Allende was born in Lima, Peru, on 2 August 1942 to Chilean diplomat Tomás Allende and his wife Francisca Llona Barros. Her father was a first cousin of Salvador Allende, president of Chile, with whom Isabel and her family maintained a close, long-standing relationship. Her parents divorced when she was two years old, and she and her mother moved in with her maternal grandparents, whose presence and personalities exerted a powerful influence over her imagination and development, leaving a deep imprint later expressed in her writing. Her grandmother in particular was a great storyteller.
Allende's mother eventually remarried, again to a diplomat, whose assignments took the family--mother, stepfather, and two brothers--abroad. Thus, as an adolescent she lived in such widely scattered places as Bolivia, the Middle East, and Europe. Allende returned to Chile when she was fifteen, finished high school, and began working as a secretary for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. She found herself drawn to writing, however, and soon advanced into the field of journalism and communications, pursuing a variety of interests. During this period she wrote a column ( "Impertinentes") for the radical women's magazine Paula, edited a leading magazine for children entitled Mampato, and even hosted a weekly television program. At the same time she was trying her hand at producing plays and writing short stories for children. In 1962, while still pursuing her career, Isabel Allende married Miguel Frías, with whom she had two children, Paula and Nicolás.
On 13 September 1973 a military coup in Chile led to the assassination of President Salvador Allende, the installation of a military government under the command of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, and a period of widespread political change. These events had profound repercussions for Chilean society as a whole and for Allende in particular. Confronted with the repression and violence instituted by the military dictatorship, she joined the efforts of church-sponsored groups in providing food and aid to the needy and families of the victims of the regime. During the fifteen months that followed, she helped many of her compatriots escape military persecution. At the risk of her own life, she transported them to safety in her flower-painted Citronetta, witnessing events that she would later incorporate into her first novel.
In her 1984 essay "Sobre La casa de los espíritus" Allende made the connection between her personal experience and her writings: "Gracias a mi trabajo de periodista supe exactamente lo que sucedía en mi patria, lo viví de cerca y esos muertos, torturados, viudas y huérfanos, dejaron huellas imborrables en mi memoria. Los últimos capítulos de la La casa de los espíritus relatan esos acontecimientos. Me basé en lo que vieron mis ojos y en los testimonios directos de quienes vivieron la brutal experiencia de la represión" (Because of my work as a journalist I knew exactly what was happening in my country, I lived through it, and the dead, the tortured, the widows and orphans, left an unforgettable impression on my memory. The last chapters of La casa de los espíritus narrate those events. They are based on what I saw and on the direct testimonies of those who lived through the brutal experience of the repression).
Even after she was dismissed from Paula in 1974 Allende continued to write, gather information, interview people, and make recordings. By 1975 the heightened repression coupled with her own fear induced her to leave Chile. Settling in Caracas, Venezuela, with her husband and teenage children, she found it difficult to find work as a writer despite the fact that she had been a noted journalist in her native land. As a consequence, she turned to other avenues, working for a while as a teacher and administrator and neglecting her own creative writing for several years. After some time she was able to resume her work as a reporter and wrote satirical articles for El nacional, one of the leading newspapers in the country.
Isolated in this new country and concerned about her grandfather, who was then dying in Chile, she sat down to write him a letter that eventually became the manuscript for her first novel, La casa de los espíritus. It recounts the experiences of four generations of the del Valle--Trueba family, set against the background of Chilean politics from the turn of the century up to and including the coup that brought the military regime to power in 1973.
Although not autobiographical in the strictest sense of the word, La casa de los espíritus nevertheless derives much of its inspiration from her family's experiences and from her own memories of the house in which she was raised. Allende's maternal grandparents, with whom she lived during her most formative years, provided the models for two of the book's central characters: Esteban, the passionate, violent landowner-politician; and his clairvoyant, compassionate wife, Clara. In an interview with Marjorie Agosín, Allende pointed out the crucial role her childhood played in forming the basis for her first novel.
