Of all the novels I’ve ever read – and there’s been a fair few – The House of the Spirits has cast the most potent spell on me. I read it back in 2006 and still think of it regularly.
First published in 1982 as La casa de los espiritus, this is the debut novel of the Chilean author Isabel Allende. The book has an autobiographical element. Allende’s second cousin was Salvador Allende, the President of Chile from 1970 until his deposition by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. The novel borrows from these events: the generation-spanning saga of the Trueba family is at first overshadowed by the threat of a political revolution, then played out in front of it. However, this aspect of the novel has a dreamlike, hazy and allegorical tone. The country in which these events unfold is never named and we encounter characters known only to us as the Poet and the President.
For me, though, this is not a novel about political upheaval and revolution; it is about how we can survive such things. The opening lines are pretty revealing, I think:
Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own (p. 11)
As the above snippet suggests, this tale of three women – Clara, Bianca and Alba, who narrates those lines – is a tale about storytelling itself, of the importance of writing and the imagination. The power of the imagination to flourish under oppression and withstand adversity is illustrated during Alba’s incarceration towards the end of the book:
… she was able to bury herself so deeply in her story that she stopped eating, scratching herself, smelling herself, and complaining, and overcame all her varied agonies (p. 470)
Yet it is not imaginative writing – writing as escapism – that is eventually lauded. Those opening lines hint at the potential of writing to forge connections between generations. This theme is reinforced later on when the function of writing to preserve the past and to ‘bear witness’ is highlighted:
Had it not been for the letters Clara and Bianca exchanged, that entire period would have remained submerged in a jumble of faded, timeworn memories. Their abundant correspondence salvaged events from the mists of improbable facts.
Life, Allende stresses, is fleeting and transient; writing is the only means of fixing and preserving it. Moreover, writing helps to create links, not only between past and present but, in this novel dominated by the feminine, between women, some of whom have never met.
Additionally, when events unfold in the present, they appear to be random, chaotic, unordered. Yet, Alba’s access to written accounts helps her to order events and understand them, discovering links and establishing a sense of fate and destiny. Writing thus endows the past with structure and meaning, making sense of apparently random events:
I write, [Clara] wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events …. That’s why my Grandmother Clara wrote in her notebooks, in order to see things in their true dimension and to defy her own poor memory
A beautiful book about writing, memory, imagination, the strength of the human spirit and the connection between generations of women.