The Magic Of Isabel Allende
By Rosamaria Casas
In Isabel Allende’s books, the real world of her family and history and the fictional world of character and plot are inextricably twined. The House of the Spirits meanders through four generations of her own family, its dramas reflecting the social and political changes of her country of origin, Chile. In the lnfinite Plan, her characters live in modern Los Angeles, suffering to adapt their Latin habits to the demands of the American way of life.
No one, perhaps not even the author, can say just what is true and what is a fantastic elaboration of the facts. The great rambling house in which the first novel is mostly set is based on her grandparents’ house in Santiago, where she spent her childhood. Clara, the clairvoyant who converses with spirits and can move objects at will, is based on her grandmother: “She held seances every day with her spiritualist friends. Nobody thought it was weird.” Esteban, the violent-tempered landowner and senator who supports a coup and then is sickened by its brutalities, is, to a large extent, like her real grandfather. It was for him that she began writing about the family.
In a recent interview she said: “He was a wonderful grandfather, a very hard, tough guy, though not cruel in the way I made him out in the book. He was a true Spaniard of Basque origin. I wanted to be strong like him. We disagreed on many things. In his heart he believed that he and his land owning class had the right to rule, to be privileged. Of course I reject his way of thinking.”
Jung said that he could not explain his own life in scientific terms because human life is about myth. This is what Isabel Allende claims—that she uses her family as an excuse to exaggerate, to make fiction. When she tries to stick to the facts she fails, the characters take over when she is writing and she is powerless to control them. She has to follow them, to go where they want to go.
The House of the Spirits is a book which obsesses people. Modern literature students have made dozens of dissertations based on this book, many newspaper articles have been published about it. A film has been made in the USA. When she was asked what is this “magic realism” in her literature, she answered: “Let’s be clear what magic realism means. It’s not a literary device that applies to Latin American writers alone. Magic realism is in literature. Things are magic but at the same time they are real. Magic realism really means allowing a place in literature to the invisible forces that have such a powerful place in life, such as dreams, myth, legend, passion, obsession, superstition, religion, the overwhelming power of nature and the supernatural.
“All these are present in pre-Colombian poetry, Hindu sagas, Arab tales, and used to be present in Western literature up to the Gothic novel and Edgar Allen Poe. Only in the past few decades have they been excluded by white male authors who decided that whatever cannot be controlled does not exist.”
When someone asked her about her methodology for writing, she simply said: “If a writer sits alone in a room for eight or ten hours a day, she creates something like a magnetic field. It’s as if there are stories inside you which you don’t know you have.”
This is the bottom line. Do you want to write? Sit several hours a day, alone in a room, in front of your typewriter or PC and let your unconscious come to the surface. Easier said than done! As a teacher of creative writing once said, “unconscious is shy, elusive and unwieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will and even to direct it.” Some writers talk about having a vision, others of dreaming their characters, others construct them step by step, like a mason building a wall, one brick after the other, a slow, painful process that produces books like The House of the Spirits, which took Isabel Allende eight years of thinking about it before she sat down in front of the typewriter!
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