La casa de los espíritus , which is set in an unnamed South American country, traces the history of the del Valle-Trueba family through the first seventy-five years of the twentieth century. The fourteen chapters of the novel focus upon the lives of four women who successively serve as the central characters: Rosa, Clara, Blanca, and Alba. Weaving in and out of the narratives of their lives is Esteban Trueba, who is respectively lover, husband, father, and grandfather of the female protagonists. Born into poverty, Esteban is a self-made man who climbs the financial and social ladder, acquiring land, wealth, and political power as he goes. He epitomizes both strength and weakness, not only in his character but as a metaphor for the strengths and weaknesses of Latin-American society. In the end his brutal, violent behavior leads to the torture, mutilation, and rape of his beloved granddaughter, Alba, when the military, which he supports, takes over the country. Alba is saved from death when Clara, her dead grandmother, appears to remind her not to die but to survive and suggests that she accomplish this by writing the account of her misery. The text concludes with Alba chronicling the family's history as she awaits the birth of her own child and keeps vigil over the body of Esteban, her grandfather. The novel ends as it began, with the same sentence, thus bringing the narrative full circle.
La casa de los espíritus is constructed around that mixture of reality and fantasy that is sometimes termed magic realism. An aura of mystery and magic surrounds the Truebas' house, where the spirits of the past roam and mingle with the living. The characters are endowed with unusual physical and spiritual attributes: Rosa and Alba have green hair; Esteban shrinks; and Clara is endowed with mystical powers. She can predict the future, communicate with the spirits, play the piano with the cover closed, and move objects with the power of her mind.
On one level the novel creates a supernatural, fantastic universe peopled with characters who have semimagical gifts. On another level it bears witness to the tragic political history of Latin America, in which those who love their country well can also bring the most destruction upon it. Although the realistic events in the novel could have happened in many other Latin-American countries, references to well-known incidents and developments-the disastrous earthquake of 1933, the agrarian reform of the 1960s, the triumph of Salvador Allende, the death of Pablo Neruda, the assassination of Víctor Jara-clearly locate the action of the novel in Chile.
La casa de los espíritus , which Allende dedicated to her mother and grandmother, pays tribute to all the women of Latin America, as represented by the extraordinary characters in this novel, and thus offers a new feminine vision. The novelist presents a cast of women who are both strong and creative and who prove themselves able to resist the power of convention and a patriarchal system through their own acts of will. Nívea del Valle fights for women's right to vote; Clara defies her husband and devotes herself to ministering to the poor; her daughter, Blanca, resists her father's authority by bringing up her illegitimate child and carrying on a long-standing love affair with a revolutionary peasant leader who opposes everything her father stands for; and Alba, Blanca's daughter, continues the independent path marked out by her female forebears by joining the student movement, becoming the lover of a guerrilla leader and later a victim of torture, and ultimately establishing her solidarity with ordinary women. Alba is the last in this series of luminous spirits to bring light to the world, and she heralds a new age. The novel concludes by suggesting the enormous capabilities that lie within the human spirit: its ability both to endure and to renew itself.
Alba reconstructs the history of her family by means of her grandmother Clara's journals, her mother's letters, and her grandfather Esteban's testimony, as well as her own experiences, assorted records, and family documents. Her story focuses on the lives of Nívea, Clara, Blanca, and herself. Alba identifies with her foremothers, finding in their writings a timeless reflection of the various aspects of female experience. This sense of the commonality of female experience across the boundaries of time and space, and of women's ability to create their own reality out of that experience, conveys a message of female empowerment that subverts the historical stereotype of the submissive woman.
Although La casa de los espíritus begins with a first-person narrative voice, this unnamed "I" soon disappears, and for the most part the rest of the story is related in the voice of a third-person omniscient observer. From then on, the narrative alternates between the voice of the third-person magic realist and the briefer, first-person testimony of Esteban. Only in the epilogue does the reader discover that the original narrator who began the story is actually Alba, the youngest member of the Trueba family and one of the main female characters in the novel. Aside from occasional subjective references, Alba's voice is essentially objective, relating the events in the tone of a detached bystander. A secondary voice is that of her grandfather Esteban, who presents his version of many of the same events but in so doing provides a window into his presumably masculine point of view. Allende's ingenious blending of the two narrative voices not only situates the female voice clearly within the context of a patriarchal culture but also displaces and subverts the power of that culture as well.
