Isabel Allende, niece of assassinated Chilean president, Salvador Allende, was raised in Chile, but now lives with her lawyer husband in California.
They are a devoted couple, which is just as well since, according to an article by Sue Fox “A Life in the Day” in the Sunday Times Magazine ( 2001) Allende “…grabbed him by the jacket and said, “Hey, I’m here!” and forced him into a relationship that he wasn’t ready to undertake.”
Not, perhaps, a wise or foolproof way of nabbing your second husband and making him your soulmate, but this stupendous confidence seems to have served her well. Allende liked to bolster that self-confidence by taking care of her good looks; wearing make-up, high heels and hand-made ethnic jewellery. Allende and Willie Gordon married in 1988, when Allende already had two children by her first husband, Miguel Frias.
On her website biography, she insists that her writing is not the first thing in her life. “In reality, the most important things about my life happened in the secret chambers of my heart and have no place in a biography.”
Allende has a caring and compassionate nature, qualities that inform her writing, and she is distressed by the amount of pain in the world. She is rightly proud that she has tried, every day, to do something to help to alleviate it.
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Alleviating the Pain in the World
Isabelle Allende was born in Lima, Peru in 1942, and she married in 1962, and gave birth to two children. She found it difficult fulfilling the submissive role required of her at that time.
In 1973, the dictator, Pinochet, came to power as the result of a successful coup, and Allende rallied to the cause of those who found themselves on the tyrant’s “wanted” list, conspiring to help them to escape. Eventually, she found herself on that list and was compelled to flee to Venezuela, where she remained for thirteen years.
In “A Life in the Day,” she says, “I never believed Pinochet would go to jail, because he’s so old and the judiciary system in Chile is very slow. It doesn’t matter. When he was arrested in London, a weight lifted from Chilean society. Pinochet won’t go down in the history books as he wanted, as the saviour of a nation, but as a criminal.”
Sadly, her precious daughter, Paula, died in 1992 at the age of 25 from a rare blood disorder. “The pain of her death was unbearable. Even if you have a dozen children, it doesn’t make any difference. She entered hospital walking and was given back to us as almost a corpse.”
Allende wrote a book, “Paula” about the death of her daughter and with the income, she set up a charitable foundation. At the time of the publication of the Sunday Times article, Allende was running schools for underprivileged kids in Bangladesh and Central and Latin America.
Much of Allende’s fiction belongs to the genre, “Magic Realism,” which employs magical and mystical events and symbolism in a setting that is natural and realistic. This is an extremely aesthetic style of fiction which may access a deeper understanding of reality through the use of this special technique of blending regular reportage with the super-fantastic.
According to, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, the term “Magic Realism” probably originated from Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. “What is the story of Latin America if not a chronicle of the marvellous in the real.”
This quotation generated further interest in the idea of magic realism: “The American critic Alastair Reid… referred then to the large body of spectacular, fantastic fiction produced in South American countries after World War II.”
The genre of Magic Realism comes under the umbrella of Postmodernism in literature.
The charm of Allende’s work is that it is so sublimely written that while we are in her world, it is possible to believe in the extravagant fantasy. The first line of House of the Spirits is carved indelibly on my mind… “Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy ”
Barrabas, of course, was a dog. Allende has a gift for the sharpness of her imagery. One of her characters, Rosa, the central protagonist’s sister, had glorious green hair. You may wonder, how could anyone possibly have green hair? But, if you look carefully, you can see those traces of shining green in natural, hazel-brown hair. A great writer can help you to see what you never saw before.
The article in Literature in English, cites Rabelais and Kafka as precursors for the genre of magic realism.
A Belief in Destiny
Allende tells Sue Fox she is not religious or superstitious – however she has a strong belief in destiny. (Isn’t that superstition?) She believes in things she cannot control and spends a lot of time each in meditation. She prays in company with her friends. (Isn’t that religion?)
Life hasn’t been easy, so maybe her belief in destiny is a way of explaining it. “Three mornings a week I have help in the house,” she told Sue Fox in 2001, “I go crazy when I’m not organised. When I was young and poor I would take three jobs so that I could pay someone to vacuum and do the laundry.” She says she is at her most creative in the mornings.
The Charm of Lying
Allende began writing late in life to support her children, but now “I write because I love it and because I’m a very hyperactive person.” With endearing honesty she adds: “I always wanted to be a journalist. I loved it, but I was a lousy journalist. I put my words into the mouths of other people and lied all the time.”
Literary Advice From Allende
The following insightful advice for writers, which elaborates on her admission that lying ruined her journalism, may be worth passing on:
“The first lie of fiction is that the author gives some order to the chaos of life: chronological order, or whatever order the author chooses. As a writer, you select some part of a whole. You decide that those things are important and the rest is not. And you write about those things from your perspective. Life is not that way. Everything happens simultaneously, in a chaotic way, and you don’t make choices. You are not the boss; life is the boss. So when you accept as a writer that fiction is lying, then you become free. You can do anything. Then you start walking in circles. The larger the circle, the more truth you can get. The wider the horizon—the more you walk, the more you linger over everything—the better chance you have of finding particles of truth.”
It makes a strange sort of sense in Allende’s magical world that we must lie to get at the truth!