Lori Barra. Used with permission.
Like many of her fictional characters, Isabel Allende has spent
her life traveling to and living in many places. She was born to
diplomat parents in Lima in 1942, and when not in her Chilean homeland,
lived in Europe, Lebanon and Bolivia. Following the 1973 overthrow
of Salvador Allende, Chile's president and Isabel's uncle, she lived
in exile in Caracas for thirteen years. Since 1987, when she met
and married San Francisco lawyer William Gordon, she has lived and
worked in Northern California.
Allende's life in letters reflects the migrations of her personal
life. It was from her Caracas exile that she began on January 8,
1981 writing a “spiritual
letter” to her dying grandfather. This text soon became
her debut novel, La Casa de los espíritus (The
House of the Spirits), and that
date has become a ceremonial and ritualistic starting point
in the creation of all her subsequent works.
After being rejected by several Spanish-language publishers, The
House of the Spirits became an instant best seller when published
in Barcelona in 1982. Similar success followed the French and German
editions in 1984 and the English translation in 1985. Using a narrative
style in which the magical and the real blend together seamlessly,
Allende traces the history of her native (although unnamed) Chile
through several generations of women, up to the aftermath of the
tragic 1973 coup d’etat. It is narrated by the granddaughter
of the clan, Alba, who pieces together her family’s past from
numerous notebooks written by her grandmother Clara. It is both
a family saga and an account of the tragic fate of a country under
the tyranny of military rule - where the personal and the historical
blend together just as do the magical and the real. The novel is
the first of many Allende narratives in which independent-minded
women challenge traditional male authority.
Allende's “magical realist” narrative technique immediately
and inevitably led critics to compare The House of the Spirits
to that mammoth of Latin American literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970). In one of her earlier
interviews, Allende herself addressed this point, noting that Garcia
Marquez’s masterpiece had “influenced me as it has influenced
almost all the writers of my generation.” This same question would recur frequently
in subsequent interviews.
Allende’s novelistic debut was followed by De amor y
sombras in 1984 (Of Love and Shadows, 1987), the story
of two journalists forced into exile after investigating the case
of a young woman who has “disappeared” under military
rule. Allende acknowledges without hesitation the novel’s
concrete historical and political impetus: “It is based on
a political massacre… in Chile… during the military
coup… The novel denounces repression and the impunity of murderers….”
and gives voice to Chilean public outrage after mass graves were
discovered in 1978 outside of Santiago. Unlike her previous novel,
Of Love and Shadows foregoes a magical dimension, instead
relying on a journalistic tone to denounce a political crime. Although
the setting is still Chile, it could have been any of the Latin
American countries under military rule that experienced similar
tragedies in the 1970s and 1980s.
After setting her first two novels in Chile, Allende shifts to
a more tropical landscape in Eva Luna (in Spanish, 1987;
and in English, 1988). Eva, the main character, relates her life
by means of a text within a text, as she creates a television soap
opera out of her own picaresque existence. The power of words becomes
an important tool of survival with which this illegitimate daughter
of an indigenous gardener and a maid forges a new identity for herself.
Cuentos de Eva Luna followed in 1989 (Stories of Eva
Luna, 1991), featuring characters that had appeared in the
previous novel. Allende’s first venture into the short story
genre, Stories of Eva Luna was written shortly after moving
to California, where she found herself in what she calls a “mildly
dysfunctional” home environment with multiple distractions,
where she could not focus on something as lengthy and demanding
as a novel.
Allende returned to the novel form in El Plan infinto,
which appeared in 1991 (The Infinite Plan, 1993) and makes
two major departures from her previous publications: it is set not
in Latin America but California, and the protagonist is a man. Based
on the life of Allende’s new husband, the Bildungsroman
traces the coming of age of Gregory Reeves, a young man raised among
Chicanos in the East Los Angeles barrio, and follows him through
college in Berkeley, service in Vietnam, and a tumultuous life afterwards.
It was received less warmly than her previous works, some critics
faulting its “mechanical” tone. But then this was Allende,
an author accustomed to writing out of the intimacy of her own personal
life, projecting a male Californian world that was doubly outside
her own experience. As novelist Jane Smiley speculated in the Boston
Globe, Allende had dared to do what few émigré
authors had even attempted: to write “from the point of view
of the native of the new country.”
In late 1991, while in Madrid to launch the first of her California
novels, Allende learned that her only daughter had fallen ill to
a rare disease. (She eventually lapsed into a coma from which she
never recovered and died a year later). Out of this tragedy emerged
Paula (in Spanish, 1994; and in English, 1995), in which
Allende is again impelled by an intense emotional need similar to
the urgency that characterized her very first writing experience.
Paula, like The House of the Spirits, is a letter
to a dying loved one that is a poignant memoir of mourning and
healing. It reached an even wider audience than her previous works
of fiction, also becoming an international bestseller.
Allende marked the end of a period of mourning her daughter's illness
and death with the autumn 1997 publication of the exuberant and
warmly received Afrodita: cuentos, recetas y otros afrodisíacos
(Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, 1998), a collection
of recipes for dishes with aphrodisiac powers, the culinary entries
accompanied by historical and literary musings on the twin pleasures
of Epicureanism and eroticism. The writing of this book was a healing
experience for the author, as Allende explains in the book’s
introduction: “…I knew that I was reaching the end of
a long tunnel of mourning… with a tremendous desire to eat
and cuddle once again….”
After almost a decade and two non-fiction works, Allende’s
long-awaited return to fiction came in 1999 with a historical drama,
Hija de la fortuna, published simultaneously in Spanish
and English (Daughter of Fortune). The novel follows the
life of Eliza Sommers, the Anglo-Chilean heroine, from her foster
parents' home in Chile through her adventure in search of her lover,
who had left for California during the Gold Rush. A review in The
New York Times called it a “harmless, happy monster of
a book,” noting that, “to the very end, there are plenty
of renegade currents threatening to pull the story in different
directions. That’s called an abundance of material, and in
Allende’s case there’s surely much more waiting in the
wings, ready to be moved onstage into her next book.”