The novel employs many of the techniques of magic realism. The language is characterized by metaphors, oxymorons, and personification. Extensive use of both foreshadowing and flashbacks establishes verisimilitude and the discontinuity of time. The voice is detached and matter-of-fact when describing the most improbable events, which enables the author to develop her own style of magic realism in an effective, compelling way.
Allende conveys the story of the del Valles and Truebas through a masterful blending of the real and the unreal, in which imaginary characters, some with mystical or supernatural attributes, grapple with situations and events that inspire humor, pathos, and a sense of recognition in the reader. The author's skill in combining these elements has led many critics to place La casa de los espíritus squarely within the Latin-American literary current of magic realism.
Upon completing the novel Allende encountered numerous obstacles in trying to have it published. Editors rejected the manuscript due to the length of the text (five hundred pages) and to the fact that its author was both a woman and unknown. Finally accepted by Plaza y Janés of Barcelona, Spain, in 1982, La casa de los espíritus became an instant success. The author, in many interviews, has credited the spirit of her clairvoyant grandmother with protecting the fortune of the book.
Allende's fame and stature as an author rest largely on this first novel. Fourteen printings were issued during the first years following publication. It became a best-seller in Europe and was soon translated into fifteen languages. Its opening section appeared in Vogue in the United States in 1985. The novel was awarded the Grand Roman d'Evasion Prize in 1984 and the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voice Award Nomination in 1986.
In Chile the book was initially censored, and copies had to be smuggled into the country. In her 1985 essay "La magia de las palabras," Allende relates her astonishment at the ingenuity displayed by her compatriots: "Jamás imaginé que muchos chilenos desafiarían a la policía para introducir algunos ejemplares al país. Viajeros audaces lo disimularon en su equipaje; otros fueron enviados por correo sin tapas, o partidos en dos o tres pedazos para que no pudieran identificarlos al abrir los sobres. Conozco a una joven madre que pasó varios libros por la aduana ocultos en una bolsa de pañales de su recién nacido" (I never imagined how many Chileans would defy the police to bring books into the country. Bold travelers concealed them in their luggage; others were sent by mail without covers or cut in two or three pieces so they would not be able to identify them when the envelopes were opened. I know a young mother who smuggled several books in the diaper bag of her newborn baby).
Allende's second novel, De amor y de sombra (1984; translated as Of Love and Shadows , 1987), deals with the disappearance of fifteen peasants in the Lonquén region under the Pinochet military regime and confirms her skill as a storyteller. This time, however, she turned her talents to a story with a more limited historical perspective, choosing to focus on a transforming experience in the life of a young woman.
The novel begins with a journalist, Irene Beltrán, accompanied by freelance photographer Francisco Leal, on assignment to do a story about a fifteen-year-old peasant girl alleged to possess miraculous powers. Unexpectedly the pair find themselves involved in a confrontation with the military police, whereupon Evangelina, the peasant girl, disappears. Irene insists on trying to find the girl, and in the process she and Francisco uncover evidence of atrocities committed by military personnel. In an abandoned mine they find not only the body of Evangelina but also many others in various stages of decomposition. During their dangerous mission the couple fall in love, but their love is overshadowed by the violence and death around them. When they reveal their discovery, implicating the government in the mass murders, Irene is gunned down in the street. As soon as she is sufficiently recovered from her wounds to travel, she and Francisco flee into exile across the border. Though sad at having to leave, they are determined to return one day in the future.
Like La casa de los espíritus, De amor y de sombra also has elements of thinly disguised recent history. The setting is another unnamed country under the dictatorship of an unidentified general, which bears a strong resemblance to Chile under General Pinochet. The time is around 1978. Events in the novel closely follow those surrounding the 1978 discovery of fifteen bodies in two abandoned kilns near the village of Lonquén. Máximo Pacheco Gómez, a lawyer who took part in the investigation and was inspired by a desire to see justice done, published the principal documents in the case in a book entitled Lonquén (1980). In an interview with Magdalena García Pinto, Allende freely acknowledged the source of her material. Although Chile is never mentioned, the story comes from a highly publicized incident that occurred in 1978 in the Lonquén mine, an abandoned mine shaft fifty kilometers outside of Santiago, although segments of the story were fictionalized.
