Book: Isabel Allende - The House of the Spirits [SPOILERS]

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Book: Isabel Allende - The House of the Spirits [SPOILERS]

Postby Lomax on May 2nd, 2017, 12:14 pm 

When Karl Marx wrote, in the introduction to his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, that "religion is the opium of the people", he was not arguing (as is sometimes thought) that it is something without which they could not do. Rather he argued that mankind would not face the root causes of his dire condition so long as he is anaesthetised by false consolation. "Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower." (In the era of Isabel Allende, adjust your pronouns accordingly.) This conception of religion, as a tool with which the bourgeoisie sedate and manipulate the masses, is the historical link between Marxism and atheism.

Following this where is leads, we can understand why so many of the liberal and socialist writers of (heavily religious) South America turn to "magical realism". Esteban Trueba's political opponents, on page 350 of The House of the Spirits, say it for Allende: "Relax, hombre. [...] Marxism doesn't stand a chance in Latin America. Don't you know it doesn't allow for the magical side of things? It's an atheistic, practical, functional doctrine. There's no way it can succeed here!"

Well now it does allow. After several hundred pages of what feels like a bloated and slimly engaging soap opera, Allende switches opiate for amphetamine, and ambushes the reader with a chilling novelisation of the fascist coup which overthrew and slaughtered her democratically elected socialist grandfather in 1973. The turgid pace of the first two-thirds of the book only serves, in the end, to add surprise and therefore potency to the terrors of the final, more politically charged, act.

And so this is a novel of contrasts. The fantastical gives way to the real, the mundane to the nightmarish, the frivolous to the political. (What else could we expect of a writer who is trying to have it both ways by marrying Marxism to ghosts and clairvoyants?) Trueba is a monster, but a complex and often pitiable one, with a principled stake in conservative values; in the end he has to give way to something of a different class altogether, a kind of radical horror which he unwittingly helped to create. Throughout is a pervading sense that Chile is being brought down to Earth (and then lower). The past is conveyed to us over a gentle, fuzzy transistor, while the present feels real and brutal, and there is little help to be found in The Beyond. Allende tells us of the country's more stable past: "That was the period when divine good humour and the hidden forces of human nature acted with impunity to provoke a state of emergency and upheaval in the laws of physics and logic."

Something of the divine good humour seems to have survived, at least. At one point, early in the book, the narrator tells us of "the parrot, who had managed to learn Spanish although he had not lost his foreign accent". We get a casual mention of "the dire look of the European existentialists". Flicking through a brochure of hookers, Trueba is "unable to decide because they all looked like trampled bouquet flowers". While it sometimes seems like Allende is trying to foil her own plot with foreshadowing (please, writers, don't tell me that you're going to tell the story. Just tell the story), and while the magical elements never come as much of a surprise (if somebody begins to grow ear hair you know before turning the page that they are going to be completely covered in body fur, like some late-blooming Cousin It), the writer's laconic wit always sneaks up.

With Allende's taste for the antithetical comes an appreciation for the paradoxical and the ironic. Fascists enlist bitter serfs to torture high-born but charitable socialists; unrequited love turns back on itself; the defeat of Marxism is the day the magic dies. These social and historical ironies are ultimately the most realistic element of the tale - more so, even, than the suffering. In fact the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, the book which set in motion the South American tendency to magic realism, is overall too obvious ("Rosa the Beautiful"? Come on), but other literary parallels are subtler. Like The Sound and the Fury this is a story, recounted by multiple narrators and not strictly chronologically, of a declining family in a declining society; like 1984 it is a political thought "experiment" designed to lay bare a real political situation; like The Brothers Karamazov it makes such a lucid effort to present opposing points of view that, if we are not careful, we might even assent.

Thus it is disappointing that the book wraps up jovially with the restoration of the House's sickening opulence, and then on a waffling note, with all the usual nonsense about how everything happens for a reason, time is an illusion, and so on. The closing epistle wards us against hate, but confuses it with retribution and justice, marooning us with a philosophy that is unwisely, if not immorally, pacifistic. The baby submerges in the bathwater; the chain is so heavy that it flattens the living flower. So I will stick to my unmagical socialism if it's all the same, and no literary shortcoming can erase from my mind the shock and awe of the torture scenes. As W. H. Auden, returning from the Spanish Civil War four and a half decades earlier, wrote:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
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