Thursday, 26 June 2008

The House of the Spirits

I finished reading this book yesterday, and all day today bits of it kept floating into my mind. I was surprised when I thought about my lunch and realised I wouldn't be reading this book. I think I know why so many people love this book. I think I have fallen in love with it too.

It is the ending that convinced me this book is worth being on the 1001 Books to read before you Die List. It is part of my 1% reading challenge. I have to say my inner literary bookworm is so thrilled that I ended up liking this book that she is actually speaking to me (I don't read enough classics for her, this elitist book snob part of me that prefers I read only the best books. My constant argument with her is that these are books chosen by other people, not by me, and they are snobs since they don't consider fantasy or other genre writing to be 'classic' in most cases. This is an ongoing argument with myself, but since I've signed up for the 1% challenge my ILB is happily planning how to convince me to read Proust and is leaving me alone with Charles de Lint for the next year instead making me read Canadian authors I don't like just to please her. I wish I could like Carol Shields, but her early book Swann's Way I couldn't finish, and I can't stand Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. I hate that book!!! So I don't care what the rest of the world says, I'll keep reading LM Montgomery and Charles de Lint instead....yikes, I think my Inner Literary Bookworm just snarled at me!) Sorry for the side comments, you see the struggle I have between wanting to be well-read and actually reading 'classics'.....

So, I opened The House of the Spirits not knowing what to expect, except that I knew a lot of people, both in the blogging world and from my years at the bookstores, who read and loved this book. From the beginning this book swept me up into the story of the Trueba family. Clara, Esteban, Alba, Miguel, Ferula, Nanny, Pedro, Blanca, they were alive in the way that only the best characters are. Clara floated through the novel as she floated in her world, and in the same way she was the heart of the house, and her family, she was the heart of the story. Clara the clairvoyant, who talked with the spirits and dreamed the future; Esteban, who seems to be a loud tyrant, and slowly is revealed to represent the old Chile - he is the voice for the wealthy landowner, conservative MP, who doesn't understand why his serfs want rights and equality. It is fascinating to see how Allende gives voice to all her characters, so we see Esteban proud of what he has accomplished and unaware of how feared he was - yet knowing he had to 'rule his peasants with a firm hand because they are like children'. Clara, who knows the future, but unable to run her household or prevent her dear sister-in-law being thrown out, or stop the future from happening - she just sees it. Blanca, the only one to get her heart's desire in the end. All these characters are the centre of the book, the heart of the family, this proud, dysfunctional family caught up in Chile's tumultous 20th century culminating in the terrible coup d'etat in Sept 1973 that saw President Allende - the uncle of the writer - overthown. The Trueba family is caught up in these events, and to my mind, the most powerful part of the book is the ending, when Alba is taken away in the night to be tortured. I stayed up late Tuesday night to finish the book, and I wept through all the terrible suffering and torture. Isabel Allende takes the story of Chile's change from an agricultural country with the land held by a few to a semi-industrialized nation with the dispossessed workers moving to the city and starving and makes it become real through the position the Trueba family holds and the differing values and beliefs of each of the family members. While this is a common technique in novels, in this book, this brings the struggles to change, the resistance by the rich, leading to the Marxist president and then his eventual overthrow by the army a gripping one that had me on edge, because the characters are intimately involved in different levels of society in that world. Jaime is a doctor, Esteban is a senator and landowner, Blanca loves a revolutionary, as does Alba. Knowing the outcome of the real-life events only gives the novel a deeper edge. One of the most shocking moments for me was when Jaime (one of Esteban and Clara's sons) receives a phone call from the President's Office on the morning of the coup. He goes. It gave me a start because in real life, I had recently watched one of our talk-show hosts on TV Ontario (a public station like PBS in the US) interview Ariel Dorfman, who worked as one of the spokesmen for President Allende. He survived the coup because on the morning of the coup, he didn't receive a phone call. He wondered why later, and found out that someone already at the Presidential Office had crossed his name off the list and offered herself instead, thereby saving Dorfman's life. Dorfman was allowed to flee the country, and eventually ended up in the US, and has just recently made a film about the coup, called "A Promise to the Dead", and what life has been like for him as an exile. I also would like to say that I lived next door to a woman for many years here in Ottawa, who was also an exile from Chile. She and her brother fled after the coup. She only ever talked about being away from Chile and not being able to go back, and what her family did before, a little. She was always so sad, and for her, life was before the coup, and after. So I brought all this with me to the book, and when I read that paragraph: "The day of the coup the sun was shining, a rare event in that timid spring that was just dawning. Jaime had worked practically all night and by seven in the morning his body had had only two hours of sleep. He was awakened by the ring of the telephone. It was a secretary, her voice slightly agitated, who scared his drowsiness away. She was calling from the Presidential Palace to inform him that he should present himself there as soon as possible; no, the President was not ill, no, she was not sure what was happening, she had simply been instructed to call all the President's doctors." I gave a little jump. From now on, it was the recounting of what really happened, in the guise of fiction. And by putting into fiction, by writing about it, Allende has born witness to what happened, and made sure the story is told.