In De amor y de sombra Allende remains true to the moral imperative behind all her writing, which is to use literature as a way of bearing witness to a time and place in Latin-American history. In an epigraph to the novel, Allende explains that its inspiration came to her from a man and a woman who confided their lives to her.
De amor y de sombra employs its themes as structural counterpoints: the love story is inextricably entwined with the political story, each justifying and highlighting the other. The novel thus comprises a single unified action composed equally of the light of love and the shadow of violence, emphasizing the interplay between the two.
The novel is also the story of a woman's self-discovery. As in La casa de los espíritus, the female condition is Allende's underlying subject. Michael Moody, in an article entitled "Isabel Allende and the Testimonial Novel" (1986), highlights the continuing concerns of the author: "For just as Alba, the internal narrator of La casa de los espíritus, transcends her female ancestry, achieving illumination through her struggle against repression, so too Irene develops personal and social consciousness as a consequence of her evolving commitment against a state of repression that assumes both political and sexist forms."
This second novel, though considerably shorter, is carefully constructed, focusing on the events of one spring when two diametrically opposed events unfold. Nevertheless, De amor y de sombra received mixed reviews. Some critics felt that it was a more mature book, better written and structured than the first. This evaluation seems to correspond with the author's comment that she was conscious of its writing while the work was in progress. The novel was warmly received in Chile, but in Germany, despite the fact that La casa de los espíritus had been a runaway best-seller, reviewers were less kind, although De amor y de sombra still sold well. In Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende (1989), Patricia Hart suggests that the novel was less successful because it lacked suspense, its characters were superficial and oversimplistic, and the narrative voices were too similar. Despite these reservations, the English translation, Of Love and Shadows, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1987.
Eva Luna (1987; translated as Eva Luna, 1988), the story of a storyteller, is Allende's third novel, a modern, almost picaresque narrative about a twentieth-century Scheherazade who tells tales to survive in a politically unstable Latin-American society. Set in a country that closely resembles Venezuela, it tells the story of Eva Luna, born illegitimate to a mother who died when Eva was only six years old, and how she survived her orphan childhood and adolescence to find success and fulfillment eventually as a scriptwriter for television. Throughout this "autobiography" the stories of Eva's significant others, particularly that of her lover Rolf Carlé, are interwoven. His historia (story, history) recounts his life from his youth in Nazi Austria to his immigration to South America and his eventual fame as a controversial filmmaker.
The novel is basically a bildungsroman that contains many elements of the picaresque as it relates the life of an indomitable woman trying to survive in a hostile world. Like Scheherazade, who told tales to save her life and the lives of her loved ones, so Eva Luna learns the power of words and how to spin tales that first serve as an escape from a life of abject poverty and eventually pave the road to love, fame, and fortune.
From her mother, who had a gift for telling stories, Eva has learned that the power of language can be used to transform the world and create one's own reality: "Una palabra mia y, lichas!, se transformaba la realidad" (One word from me and, abracadabra!, reality was transformed). Eva experiments, develops her talent for writing, and learns to re-create her life, reshaping it into a story and then making that story her life. Using elements from her own writing, she makes her own fate. As she actively molds her own reality, she creates the outcome she desires. Eva's unyielding will is most apparent when she uses the device of inventing another ending within the ending. The inconclusiveness of this strategy only serves to underscore the fact that she is not only creating her own destiny but is also capable of defining reality as she wishes.
The book throws into question the division between reality and fiction. Eva Luna, protagonist and narrator, relates the events of her own life and out of this material creates a novela (soap opera) for television within the novel--an upbeat form of the tale-within-a-tale structure. The life story of Eva Luna provides the framework for the soap opera Bolero, for which she writes the script. The memoirs of this fictional heroine are not only personal, however, but political. Eva Luna is a social critic in her stories, denouncing the cruelty and abuses of dictators, the violence of military repression, and the corruption that pervades all levels of government. The primary story, the history of Eva Luna, is also closely entwined with the history of Venezuela. When José Otero examined the historical background of the novel, he concluded that it covered seven decades of the twentieth century, with a focus on three particular periods: two dictatorships--those of Juan Vicente Gómez (1908-1935) and Marco Pérez Jiménez (1953-1958)--plus the time of the guerrilla movement that marked the presidencies of Rómulo Betancourt (1959-1964) and Raúl Leoni (1964-1969).
