same thing. So fortunately, I’m not up on all the theories, which terrify me! But I get a lot of studies done by students, books written by professors on my work . . . Generally, I don’t understand them. I think it’s the same with most writers. One writes as one can, the best one can, and it’s the job of other people to vivisect what one produces, to explain it, but it’s difficult for a writer to explain her own work. I have maybe four papers on Barrabás, the dog in The House of the Spirits . . . what the dog symbolizes . . . It was just a dog who lived in my house and his name was Barrabás, that’s all! But how can I explain to a student who has been working on a thesis on Barrabás for a year that he’s just a dog? I’d feel awful!’’ The author laughs as she remembers the strange explanations that some critics have given to different characters or episodes in her books. ‘‘I think it can also be very paralyzing if you have that kind of explanation in your head . . . if you’re always thinking about those theories, about what the critics are going to say,’’ she says. ‘‘You wind up writing for professors and critics, which is very dangerous.’’

Some feminist critics have insisted that there is such a thing as ‘‘women’s writing,’’ which, according to the French theorist Hélène Cixous, is more spontaneous, natural, and fluid than men’s writing. Allende approaches these theories rather cautiously because, in her opinion, ‘‘women have been segregated from everything in life, including writing. So, when we talk about literature, we just suppose it’s masculine and it’s not qualified by an adjective. When women write, they call it ‘women’s literature’ as if it were a minor genre. I think we women have to be careful not to fall into that trap ourselves. Nevertheless, on the one hand, literature is always the same and language, the instrument that we use, is always the same. But, of course, it’s also true that there’s such a thing as point of view, perspective, which is determined by one’s sex, one’s age, one’s place of birth, the social class one is born into, the race one is born into. All these things determine a biography, a world view and, therefore, a form of writing. Why do women chose subjects different from the ones men choose? Why do women read certain books that just don’t interest men, and vice versa? Because certain things are common to our sex.’’

The House of the Spirits, the book that launched Allende’s career, continues to be her most highly praised work. In spite of this, however, it seems that certain aspects of the novel have been understood only superficially by readers outside of Chile. For example, The House of the Spirits is one of the few books that really show the diversity of opinion among conservatives during the socialist regime in Chile. Many of the conservatives of the generation of Esteban Trueba, the protagonist’s grandfather, were afraid of change and unable to support socialism on ideological grounds, but felt that when Salvador Allende fell, Chile would return to its democratic roots. When they saw what Pinochet’s dictatorship brought, they were horrified. Outside Chile, there is a tendency to classify the opponents of socialism automatically as supporters of the dictatorship. Nevertheless, Allende shows that this was not the case.

I asked her if she feels that readers grasp this aspect of the novel. ‘‘Some, yes,’’ she says. ‘‘But others get angry. For example, when The House of the Spirits was published, it was during the worst part of the repression in Chile. And the message at the end is reconciliation. Not forgetting, but yes, reconciliation, with the idea that a new country could be built—or the country could be restored— only on a foundation of national reconciliation. It just wasn’t possible to go on proliferating hatred systematically forever and ever, on and on, because that way we would never end the violence. That set very badly among the people who had suffered repression firsthand in Chile, because it was practically asking them to forgive in a period when no one was entertaining that idea yet. So I had a very negative reaction from the people on the left, and of course, a horrible one from the people on the right, because I tried to explain the circumstances under which the coup occurred; I spoke clearly of torture and the horror that took place under the military regime, which, back then, it was still possible to deny because we were living with censorship and self-censorship, so nothing was being published about it and people could say no, those are just Communist rumors and not accept what was really happening in Chile. Nowadays it’s almost impossible for people to keep on denying it. It’s very difficult. There are still people who do, but those are just dinosaurs who really don’t matter. So I had bad reactions from both sides. But there was a huge number of people in the middle who did understand the subtleties of how things were, because in every family there were people on both sides. The country was divided, families were divided, couples were divided. So a lot of people did understand, and the book was very well received by those people in the middle. Now, how the public understands it in the United States or in, say, Denmark, I don’t know. I just don’t know.’’

In 1994 a film based on The House of the Spirits was released, with Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, and Antonio Banderas. It received mixed reviews, but the author liked it a lot. However, she says, ‘‘I felt a few things were missing. The lack of humor, that’s what bothered me the most. I don’t know if you know Jeremy Irons . . . he’s the funniest person imaginable. I think that in the book, in The House of the Spirits, except in the very most tragic moments, there’s a current of irony and humor that just isn’t in the movie. I found that lacking, and also a more Latin touch . . . I would have liked more . . . more of that Latin tone. But I did like the film very much.’’

It is hard to believe, in spite of what she says, that Allende has no plans for the future. She is too dynamic to remain inactive, and she loves writing too much to give it up. She admits that she has already begun another project: ‘‘Well, January 8 always prompts me to begin another book,’’ she says. ‘‘And I did begin something. Let’s see when I finish with all this, if I can spend time on it and create another book. But I don’t feel the passion to write it that I’ve felt before, with other books. I think it’s because Paula is still too fresh. I just finished the memoir last October. It was published immediately in Spain in December. Everything has gone so fast that I haven’t had time to breathe. It’s been too fast.’’

