A house divided

Christopher Hitchens write in the Introduction of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende:

For people of a certain generation (my own, to be exact: those of us sometimes vulgarly described as the baby-boomers), the imagery and cosmology of Chile is a part of ourselves. A country shaped like a long, thin, jagged blade, forming the littoral of almost an entire continent, and poised to crumble into the ocean leaving only the Andes behind. A place of earthquakes and wine and poets, like some Antarctic Aegean. And a place of arms: the scene of the grand 20th-century confrontation between Allende and Pinochet. The nation’s territory includes the Atacama desert, an expanse of rainforest, a huge deposit of copper, a great valley full of vines, and the mysteriously statued Polynesian outpost of Easter Island, known to the indigenous as Rapanui, or “the navel of the world”.

The voices and portents in La Casa de los Espiritus are also somewhat cryptic at times, as befits the school of “magical realism”. This style, or manner, was actually pioneered somewhat earlier than most people think, by Jorge Luis Borges in neighbouring Argentina. In 1926 he published an essay, “Tales of Turkestan”, in which he hymned the sort of story where “the marvellous and the everyday are entwined … there are angels as there are trees”. In 1931, in The Postulation of Magic, he announced that fiction was “an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments”, as bodied forth in the “predestined” Ulysses of James Joyce.

From the very beginning of Isabel Allende’s narration, disbelief is suspensible in the most natural way, and (if you pay attention) the premonitions begin to register. Rather cleverly – and subversively – the action begins in a church. Bored by the blackmailing liturgy, and by the devotional decorations which make an everyday trade out of the officially supernatural, the Trueba family is preoccupied with the truly extraordinary developments within its own ranks. Effortlessly, we find ourselves conscripted into the truth of this tale; from green hair to the gift of prophecy and divination and the taken-for-granted ability to fly. Just off the centre of the stage, in carefully placed hints and allusions to the Prussian goose-step, to the future burning of the books and to the Marxist gentleman referred to as “the candidate”, we can also pick up the faint drum-taps of the far-off tragic denouement.

Children and animals are often the conveyors of the magical: innocence and experience being in their cases less immediately distinguishable. Clara and the dog Barrabás would make an almost cartoonish filmic double-act for anyone with the necessary entrepreneurial imagination: a sort of Scooby-Doo with the facts of life thrown in.

Here it is Isabel Allende’s brilliantly dead-pan and dry humour, concerning such things as the beast Barrabás’s murderous penis, that draw us into the story and make us surrender. In counterpoint to this highly bearable lightness, her notes of seriousness are correspondingly weighty. (Why does nobody ever believe Clara’s prophecies? Because nobody ever believed Cassandra.) By the time we reach chapter five (“The Lovers”) we are suddenly aware that we are watching a parody of Animal Farm in reverse, with a song about the chickens organising to defeat the fox, heard by a wealthy landowner who wants to put a stop to such romantic nonsense.

The romance between the rich man’s daughter and the penniless son of the peasant is such a folkloric cliché that one has to become wary for an instant, even with an author who has already won one’s trust. However, The House Of The Spirits depends for its ingenuity on the blending of the microcosmic with the macrocosmic: the little society of the family and the wider society of Chile.

Read the Introduction in its entirety here.