Eva Luna employs more than one kind of narrative: there is Eva Luna's "autobiography" narrated in the first person as well as the story related in the third person by the traditional omniscient observer. The latter is used to depict the stories of the three men in Eva's life--Rolf, Riad Halabí, and Huberto--which the reader assumes to be Eva's version. This complex structure, in which the various story lines intertwine and overlap, illuminates the evolution of Eva Luna's inner consciousness, both personal and social.
With Eva Luna, Allende returns to the lush narrative texture of her first novel. The marvelous, the strange, and the unusual are incorporated: Eva's mother, long dead, regularly shows up to keep her company in times of trouble; a phantasmagoric Palace of the Poor materializes and then vanishes for no apparent reason; on one occasion the evening sky is so transparently clear that angels can be seen floating in the air; the smell of desire is so strong at one point that it becomes visible, like a burning fire; and fictional characters, in the process of being developed by Eva herself, take human shape and disrupt the household routine.
After Allende's divorce from her first husband in 1987, she met her second, William Gordon, an American attorney, during a lecture tour in the United States. They were married on 17 July 1988 and settled in Marin County, north of San Francisco, California. Although her publisher worried that her new home outside Latin America might stifle her imagination, Allende found her new surroundings no less exotic.
Because the new marriage and environment made their own demands upon her, she adjusted by turning to the short story as a literary medium that would not require so much of her time. The result was a collection of short stories, Cuentos de Eva Luna (1990; translated as The Stories of Eva Luna , 1991). The twenty-three tales in the collection present an abundance of fascinating characters, some of whom had already appeared in Eva Luna.
The collection begins with a prologue from Eva's lover Rolf Carlé: "Cuéntame un cuento que no le hayas contado a nadie" (Tell me a story you have never told anyone before. Make it up for me). Like the famous tales from the Arabian Nights Entertainments , these stories combine fantasy, magic, biting social satire, and psychological insight as well as elements of magic realism--unlikely events presented as everyday occurrences.
Although Allende covers an array of themes and characters in Cuentos de Eva Luna, she excels in her portrayal of strong women. These include Dulce Rosa Orellano, who pledges to murder her father's assassin only to fall in love with him but who commits suicide rather than marry him; Casilda Hidalgo, who yields to an outlaw in order to protect her children; and Antonia Sierra, who makes friends with her husband's mistress and then connives to push him from both their lives.
One of the most delightful stories, "Dos palabras" (Two Words), is a tribute to the magical power of language. Belisa Crepusculario, a poor girl with no material resources, makes her living selling stories, poems, and love letters. The words endow her with tremendous power. When she sells a political speech to the Coronel (Colonel), a savage fighting man, he becomes the most popular politician in the country overnight. However, Belisa grants him two secret words as a bonus, which then enslave him to her. She has enchanted the man with the power of her words.
Allende's latest novel, El plan infinito (1991; translated as The Infinite Plan , 1993), was well received when it was launched at the Santiago Book Fair in December 1991. The story of Gregory Reeves, a young man raised amid Chicanos in a Los Angeles barrio, it begins when he is four years old, traveling with his family while his father preaches his own philosophy of salvation, called the Infinite Plan. When his father becomes ill, the family is forced to settle in a Los Angeles suburb where the Morales family helps them to begin a new life. Struggling to overcome poverty, Gregory decides to study law at the University of California, Berkeley. Lonely and starved for affection, Gregory becomes infatuated with Samantha Ernst, daughter of a Hollywood tycoon, and marries her. When the marriage fails, he goes to Vietnam, where he confronts death and devastation. These memories continue to haunt him upon his return to the United States, but he plunges into his law career, concentrating on acquiring wealth and the power it brings. He leads a superficial life, concerned more with money than ethics, pursuing sex rather than love. Though he achieves his goals, happiness eludes him. His second marriage fails, his children have serious mental and emotional problems, and he becomes so painfully aware of his own difficulties that he is finally driven to seek psychiatric help. Slowly he finds his way to a stable, happy life. The novel follows Allende's familiar pattern of relating Gregory's life along with the various stories of his family and friends.