In spite of how hard it has been, at least she is fortunate enough to be able to count on the support of her family: ‘‘I have a husband, a son, and a daughter-in-law, who want only for me to write, because that way I don’t bother them. They want me to be locked up writing all the time. My husband met me because he fell in love with one of my books . . . Of Love and Shadows . . . He read it in English, he fell in love with it, and so he went to San José [California] when I was on a book tour, and that’s where he met me. So, he came to me because he admired my work. And his admiration for my work hasn’t diminished at all. It’s a nice feeling because, as a Latin woman, I’ve had to struggle my whole life against the lack of respect of the male establishment . . . in every aspect of my life. For example, it took many years before my stepfather, whom I adore, was able to respect me professionally, in my career. He automatically respected the male children. Women, we have to earn respect from one day to the next. It’s hard. To have to fight like that during your whole life leaves you scarred.’’

But Allende hasn’t lost faith in people. She sees her book Paula as a celebration of existence, of all the things in the world that are beautiful and worthwhile. She concludes a conversation with these words: ‘‘The only thing I want to say is that this book, in spite of the tragic subject matter and the tragic circumstances under which I wrote it, is not a book about death. It’s not a sad book. I think it’s a book about life . . . about family . . . about relationships . . . about love . . . about all the things that are important and should be celebrated in my life and in Paula’s.’’

Source: Isabel Allende and Barbara Mujica, ‘‘The Life Force of Language,’’ in Americas, Vol. 47, No. 6, November/ December 1995, pp. 36–43.

In the House of Spirits

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‘‘Listen, Paula, I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.’’ With those simple, enchanted words, the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende begins Paula, a memoir of devastating passion dedicated to her daughter. Sadly, unlike Sleeping Beauty, Paula Frias Allende will never awaken to hear her mother’s tale. She has fallen, at the age of 28, into a sudden coma caused by the rare illness of porphyria, which has left her speechless, motionless, lost in an angelic stupor that is broken only rarely by tears and trembling. As her mother unfolds her tale, patiently seeking to awaken Paula and bring her back to the world of the living, Paula edges closer to death. By the end, she becomes a gentle spirit who appears to her mother in the night, asking to be released from the suffering and weight of her body. Allende must finally confront a harsh truth: not only that her tale won’t save her daughter, but that she must cease her storytelling altogether, that it is keeping Paula strapped to a reality she no longer inhabits.

Paula, despite the title, is not a biography or even an account of the life of Isabel Allende’s daughter. It is Allende’s own autobiography, told to a daughter who has entered a limbo between life and death. Paula’s entrance into that border zone becomes the occasion for Isabel Allende to tell her own life story. The dying daughter becomes a mirror in which the mother reaffirms her reality and comes to terms with the decisions she has made as a woman and a writer. In the cruelest possible twisting of the order of things, Paula must die before her mother, must become a daughter who gives birth to her mother. This unflinchingly honest self-portrait becomes Allende’s parting gift to her daughter.

How inspiring it is for any woman who feels she has yet to do the work that really matters to read Isabel Allende’s story of how she found her calling as a novelist. Allende recalls, ‘‘New Year’s, 1981. That day brought home the fact that soon I would be forty and had not until then done anything truly significant. Forty! that was the beginning of the end, and I did not have to stretch too much to imagine myself sitting in a rocking chair knitting socks.’’ Unable to imagine what she might do that would seem significant in her own eyes, she makes a number of sensible New Year’s resolutions. She resolves to stay indefinitely in Venezuela, where she’d gone into exile with her husband, her two children, her mother and her stepfather in 1975 after General Pinochet toppled the democratic government of her uncle, Salvador Allende, and instituted a regime of repression, torture and terror. She resolves to continue working steadily at a school in Caracas for children with emotional problems, which will provide security and stability. And she resolves to ‘‘sacrifice love’’ for the ‘‘noble companionship’’ of a good husband, for whom she no longer feels any passion.

‘‘The plan was entirely rational—and it lasted not quite a week,’’ Allende tells us. On January 8, in a phone call from Santiago de Chile, she learns that Tata, her beloved grandfather, soon to turn one hundred years old, is dying. She begins to write a letter ‘‘to tell him he could go in peace because I would never forget him and planned to bequeath his memory to my children and my children’s children.’’ That letter, like a wild weed, quickly and unexpectedly grows into the five hundred pages of her novel, The House of the Spirits, and it is Paula who, in another strange gesture of premonition, tosses the coin that helps Allende choose the title of the book that will completely change her life.

Not long after, Allende writes a second novel, Of Love and Shadows, to prove to her literary agent in Spain that she is a serious writer and not just the accidental lucky author of a bestseller. All her sensible plans for a quiet and predictable life joyfully unravel. She quits her job at the school, gracefully undoes her marriage in a single afternoon and lets passion sweep over her in California, where she meets Willie, a cowboy-booted lawyer who’d given up on women, and overnight convinces herself and him that they have found in each other the passion of a lifetime. Sound romantic? Well, it is, and Allende, a magical writer, makes you believe that ‘‘happily ever after’’ is still possible, and in the very prime of a woman’s life.

