With her debut novel, The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus,1982), Chilean author Isabel Allende did not only jump to the top of bestselling lists, but also made for herself a name in Latin-American as well as in world literature. With her unique blend of magical realism, following in the footpath opened by writers such as Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, she is currently one of the most interesting female voices in the Latin American literary panorama.
Born in 1942 in Lima, Peru, where her father held a diplomatic post, she moved to her parents’ native Chile at the age of three after her father abandoned the family just a few days after the birth of her youngest brother. Living at her grandfather’s impressive mansion in Santiago de Chile, the capital city, proved to be a highly formative experience that would find its reflection, years later, in her literary production. In effect, her first novel, The House of the Spirits, was originally intended as a farewell letter to her grandfather, who died in Chile while she was living in Venezuela, preventing her from saying goodbye. However, this “letter” soon turned into a complex novel portraying the Chilean society from the early 20th century to Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973 and its aftermath.
The family story contained in the novel is thus closely and complexly intertwined with Chilean history. In the words of Norma Helsper, it
is a novel of fantasy and of history. It recounts a sad chapter in Latin American history and simultaneously projects a Utopian vision into the future. Although its proposition is radical, the novel utilizes two of the most traditional images of Western culture: the family and the messianic child. Perhaps much of its power is derived from the use of these two ideas, which are deeply rooted in our collective psyche. … Members of this family have oppressed, wounded, and tortured each other, but they are the same ones who must now heal one another. The family she posits is all of Chile. (1991: 55-56)
The novel’s depiction of the coup d’état as sanguinary, in the hands of men whose primary motivation is power and ambition (tinged with considerable amounts of cruelty) rather than the “salvation” of the country from the red scare of Salvador Allende’s government, as the official version had it, resulted in its being banned in Chile during the dictatorship. Despite this, it was widely circulated in photocopies, and Allende became a popular author, even more famous than her homonymous cousin Isabel Allende, daughter of the late President Allende. Turned into a blockbuster movie, starring Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder and Antonio Banderas, the movie opened the U.S. market for Allende’s work. Because of the complexity of the novel, dealing with three generations of a Chilean family, some minor changes had to be introduced in the film adaptation, such as omitting the character of the granddaughter. Instead, Winona Ryder plays the character of the daughter, but she lives the experiences (her involvement with the left and her imprisonment after the coup d’état) that, in the novel, belong to the granddaughter.
Her second novel, Of Love and Shadows [De amor y de sombras], once more dealt with the political situation of contemporary Chile, as seen by Irene Beltrán, a young woman born in a has-been well-to-do family. In Allende’s own words in the preface,
this is the story of a woman and a man who loved one another so deeply that they saved themselves from a banal existence. I have carried it in my memory, guarding it carefully so it would not be eroded by time, and it is only now, in the silent nights of this place, that I can finally tell it. I do it for them, and for others who have confided their lives to me, saying: Here, write it, or it will be erased by the wind. (preface, 1987)
The political content of this novel is much more evident than in The House of the Spirits. The love story between Irene, who is starting a career in journalism, and Francisco Leal, a photographer, reflects on the political situation in contemporary Chile. Irene’s boyfriend, a captain in the Chilean army, serves as representative of the years of political repression and dictatorship brought about by Pinochet. His military career is a contrast to Irene and Francisco’s commitment to the truth. Allende portrays the day-to-day life in a country where anyone could “disappear” overnight and never be heard of again, where arrests were arbitrary and summary executions took place on a daily basis. With her unusual combination of magical realism and current political issues, “Allende has married the world of magic and political evil most credibly”, in the words of Los Angeles Times critic 31 May 1987. Although, eventually, Irene and Francisco will be forced into exile, the novel ends on a touch of hope: the promise of return that Irene and Francisco make to themselves and to one another when leaving – “and in the years that followed, those words would point the way to their destinies: we will return, we will return. …” (274). This novel was also turned into a feature film starring Jennifer Connelly and Antonio Banderas.