In November 1991 Allende stated in a lecture in Miami that El plan infinito is a story of survival, one of the major themes in her work. It is the external journey of a man who struggles to become successful at all costs, only to discover, upon reaching these goals, that everything important has been lost along the way. The second part of the book traces the internal journey, in which the man, now in search of his own soul, reverses his course and returns to his roots. Although the subject of El plan infinito clearly differs from Allende's previous works, it shares with them her fundamental values of love, solidarity, and hope and the concern with those qualities that enable the spirit to survive adversity. Again she employs the novelistic device of telling her story through two voices: the omniscient observer using the third person (in this case a feminine voice identified as the protagonist's lover); and the voice of Gregory, who tells his story in the first person. Gregory's story is told against a considerable historical background that incorporates real events over the past fifty years, primarily in California. Though the narrative voice follows a chronological path in relating the protagonist's life, it sometimes foreshadows future events, which is characteristic of much of Allende's work. The language is less elliptical and more direct than her earlier efforts, vividly depicting life in Berkeley during the 1960s as well as detailing the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Throughout her fiction women and politics are constant concerns. Much of Allende's work has utilized female-centered narratives. Allende continually endows and empowers her principal female characters with the gift of writing and telling stories as a way to preserve the past, organize the future, and gain control over their lives in the process. These characters are narrator-writers, recording their versions of the world. In La casa de los espíritus Alba tells the story of the del Valle--Trueba family by using the written accounts of those who have gone before in addition to her own account of events; in De amor y de sombra Irene, the journalist, uncovers a story of government violence and abuse; in Eva Luna Eva writes her own story in every sense of the word, creating, living, and writing her own script of life; and in El plan infinito both Gregory and his lover record his life story in order to give it meaning and ensure its survival.
Allende has defined her personal and literary philosophy in several interviews. In the November 1991 Miami lecture she emphasized: "Writing for me is the possibility of creating and recreating the world according to my own rules, fulfilling in those pages all my dreams and exorcising some of my demons." In her 1989 essay "Writing as an Act of Hope," she explains why she writes: "Maybe the most important reason for writing is to prevent the erosion of time, so that memories will not be blown away by the wind. Write to register history, and name each thing. Write what should not be forgotten." She essentially defines the novel as a vehicle for bearing witness, overcoming silence, and asserting the human values of love, justice, and reconciliation. She views the act of creation as an act of moral responsibility, as she states in "Sobre La casa de los espíritus": "Todos los que escribimos y tenemos la suerte de ser publicados, debemos asumir el compromiso de servir la causa de la libertad y la justicia" (All of us who write and are fortunate enough to be published ought to assume the responsibility of serving the cause of freedom and justice).
Deeply marked by historical events in her country, Allende perceives her writing as an honest attempt to improve the world. She wants to bear witness to the political and social situations in Latin America: its dictatorships, violent upheavals, torture, pain, and hunger. Despite this incredibly painful, difficult material, her works are not filled with a sense of pessimism or despair; on the contrary, her novels and short stories are uplifting and entertaining.
Allende's enormous appeal rests partly on the nature of her style: a dynamic combination of events and characters structured around a fast-paced narrative. Her work incorporates and integrates several stylistic devices: hyperbole, paradox, and the juxtaposition of the concrete with the abstract to convey a state of mind. The richness of her imagination both embellishes and reveals the seeming unreality of much of Latin-American reality, conveying not only the ostensible story but also her adroit use of fantasy as a metaphor for an underlying sociopolitical story.
Isabel Allende has successfully joined the ranks of some of the most distinguished writers of Latin America. She has won praise for her evocative use of language, her style, and her illumination of historical and social reality as well as her ability to entertain. Her works, now known throughout the world, testify to her well-earned reputation as a significant figure in contemporary literature.
From: Erro-Peralta, Nora. "Isabel Allende (2 August 1942-)." Modern Latin-American Fiction Writers: Second Series, edited by William Luis and Ann Gonzalez, vol. 145, Gale, 1994, pp. 33-41. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 145.