And indeed there was more: Retrato en sepia (Portrait
in Sepia) appeared in May 2001, and a few months later in English,
becoming yet another best seller. Here Allende weaves together the
lives of Clara, one of the main characters from The House of
the Spirits, and her cousin Aurora, the narrator of Portrait
in Sepia, whose grandmother is a prominent figure in Daughters
of Fortune. Allende has thus created a trilogy, each volume
of which can be read independently The novels complement each other
so as to encompass a vast narrative “that begins in Chile
in 1843, takes its readers to the developing California frontier,
returns to Chile during the second half of the nineteenth century,
and finishes a century later with the military coup in 1973.”
Ever an adventurous writer, Allende’s most recent work demonstrates
her willingness to cross borders into new literary terrain. Her
2002 Ciudad de las bestias (City of the Beasts)
moves away from California, deep into the Amazon and marks her entry
into books for adolescents. Its sequel, Reino del dragon de
oro (Kingdom of the Golden Dragon), appeared simultaneously
in Spanish and English in 2003. Also in 2003 Allende published Mi
país inventado: un paseo nostálgico por Chile.
The book was issued that same year in English as My Invented
Country: A Nostalgic Journey to Chile (2003). Here she links
two different national tragedies, both mystically occurring on the
same date, September 11, and each greatly impacting her life and
the life of her country. The first was the violent 1973
overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile, her
native (yet "invented") country, and the years of repression
that followed; the second, the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center,
which scarred the national psyche of her adoptive country.
Perhaps even more striking than Allende's skillful passages between
genres is her growth into a popular, critically acknowledged novelist.
Today she is one of the most recognized voices of contemporary Latin
American literature, having earned a place in its pantheon beside
Gabriel García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar
and Mario Vargas Llosa, names associated with the "Latin American
Boom" of the 1960s and 1970s that preceded Allende.
In sales alone--by 1998 about thirty million copies of Allende’s
books in twenty-seven languages
had been printed--there is no doubt of her stature as a best-selling
author, an achievement that has had both good and ill effects on
her literary reputation. The highbrow Encyclopedia of Latin
does not even contain a separate entry under her name, but rather
includes her in its “Best-Sellers” article. This article
does, however, note that Latin America’s contemporary canonical
writers also are bestsellers, which are both critically accepted
and commercially successful.
Still, Allende has reached an even broader popular audience than
have García Marquez, Fuentes, Cortázar and Vargas
Llosa – and not only in Spanish. Germany is typical:
From 1981-1991 four Spanish American novelists – García
Marquez, Isabel Allende, Angeles Mastretta and Mario Vargas Llosa
– produced twelve works which were on the Spiegel/Buchereport
Best Seller list. The novel which sold the most copies was the
German translation of La casa de los espiritus (556,000
copies), followed by [García] Marquez’s El amor
en tiempos del colera (489,000 copies) and then Allende’s
Eva Luna (351,000 copies) and De amor y sombra
That is, three of the four top Latin American sellers during this
decade in Germany came from Allende's pen.
Her similar popularity in the United States comes not only from
the general public but also from a dedicated North American female
readership. When The House of the Spirits appeared, the
women’s magazine Vogue serialized some of its chapters.
And in early 2000, Allende made an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s
television talk show, where her Daughter of Fortune was
announced as the featured title for Oprah’s Book Club. “Within
eight hours [of Oprah's selection], Allende’s novel stands
atop the Amazon.com best seller list, and her website…received
more than 500,000 hits.”
While selection for Oprah's Book Club may be a dubious distinction
in some literary circles, it is worth noting that One Hundred
Years of Solitude is itself a current Oprah Book Club selection.
Who knows but that Isabel Allende may become one of the principal
peacemakers in the old and rancorous war between popular and serious
Not only millions
of contemporary readers but also a large number of critics have
developed an appreciation for Allende's literary gift, and for the
body of her work as a whole. One critic recently noted:
It is still
too early to tell what Isabel Allende’s status in the canons
of literature will be…. Regardless of the strict and narrow
guidelines of some official definitions of art, the legends of
Isabel Allende have moved readers of Latin American literature
in ways that few other authors have.
We are fortunate,
indeed, to welcome Isabel Allende to Stanford as a 2004 Presidential
Zinsser, William, ed. Paths of Resistance
the Art and Craft of the Political Novel. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1989, p. 50
Correas Zapata, Celia. Isabel Allende: Life
and Spirits (translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers
Peden). Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2002, p. 71.
As cited in “Isabel Allende,” American
Decades CD-ROM. Gale Research, 1998. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC>,
accessed on March 8, 2004.
Lopez, Ruth. “Left on a Genteel Doorstep.”
New York Times, October 24, 1999.
Coz, Karen Casellucci. Isabel Allende: A Critical
Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003, p. 139.
Cortinez, Veronica. “Isabel Allende.”
IN Latin American Writers. Supplement I. New York: Scribner’s
Sons, 2002. Page 2.
Smith, Verity (ed). Encyclopedia of Latin
American Literature. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997, p. 115.
Hart, Stephen M. Isabel Allende, “Eva
Luna” and “Cuentos de Eva Luna.” London:
Grant & Cuttler, 2003, p. 59.
Rodden, John. Conversations with Isabel Allende:
Revised Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004, p.
ibid., p. xix.
Cortinez, op cit., p 11.
Text by Adán Griego, Curator
of Latin American & Iberian Collections
Stanford University Libraries