Eva Luna, whose first name means “life”, as she tells us at the opening of the novel, is the sole narrator and protagonist of the homonymous novel, Eva Luna. Eva is a born storyteller, very much like Allende herself, and her stories are fundamental for the development of the novel. For Aguirre Rehbein,
in Eva Luna … the author focuses on two closely linked aspects of story-telling and/or of narrating. On the one hand, she experiments with the act of narrating by creating a story in which the roles of Eva Luna, the protagonist, Eva Luna, the narrator, and the role of the character in the soap opera Bolero (written by the protagonist) are at first separate, but then seem to converge into one. The resulting intertextuality and self-reflexivity create various levels of fictionalization leading the reader to question ‘reality’ within this fictional setting. The other aspect which Allende examines is the art of narrating, as she experiments with the text and demonstrates that the slightest manipulation of language can create or transform reality. An individual’s adeptness in utilizing language, thus constructs a particular reality. These two aspects of narration, so skilfully crafted by Isabel Allende, are inseparable as they work together to create or change textual ‘reality’ to meet the narrator’s liking. (1991: 179)
In effect, Eva’s stories proved to be so compelling that Allende would take up her character again in her next novel, The Stories of Eva Luna [Historias de Eva Luna], described by Washington Post critic Leigh Allison Wilson as a “cascade of stories [that] tumbles out before the reader, stories vivid, passionate and human”.
Allende, divorced of her first husband and father of her two children, currently lives in the U.S. with her second husband, American lawyer William C. Gordon. Living in California, in a house in Sausalito that at different times was used as a cookie factory, a church and a brothel, Allende says that she finds inspiration in the presences that she thinks she still perceives in the house – the smell of chocolate, of incense, of the prostitutes’ perfume... More importantly, living in the US prompted her to write The Infinite Plan [El plan infinito], a Chicano novel about the various difficulties that the Hispanic community faces in the U.S.
The death of her twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Paula, was a turning point in Allende’s life. Speaking about her daughter’s death in an interview some years later, she mentioned her fear of not being able to enjoy a tasty food, or dancing or, in general, enjoying life again. Aged forty-nine, as a result of Paula’s illness and subsequent death, Allende began contemplating the end of her own existence as she had known it. Especially dreary was the possibility that she might never again be able to write another novel. Allende has explained that, given that she started writing The House of the Spirits on January the 8th, the day on which her grandfather died, she has kept the date as a sort of superstition. She starts work on every new novel on this date, although the general research and design are completed well in advance. That was going to be the case with the novel that she was planning to write after The Infinite Plan. In the meanwhile, however, Paula fell ill while Allende was on a promotional tour in Spain and, sitting by Paula’s bed, waiting for a sign of recovery, January 8th passed and went without her deciding to start the novel she already had in mind. It was at her son’s urge that she began writing an account of the events happening while her daughter was in a coma so that, when she woke up, she could read it and would have missed nothing (Allende, 1996: 8-10). Eventually, after Paula’s death, she decided to have the book published in homage to her daughter.
Paula was, until the publication of The Sum of Our Days [La suma de los días], her most intimate work, not strictly a novel but rather a collection of memoirs in which she recounted the key moments of her life. Even though in the meanwhile Allende has resumed writing novels as well as essays (My Invented Country [Mi país inventado]), and produced a trilogy of books for children or young adults, she has also kept up the habit of telling Paula what has been going on since she is gone, with The Sum of Our Days testifying to this practice.
The novel following Paula, Aphrodite [Afrodita], is a peculiar mixture of cooking recipes and sexual stories. The aphrodisiac powers of food and drink serve Allende to describe the sexual habits of various historical figures, such as Madame Du Barry, mistress to French king Louis XV, or Roman emperor Nero. Allende returned to fiction writing with Daughter of Fortune [Hija de la fortuna], which deals with Eliza Sommers, a baby who is mysteriously deposited at the front door of the Sommers’ house, an English family living in Chile. Her search for her lover, who has abandoned her, leads her to the U.S., where she will find true love and her own destiny. Daughter of Fortune is followed by Portrait in Sepia [Retrato en sepia], which is, in turn, the chronicle of the lives of Eliza Sommer’s daughter and granddaughter.
With Zorro, Allende turned to challenging, re-inventing, and re-writing given accounts of history and myth. Thus, the novel is Allende’s personal re-working of the very popular story of this mythical figure. In it, she makes Zorro the son of the illegitimate love affair between the no less mythical Indian woman Toypurina, the only female Native American to have participated in a revolt against the Spanish colonial powers, and a Spanish captain. This interest in and experimentation with historical rewriting is also evident in her next book, Inés of my Soul [Inés del alma mía], a story set in colonial South America told not from the point of view of the brave Spanish conquistadors, but of their women. Inés will leave everything in Spain to move to Chile in search of her lover.
Lately, it is her relationship with her grandchildren that has prompted Alllende to write a trilogy for young adults. The Alexander Cold series [trilogía del Águila y el Jaguar], composed of The City of the Beasts [La ciudad de las bestias] (2002), Kingdom of the Golden Dragon [El reino del dragón de oro] (2003) and Forest of the Pygmies [El bosque de los pigmeos] (2005), deals with a boy who explores mysteries in exotic and magical places with his grandmother.
