not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
NOTE: This review was originally posted to my GoodReads page. I’m reproducing it here, in a shameful attempt to increase my post count.
“For the first time in his life, Senator Trueba admitted he had made a mistake. Sunk in his armchair like an old man at the end of his days, they saw him shed silent tears. He was not crying because he had lost power. He was crying for his country.”
Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is, among all else, a feminist text that considers the operations of history from the perspective of the matriarch, the silent serving-woman, the female student activist. The figures of the Chilean revolutions that everyone knows from history books are either reduced to near-abstraction (Pablo Neruda becomes The Poet, Salvador Allende becomes The President) or eliminated entirely (Augusto Pinochet is struck entirely from the roll of history, as though in revenge for the thousands that disappeared under his regime). It is surprising and affecting, then, that Allende’s greatest creation in these pages is the figure of Esteban Trueba, the purest expression of the glory and sin of the Chilean patriarchy. There is much in him that seems to place him beyond the sympathies of the reader- he is reactionary, hypocritical, a man who strikes a lucky vein of gold and afterwards talks of how “everything I own, I worked for,” a serial rapist who thinks the brick houses he builds for his peasants are sufficient compensation for depriving them of education, wages, and basic human rights. In any other writer’s hands he would be a two-dimensional ghoul, the novel’s consistent reminder of everything that was wrong with the old Chile. But Allende manages to create sympathy for the man while never letting us forget the atrocities for which he is ultimately responsible. In her hands he becomes a figure of tragic irony, a singularly powerful man haunted by a love that he can only begin to deserve in his moments of greatest weakness. The quote at the front of this review encapsulates Allende’s treatment of the character: his tears are too late, a pitiful admission of guilt that does nothing to change the monstrous wrongs for which he is responsible. Yet they are sincere, and while he may be “like” an old man at the end of his days, the ambiguity of simile suggests that he may still have the chance to be something more.
Against this monumental depiction of patriarchy and old-world yearning, Allende creates several equally memorable female characters that, even as they represent various responses to the status quo, are extensively-developed characters in their own right. In Clara, Blanca, and Alba, we see the gradual progression of female thought and power against the gradual shrinking of Esteban, a progress shown by their names: Clara means “clear, bright,” Blanca means “white, fair,” and Alba is a combination of the two, roughly meaning “bright, white.” We see the cycles of history play out in similar ways for each succeeding generation, with each character rebelling from and reconciling with parents, getting involved with political movements, each dealing with the reality of men and the opportunities of the time in her own way. But each representative of these generations is unique, defined as much by the rejection of her mother’s priorities as by her opposition to Trueba (Blanca is practical where Clara is absent-minded, and Alba is willing to give up parts of her life that Blanca considers necessary), which is another of the novel’s great insights: rather than try to come up with an all-encompassing vision of femininity, Allende characterizes it by its multiplicity, viewing it as a site of near-infinite possibilities.
I feel like I could write another eight paragraphs on the characters alone, without even getting into how Allende’s narrative style successfully represents the continued passage of time – if this makes sense, it seems like the entire book is written like the last 20 pages of a Dickens novel, with characters hurrying through life to their various ends, and other characters succeeding them and moving through their lives with equal rapidity. “History writ with lighting” is a dull cliche; this is history written in a river, moving steadily but swiftly along, and gone before you know it.