A Literary Legend: Isabel Allende

For today’s post, I decided to write about one of my favourite authors, Isabel Allende. I will discuss her background, her books, her use of magical realism and explain why I love her so much. For those of you who might be thinking that Isabel Allende is a random topic to be discussing today, I will point out to you that I am publishing this post on the 4th of January, meaning that it will come out the Monday before Friday the 8th of January. The 8th of January, as any true fan of Allende would know is the day that she traditionally starts writing a new novel.

Isabel Allende was born in 1942 in Lima, Peru. Her father was a Chilean diplomat, who abandoned the family when Isabel was three years old. She spent much of her early life in Santiago. Her family had significant political connections: her father was the first cousin of Salvador Allende, who was President of Chile from 1970 to 1973. Salvador Allende served as the first Marxist president to be elected in a liberal democracy in Latin America. In 1973, he was overthrown in a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet and backed by the USA. Isabel found herself arranging safe passage for people on ‘wanted lists’ and like many supporters of Salvador Allende was eventually forced to seek refuge in Venezuela. Chile’s history, in particular the military coup, serves as a backdrop to many of Allende’s most famous stories.

The House of the Spirits, published in 1982, is Allende’s most recognisable work. It tells the story of three generations of the Trueba family, and their experiences in an un-named Latin American country that despite never saying it out-rightly in the novel is clearly Chile. The novel began life as a letter Allende was writing to her dying grandfather. It serves as her first novel and it also began Allende’s tradition of starting a novel on the 8th of January. Like all of her novels, it was originally written in Spanish and later translated into English.

As is probably true for many readers, The House of the Spirits was my introduction to Isabel Allende. I remember hearing about her work on the TV show, Jane the Virgin, a show where the heroine is an aspiring author who adores Allende’s work. This intrigued me and that Christmas circa 2018, when my friends and I had organised an informal Secret Santa, I loudly dropped the hint that The House of the Spirits would be a lovely present. I fondly remember how my friend did not disappoint me, not only was it the correct novel, but it was also a beautiful hardback edition. To this day, it is one of my most prized possessions. I remember being nervous as I read it, terrified I was somehow not going enjoy it. Yet those emotions were truly pointless as I fell in love with the beautiful and entrancing novel.

A key aspect found in most of Allende’s works is magical realism. This is defined by Merriam Webster as a “literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastical or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” The most famous examples of magical realism are found in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Columbian author most famous for One Hundred Years of Solitude and a major influence on Allende. Allende herself remarked on magical realism, stating that “you cannot explain it you cannot repeat it, you cannot control it, but you can experience it.” Common elements of magical realism would be: accurate fortune telling, prophetic dreams, mystical occurrences that seem impossible which happen in a novel that does not feature more common fantasy elements. Although the word is often associated with Latin American authors, elements of magical realism can be found in a wide variety of works from across the globe. I would argue that if you treat the Bible as a purely fictitious piece of literature, (which at the risk of offending people, is my sincere belief), it would fall under the category of magical realism, as a story set within a real place and time where mystical and seemingly impossible events occur.

Of course, The House of the Spirits, is not the only Allende novel of note. With works such as Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and Ines of my Soul, Allende’s back catalogue is wide and varied. One particular standout of course is Paula, Allende’s 1995 memoir she wrote as her daughter Paula was suffering from an illness that she would die of in 1992. It serves as an interesting account of Allende’s early life with her family and her experiences during the military coup. It changes about half way through the novel, as Allende realises that it is unlikely that Paula will live and the memoir turns into an account of a helpless mother trying to process her painful grief.

There are many reasons why I love Isabel Allende. Many of stories centre on female protagonists, which on a personal level are always more likely to connect with me. Her stories always have a familiar style and rhythm to the plot that can consume you and truly drag you into the world of the novel. The magical realism is quite simply magic. It transforms an ordinary or boring story into something fantastical without losing its grip on reality; with magical realism, the impossible feels quite possible. I also appreciate that since the writing is translated from Spanish, it makes for easy enough reading, there are no passages that feature complicated writing that would confuse a reader. This is why I would recommend Allende’s work to people who want to develop reading as a hobby and are not sure where to start.

I am afraid now that this article-turned-love-letter to one of my literary heroes is drawing to a close. For those of you already familiar with Allende’s work I must apologize, I am sure I have not added anything new to the conversation around her, that was not my intent. My intent was to explain to people who have probably never read her work, why I think they should. To further encourage those of you who have not read her work, I end this article with a quote from the legend herself. “You are the storyteller of your own life, and you can create your own legend or not.”

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