Born in Peru, growing up in different cities worldwide, living as a young wife and mother in Venezuela and currently living in California, Allende is a truly cosmopolitan writer whose novels are set in her native Chile or in the United States, her adoptive country of residence. Memory is a pervasive presence in Allende’s work. From her earliest account of personal and historical past in The House of the Spirits, the remembering and recovering of fading, contradictory and often painful memories is the key to her characters’ action and development. In Portrait in Sepia, for instance, the protagonist compares the fading sepia pictures she keeps with her need to remember – and, importantly, to record that remembrance in writing:
I write to elucidate the ancient secrets of my childhood, to define my identity, to create my own legend. In the end, the only thing we have in abundance is the memory we have woven. Each of us chooses the tone for telling his or her own story; I would like to choose the durable clarity of a platinum print, but nothing in my destiny possesses that luminosity. I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties; the tone for telling my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia. (Allende, 2001: 304)
Very often, the recording of memories is made by strong women who face adverse circumstances with a great deal of endurance and courage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Allende describes her own family as “a breed of impetuous women and men with sentimental hearts and strong arms fit for hard work” (Allende, 1996: 3). Whether the setting is colonial Spain, 19th-century U.S. or contemporary Chile, the working through of memory, and its imaginative enactment, is fundamentally similar: her female protagonists, pressed hard and tight against inhospitable times and facing personal suffering and loss, take fate in their own hands and find the power to endure and “tell the tale”. Alba in The House of the Spirits thus prefigures Eliza Sommers in Daughter of Fortune or Inés in Inés of My Soul; and, as far as fiction also serves to shed light on the personal circumstances of the creative mind behind it, they are all, to differing extents, embodiments of Isabel Allende herself.
Recent Chilean history, in which the coup d’état figures prominently, is recurrent throughout her literary production and is again revisited in Maya’s Notebook [El cuaderno de Maya]. For many of Allende’s readers, Maya’s Notebook marked a departure from her usual style, up to the point that some claimed that she had moved away from magical realism. The novel deals with troubled 19-year-old Maya Vidal, a recovering alcoholic and drug user who is sent by her Chilean grandmother to a remote island in Chile, Chiloé, so as to complete her rehabilitation, hide away from her enemies and, more importantly, to discover her Chilean roots, long silenced and hidden.
Love was the subject matter of Allende’s Love [Amor], a compilation of excerpts from all her literary production until then (except for the Alexander Cold series, My Invented Country, Paula and Maya’s Notebooks) that dealt with love. Despite its bestselling figures (it was released, very appropriately for a book with such a theme, on February 14), readers felt mostly disappointed, as it did not include any new material. Reviewers often pointed out the obvious marketing strategy behind its release date and regarded it as a warming-up remainder of sorts, in preparation for the publication of Ripper: A Novel.
This change in her writing career that Maya’s Notebook advanced was even more marked with the publication in 2014 of her following novel, Ripper: A Novel [El juego de Ripper]. Allende’s move to thriller writing can be regarded as similar to the literary trajectory of Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya, better known for his debut novel, Bless Me, Ultima, who also turned to writing mystery novels after dealing with Chicano life. Ripper, set in San Francisco, deals with a series of crimes that are investigated by Inspector Bob Martin, who will enlist the help of his teenage daughter, Amanda. The title of the novel comes from an online role game called Ripper which Amanda plays with her grandfather and a number of players worldwide. Originally, the idea for this black novel came from Allende’s literary agent, who suggested that she and her husband write a police book together. However, their different writing styles and their difficulties to successfully combine both, made Allende take the decision to continue the novel on her own.
After Ripper, Allende’s next novel, The Japanese Lover (El amante japonés, 2015) meant a return to her more typical and recognizable love stories. In this novel, Allende shows that love transcends borders, nationalities, social class and old age. The novel starts when 81-year-old Alma Belasco decides to give up her home to move to Lark House, a nursing home in San Francisco, California. There she befriends one of the caretakers, Irina, a Moldavan girl. With the help of Seth, Alma’s grandson, Irina discovers Alma’s past, from leaving her home in Poland escaping from Nazi persecution to her passionate love affair with her uncle’s Japanese garden. The novel is a call for tolerance and respect in the face of political persecution for one’s beliefs or one’s nationality, a topic Allende has often dealt with in her works and which she has experienced first-hand during her life.