This is why writing is important, why books are censored, why writers are feared by dictators, presidents, tyrants, anyone who fears free speech: writers, and the stories and books they tell, show the truth. They tell the stories so people will remember what happened. So all the people who died in Chile, in Rwanda, in the Congo, in World War 2, in the past and in the future, will be remembered. So their voices will be heard.

"they can't do that to someone from my own family, in my own house, because then what the hell is left for everybody else, if people like us can be arrested then nobody is safe, that more than twenty years in Congress aren't worth a damn and all the acquaintances I have, I know everybody in this country, at least everyone important, even General Hurtado, who's my personal friend but in this case hasn't lifted a finger to help me locate my granddaughter, it's not possible she could just disappear as if by magic, that they could take her away in the night and that I should never hear a word of her again...." Every parent is in those words, every person who lost someone in that coup, and in Argentina, and anywhere else where people disappear because of what they stand for.

This book breaks my heart, and puts it back together, and is amazing, beautiful, and haunting. It is a story about love, and death, about idiosyncrasies and human souls and evil and ghosts and it is above all wise and haunting, like Clara, like the ghosts who run up and down the halls of the house of the title.

I will do another post of the banned book Challenge, but as I still have to review A Wrinkle in Time (which I also loved), I will leave it for another day, when it is not so late! It's well past midnight now! I, and my Inner Literary Bookworm, are still mulling through all the ideas and emotions The House of the Spirits brought up. And I haven't even discussed the poetry of the settings, the language, the humour, the life in this novel. If you haven't read it yet, then it's worth it to get it. and if you have, let me know and I'll add your review link to the bottom, and I'll come see what you thought about the book. If I had a book club, this would be one of the books we'd read the first year.

And, in a side note, the coup in Chile occurred Sept 11, 1973. Ariel Dorfman has written a book titled : "Other Septembers, Other Americas". Here is a link to a recent interview with Dorfman on Salon , about his film, and what it was like to go back to Chile and revisit his memories of President Allende and the coup. If we get the film up here I will be going to see it.


Emily Barton said...

Oh, I have one of those inner book snobs, too. As a matter of fact, she's going to get a bit part in my post on favorite reads of the first half of 2008 when I post that one. Meanwhile, so glad you loved this book. I did, too, when I read it years ago. Now, whatever you do, no matter how tempting it may be (and how hot Antonio Banderas is), do NOT, under any circumstances, waste your time with the hideous film version.

Heather J. said...

Thanks for the review - this book has been on my TBR list for a while ... I'll get to get to it soon!

As a side note, in high school we had to interview someone who lived through an important event in history, and present that interview to the class. One girl interviewed her aunt who had escaped from Chile as a young woman during in the 1980s - it was fascinating, and also the first time I had heard about Chilean history at all.

Patricia said...

I still have to read this post of yours; I will later.

I want to invite you over to my new blog. Please don't link this to anything of yours; you and Kristen are the only family I want to see this particular blog.

My starting stats are scary so take a deep breath before you jump over. See you there.

ps I'm still keeping the daily blog.

Eva said...

This was a wonderful, wonderful review!

And I have an inner book snob, but she's mainly snobby over international books (as in, "I can't believe you're reading a mystery when you could be reading this stunning book set in Nepal/Burundi/etc."). And poetry. She thinks I should read a lot more poetry.

Nymeth said...

lol, I loved your discussion with your inner literary bookworm.

I haven't read this one yet...I was more or less hesitant because I've seen mixed reviews, and plus I had one bad experience with Allende (I am willing to give her another chance, though), but I think you convinced me. Plus, back in my teens I was obsessed with the movie version for a while.