Many countries have bloody histories. Chile is one of them.
It was conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s, but by 1970 Chile was an independent democracy.
In the middle of the Cold War, a Socialist was elected president, Salvador Allende. The Americans were horrified, and three years later the CIA sponsored a successful military coup which brought Augusto Pinochet to power.
Perhaps because he knew what was to come, the deposed president committed suicide. His relatives were hunted.
That included Isabel Allende, a cousin. She fled to Venezuela, and eventually, the United States, along the way becoming one of Chile’s most vaunted authors. (Though born in Peru, Isabel Allende was largely raised in Chile.)
Pinochet terrorized his country’s people for some 16 years.
“I lived through the military coup in Chile of 1973,” Isabel Allende once said. “When violence and cruelty were unleashed, the terrified people asked themselves how it was possible for such a thing to happen in Chile, the most democratic and law-abiding country in South America. Well, our memory failed us. Those atrocities had happened before, during the revolution of 1891, when the armed forces rebelled and the country plunged into a bloodbath. During this period people were tortured, summarily executed, illegally arrested, taken in airplanes and thrown into the sea, the same as happened during the Pinochet dictatorship….. When a battle breaks out among relatives, my people turn into real barbarians.”
Those ideas led to Allende’s 2001 novel Portrait In Sepia. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful book (translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden and filed in Adult Fiction in the Lennoxville Library). A young woman, raised surrounded by secrets, has slowly pieced together her personal history. She begins the tale of her reconstruction in 1862, in San Francisco, with her parents and grandparents. Lai Ming herself is born in 1880, but is eventually claimed by her Chilean grandmother, and grows up as Aurora.
Author Allende mixes American, Chinese, British and Chilean life and history to create a web of people and their often complex relationships. Along the way, the Chilean civil war of 1891 leaves thousands dead, and the living scarred. Allende creates astonishing characters and the book will pull you along. (Of the formidable grandmother, Allende writes: “No ray of sunshine, however feeble, had ever touched her skin… she planned to go to her grave without a wrinkle.”)
Immigrants and dislocation feature prominently in Allende’s work; Latinos and mixed race couples abound, as does the shock of vastly different cultures meeting. Maya’s Notebook (2013, translated by Anne McLean and also filed in English Fiction) is set in contemporary times: “Finding herself a widow, she decided that she didn’t want to live under an oppressive regime and emigrated to Canada with her son Andrés, my dad.… He was nine years old, had grown up all of a sudden over the last months, and wanted explanations, because he realized his mother was trying to protect him with half-truths and lies.”
The narrator is Maya Vidal, whose Chilean grandmamma soon married an African-American astronomer and moved to Berkeley. Years later, Maya finds herself growing up in the inner city, a lost soul who discovers that sex and drugs can lead to pain and horrific violence. At 19, she is shipped by her granny to a rustic Chilean island to escape American arrest and imprisonment.
Her protector is Manuel, a mysterious older man and friend of the family, who lives in silence.
The tale switches between Maya slowly revealing the story of her American life, and of her attempts to adjust to a new life without television or central heating. Eventually, she is accepted into a coven of witches (also known as aromatherapists) and begins to uncover Manuel’s past. That past, of course, connects to Pinochet’s rule of terror. Along the way, Maya begins to cope with her own life.
In 2014, Allende published a thriller of sorts, Ripper (translated by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne, in Adult Fiction). It switches fully into thriller mode in the last quarter of the book, but is really founded, as are all her novels, on the creation of a fully realized world of people and relationships. Each character has a complete story.
The point of view switches regularly in Ripper, but it’s set in California. There’s teen Amanda and her pals, who are obsessed with solving gruesome real-life murders and meet online to do it (“a fan of brutal Scandinavian crime novels”); her dad is a homicide cop who leaks all sorts of confidential info; a disabled Navy SEAL is haunted by what he did as a soldier, but won’t do anything that would merit forgiveness. That’s just a handful of the large cast in this good read, which also includes Indiana, a holistic health care provider who has a hard time saying no; she ends up hurting people more than she would with a bit of upfront honesty.
And in the backdrop, a string of weird murders.
In addition to multiple novels, Allende has published a three-volume Young Adult series. She adds a layer of magical realism, however, that doesn’t appear in the adult novels that have been reviewed here. City Of The Beasts is the first (2002, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), and brings a young white American to the Amazonian rain forest, where he meets a vaguely mystical Brazilian girl. The pair try to solve the mystery of the giant apes who gobble up unwary humans.
That’s followed by Kingdom Of The Golden Dragon (2004), set in a Buddhist monarchy in Asia, ruled by an anti-electricity but otherwise enlightened king. It’s filled with magical monks and strange idols. The two youngsters finish the series in Africa, with Forest Of The Pygmies (2004). (All are filed in the Lennoxville Library under Young Adult.) (Younger teens will enjoy, though there’s little here for adults except for the hilarious antics of a white, booze-swilling National Geographic reporter and granny, who’s a big toughie with a heart of gold.)
More Adult Fiction by Allende is filed in our overflow shelving, including some of her best-known novels; just ask at the desk and we’ll get a book (or more) for you. And check French Adult Fiction as well. Find Allende’s biographical work at 928.61 and her raunchy cookbook at 863, in Non-Fiction. (And if you’re looking for other Chilean authors, consider Ariel Dorfman, and Nobel Literature Prize winners Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda; there are many more, the country has given us many astonishing writers. It is suspected, by the way, that Neruda’s death was ordered by Pinochet or one of his minions.)
Allende seems to seek to understand race, culture and the violence that haunts our souls. Some of her characters, although of mixed background, are seen and treated as white. And just as in life, her lush portrayals offer flawed people we can’t help but like.
— Eleanor Brown, March 25, 2016