Reading Latin America: The House of Spirits

For something a little bit different than the norm, I just finished reading my first Isabel Allende book: The House of the Spirits.

I love Gabriel Garcia Márquez and, subsequently, quite like magical realism. Over the past year or so, I noticed a dearth of both fiction books and female authors in my roster of books to read. I picked up The House of the Spirits in paperback form in LA, at some point, and then purged it on one of my cleaning frenzies after never having read it.

This time, though it took me a few months, I finally finished it. Oh, it was worth it.

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What’s it about?

To keep it short, the book follows the matriarchal (mostly) lineage of a specific family for roughly four generations. There are a few different narrators and main characters who switch at varying points in the book. Mostly, the story is narrated by Esteban, a conservative politician and typical patriarch, and his granddaughter, Alba.

However, the narration starts before you meet Esteban. Beginning with the del Valle family, you first meet Rosa and Clara del Valle, two sisters with both supernatural appearances and gifts. Clara is a clairvoyant and can move things with her mind. While Esteban is in love with Rosa, he eventually marries and has a family with Clara.

The book is set in their mansion, where Clara lives eclectically with her supernatural gifts. The family splits their time between this motley collection of characters in the city and a farm out in the country on their land.

As a reader, you get to follow the family across time and generations, which happen in parallel with huge socio-political changes in the country. Ultimately, after the socialist candidate wins the presidency, there’s a military coup that implicates the family in a variety of different ways.

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Parallels

Obviously, the background setting for The House of the Spirits is based in historical reality. However, while reading it, I couldn’t help but think of parallels to Brazil – both in the past and present.

As an American, I didn’t realize until I went to visit that Brazil had a military dictatorship up until very recently. Even then, I think it only came up in the context of elections and how democracy is still a relatively new thing for Brazil. (For reference, the dictatorship ended in 1985.)

In The House of the Spirits, as the government changes from one democratically elected to the one who staged a coup, so many of the characters are in denial about their situation. Many of the wealthy refuse to believe the stories of poverty that exist around them, calling it “Communist propaganda.” In the story, it’s easier to believe a familiar falsehood than the reality of what is.

With the most recent elections in Brazil, so much of this anti-Communist narrative replayed itself. There were rumors that the previous party (the Workers Party, or Partido dos Trabalhadores, a.k.a. PT) were going to turn the country into a Communist dictatorship. While many critiqued them for not doing enough for Brazil in recent years, the rest of the rumors were complete falsehoods.

The denial of reality (poverty, exploitation of the environment, a loss of women’s rights, etc.) is an ongoing challenge in many countries. While reading, one quote stuck out for me especially:

Senator Trueba, who despised these things on principle, realized what his friends at the club had meant when they assured him that Marxism did not stand a chance in Latin America because it did not allow for the magical side of things. “Bread, circuses, and something to worship are all they need,” the senator concluded, regretting in his conscience that there should be a lack of bread.

As an outsider, the “worship” of soccer and the “circus” of Carnaval over political action so often stand out to me. At the same time, I’m aware that there’s a collective memory of terror, even within my own generation. Reading this quote, I thought of many conversations with friends prior to this most recent election. It struck home in many ways, with the caveat that many people I know now are much more vocal and active in their opposition.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Matriarchs

Esteban may be the primary narrator, but the main characters are the women. Each woman in this story has a supernatural power that connects her with something larger. She is in touch with which way the wind is blowing, both spiritually and politically, in a much more grounded way.

Esteban, despite his grandiose posture as a patriarch, respects this is many ways – and fears it. He seeks to control women throughout his life, especially those who are beneath him in class. He thrives on feeling like he’s tamed another woman.

Yet with his wife, he worships her, almost as a goddess.

Clara passes down her knowledge of the supernatural to her sons and daughter who, in turn, share it with her granddaughter. Each of these strong women choose their own path in life, often overcoming the demands of the men around them and in society.

At the end of the book, Alba speaks about how she could never be uprooted from her country. Thinking of when we speak of mother countries, it’s as if Alba would be motherless. She is a child rooted in a space and time chosen by her mothers.

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It’s such a good read, and typical of the style too. I love the way Isabel Allende plays with narration and time in the story, not to mention reality. She balances the harsh realities of the world with the airy imaginations of her female characters. They seem to float through the entire story, like ghosts or angels. Better yet, like spirits.

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