Allende knows better than many people what exile and immigration are and the personal cost involved – she was born in Peru of Chilean parents, lived in Venezuela during her first marriage and has been an American resident in the USA for the last thirty years (although she did not become an American citizen until 2003). With this personal background, Allende is not alien to the circumstances of immigration and the difficult life conditions it entails. In her novel In the Midst of Winter (Más allá del invierno, 2017) she turned her gaze to the realities of immigrants in her adopted country and the journeys (not only physical) that have brought them there. In adition to immigration, the novel deals with the related themes of second chances, political persecution and exile, and the identity of America.
The title of the novel comes from Albert Camus, who wrote “in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer”. Allende has revealed in interviews that the winter in the novel had much to do with her own personal circumstances at the time of writing – recently divorced from her second husband, bereaved after the loss of two of her closest friends and the dog that had been her faithful companion for many years. The literal winter in the novel causes a blizzard that brings together her three protagonists – an illegal Guatemalan immigrant, a Chilean woman, and a Jewish man.
A minor traffic accident between Evelyn, an undocumented immigrant, and Professor Richard Bowmuster will lead to a most eventful road trip of sorts. The pair, aided by Lucía, the professor’s colleague and tenant, will have to get rid of a corpse found in Evelyn’s car boot. Together they will travel around upstate New York at the same time that they reveal their own personal tragedies that have brought them to the USA. Although the novel still deals with some of Allende’s core subjects, its departure from magical realism was disliked by some of Allende’s veteran readers.
In 2019 Allende published A Long Petal of the Sea (Largo pétalo de mar). Allende continued exploring the topic of exile and immigration that she had already dealt with in In the Midst of Winter and The Japanese Lover. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), young physician Víctor Dalmau and his friend, pianist Roser Bruguera, flee from Barcelona to get to France. Once there, they will embark on the Winnipeg, the ship that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda financed to bring over 2,000 Spaniards to live in Chile. The novel chronicles Víctor and Roser’s paths until the coup d’etat that would depose President Salvador Allende.
Allende has occasionally wandered into non-fiction, the latest example being The Soul of a Woman (Mujeres del alma mía, 2020). Scheduled for publication in English in 2021, this work is a memoir in which Allende deals with feminism and what it means to be a woman by means of her memories of several women who have marked her life, such as her mother, her daughter Paula, her literary agent, Carmen Balcells, or writer Virginia Woolf, among others.
While Allende’s devotees continue to follow her work loyally, it is to be expected that, by opening up to new readers thanks to her exploration of new genres, like she did in Ripper, Allende’s popularity will increase and her writing will gain a new and more diverse readership.
Aguirre Rehbein, Edna. “Isabel Allende's Eva Lunaand
the Act/Art of Narrating.” In Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre
Rehbein. Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels.
New York: Peter Lang, 1991. 179-190.
Allende, Isabel. A Long Petal of the Sea. [Trans. by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson]. London: Bloomsbury, 2020. –––. Daughter of Fortune. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
–––. Eva Luna. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: Bantam Books, 1989 .
–––. Forest of the Pygmies. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
–––. In the Midst of Winter. [Trans. by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson]. London: Scribner, 2017.
–––. Kingdom of the Golden Dragon. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.
–––. Maya’s Notebook. [Trans. by Anne McLean]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.
–––. My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.
–––. Of Love and Shadows. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. London: Jonathan Cape, 1987.
–––. Paula. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. London: Flamingo, 1996.
–––. Portrait in Sepia. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. London: Flamingo, 2001.
–––. Ripper: A Novel. [Trans. by Oliver Brock and Frank Wynne]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.
–––. The City of the Beasts. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. London: Flamingo, 2002.
–––. The House of the Spirits. [Trans. by Magda Bogin]. New York: The Dial Press City, 2005.
–––. The Infinite Plan. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
–––. The Japanese Lover. [Trans. by Nick Caistor]. London: Scribner, 2015.
–––. The Soul of a Woman. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.
–––. The Sum of Our Days.[Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.
–––. The Stories of Eva Luna. [Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. Bantam Books, 1992.
–––. Zorro.[Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden]. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.
Helsper, Norma. “Binding the Wounds of the Body Politic: Nation as Family in La casa de los espíritus.” In Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein.Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels. New York and others: Peter Lang, 1991. 49-58.
“Review of Of Love and Shadows.” The Los Angeles Times.31 May 1987. Available at: http://www.isabelAllende.com/love_shadows_frame.htm. Date of access 5 December 2007.
Wilson, Leigh Allison. “The Risks of Passion. Review of The Stories of Eva Luna.” Washington Post. 20 January 1991. Available at: http://www.isabelAllende.com/eva_stories_frame.htm. Date of access 5 December 2007.
Citation: Gomez-Galisteo, M. Carmen. "Isabel Allende". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 December 2007; last revised 12 November 2020. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5420, accessed 09 December 2022.]