Now, Allende desperately wishes she could trade her life for her daughter’s life. She is a privileged woman, in that she can afford to be present constantly at Paula’s bedside and can hire others to help with all the complicated details of her daughter’s daily care. But like Job she struggles with God, asking why her daughter had to be anointed early, so early, as a spirit? For a writer whose first best-selling novel was entitled The House of the Spirits, it is ironic to see that fictional house of spirits transformed into her real-life daughter’s home.

Indeed, the Premonitions of her fiction haunt Allende throughout the writing of Paula. Especially eerie to her is the foresight embedded in her short story, ‘‘And Of Clay Are We Created,’’ which was inspired by the 1985 avalanche in Colombia that buried a village in mud. Among those trapped was Omaira Sánchez, a thirteen-year-old girl who became the focus of attention of news-hungry photographers, journalists and television cameras that fixed their curious and helpless eyes on the girl who kept her faith in life as she bravely met her death. In that horrid audience of onlookers, there was one man, a reporter, who made the decision to stop observing Omaira from the lens of his camera and lay down in the mud to offer her what comfort he could as her heart and lungs collapsed. Allende, who was obsessed by ‘‘the torment of that poor child buried alive,’’ wrote her story from the perspective of a woman—and she was that woman—‘‘who watches the televised struggle of the man holding the girl.’’

Allende assumed that once the story was published (in The Stories of Eva Luna), Omaira would disappear from her life. But Omaira, she discovers, is

a dogged angel who will not let me forget her. When Paula fell into a coma and became a prisoner in her bed, inert, dying slowly before the helpless gaze of all around her, I remembered the face of Omaira Sánchez. My daughter was trapped in her body, as the girl had been trapped in mud. Only then did I understand why I had thought about her all those years, and finally could decipher the message in those intense black eyes: patience, courage, resignation, dignity in the face of death.

She reaches a paradoxical conclusion: ‘‘If I write something, I fear it will happen, and if I love too much, I fear I will lose that person; nevertheless, I cannot stop writing or loving . . .’’

Like the reporter who joins the girl in the mud, Allende, too, relinquishes the detached observer position. For her, this means exiling herself from the territory of fiction, which in the past has allowed her to invent the destinies of her characters and so removed reality to a safe and controllable distance. Until her daughter fell ill, she remarks, she much preferred to write fiction. But with Paula’s descent into death, Allende comes to feel she can only write about the world that lies insistently before her as if

a dark curtain has separated me from the fantasy world in which I used to moves so freely, reality has become intractable . . . Everything is suspended, I have nothing to tell, the present has the brutal certainty of tragedy. I close my eyes and before me rises the painful image of my daughter in her wheelchair, her eyes staring toward the sea, her gaze focused beyond the horizon where death begins.

The pages of the memoir that Allende writes at her daughter’s bedside in a Madrid hospital and later in her home in California are

an irreversible voyage through a long tunnel; I can’t see an exit but I know there must be one. I can’t go back, only continue to go forward, step by step, to the end. As I write, I look for a sign, hoping that Paula will break her implacable silence and answer somehow in these yellow pages ...

Paula is a heartbreaking lament, written with the charged poetry that emerges at those times when there is an urgent need to speak, though one knows that words, no matter how ravishingly spoken, will change nothing. Isabel Allende couldn’t save her daughter by writing Paula, nor even by enlisting every kind of therapy and remedy, from the most advanced biomedical techniques to acupuncture and astrology. And yet it is a tribute to Allende’s skill as a writer and the depth of her soul-searching that Paula, written on the eve of death, is immensely life-affirming. This is one of those unusual books about suffering that has no use for pity, that manages, somehow, in a situation of utter depletion, to give much more to the reader than would have seemed possible. One reads Paula with gratitude for the way it poignantly marks the loss of a daughter while restoring faith in the power of language to free those of us women who are still in this world and still caught in the labyrinths of our own lives. And Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation into English is so exquisite that the unpretentious lyricism of Allende’s Spanish seems to glow on the page.

In the face of her daughter’s dying, Allende may have felt unable to write fiction, but like Eva Luna, the protagonist of her third book, she has clearly set out to live her life ‘‘like a novel.’’ Or at least, to her daughter, Paula, to try to awaken her, she tells her life as if it were a novel. In that novel of her life, Isabel Allende emerges as a woman who isn’t afraid of her own desire, or her own happiness. She is able to admit, at one of the worst moments of her grief, ‘‘I have lived nearly half a century, my daughter is dying, and still I want to make love. I think of Willie’s reassuring presence and feel goosebumps rise on my skin, and can only smile at the amazing power of desire that makes me shiver despite my sorrow, even push death from my mind.’’ Embracing life and love with all her might, Allende honors the memory of Paula and lets her go, gently, back out into the universe.

Source: Ruth Behar, ‘‘In the House of Spirits,’’ in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 2, November 1995, p. 8.


Critical Overview