A House for Our Spirits: On the Enduring Impact of Isabel Allende’s Classic Novel

Novelist Carolina De Robertis writes about the influence of Isabel Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits, the California Book Club’s March selection, on her own writing and the writing of other leading Latina writers.

isabel allende

Ten years ago, I sat across from Isabel Allende, amazed, fumbling for words. We were backstage at the Museum of the African Diaspora, where we were to be in conversation about her novel Island Beneath the Sea. I’d been reading her—been shaped by her books—for almost 20 years. I was struck by her regal ease and the wakeful curiosity in her eyes. As we chatted in Spanish, she made clear that she was tired of talking about herself; she wanted to know about me.

I’d recently given birth. My breasts ached, full of milk. My soul ached, too, full of what I wanted to convey to her, what her work had meant, thoughts so deep they felt impossible to render in words.

Readers need both mirrors and windows, as the adage goes. To what extent we find reflection on the page or portals into unknown realms depends on who we are and the realities of the world. Those of us who are more starved for reflection will seek it out by subterfuge, scouring subtext for gleaming shards, and when we find them, the exhilaration is unparalleled.

As an immigrant kid from a country people often seemed unable to find on a map—and as a kid who was, unbeknownst to themself, queer, growing up in an authoritarian household—I became a bookworm as a way to belong, somewhere, somehow. I fell into books the way some fall into religion: with fervor and euphoria and outsize hopes. I’d discovered a rebellion I could enact in secret, in absolute silence, the predecessor of all my rebellions to come.

Some of the books I stumbled upon proved so formative that I still look back on their arrival in my consciousness as a milestone, after which I was forever changed.

The House of the Spirits was one of those books. I was 17. I’d read Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude four years prior, at 13, and it, too, had expanded my universe, thrilling me with previously unknown delights of cultural recognition on the page. The House of the Spirits fed that part of me, but it also did something I’d never seen before in a Latin American novel, nor had I as yet seen it much elsewhere: it richly, extravagantly centered women and girls.

First published in Spanish in 1982, The House of the Spirits is sweeping, immersive, inordinately generous with its description and detail, as unabashedly spiritual as it is political. Women propel the book, defying social norms, speaking out of turn in church, cultivating supernatural powers, following their passions, fighting for political change, and otherwise displaying an internal enormity that confounds the various men attempting to control them. The novel’s mesmerizing effect stems in part from the many fascinating twists and turns in the story but also, equally, from the hypnotic rhythm of the prose, the pulse and song of it, a syntax that tumbles clauses over one another in rhythmic cascades of meaning: humor and lust, drama and intrigue, the terror of rape and a brutal dictatorship, the grace of hard-earned hope.

In the opening pages of the novel, the character Rosa assigns herself a gargantuan task: to embroider the largest tablecloth in the world, replete with “a whole paradise filled with impossible creatures that took shape beneath her father’s worried eyes.”

The House of the Spirits is that tablecloth. Gargantuan. Visionary. Flagrant before the father’s worried eyes.

Now, as I consider The House of the Spirits, I see additional layers of defiance. This book does not adhere to the narrow descriptions of “good” writing that have long been the fashion in this country, rooted in white and male traditions and imposed upon the rest of us: use simple syntax; show, don’t tell; be restrained; if you’re going to shift your point of view, be tidy about it; individual voices are superior to the collective. The dominance of these norms, which the writer Matthew Salesses has referred to as aesthetic imperialism, is rooted in a well-documented history of CIA involvement with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wherein the CIA directly funded the most influential writing program in the country so as to bend literary output in an anti-communist direction.

That same CIA took part in the devastation of Allende’s nation, and of mine. Democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende, Isabel’s uncle, was killed in a bloody coup on September 11, 1973, which plunged the nation into a horrifically violent dictatorship with the CIA’s direct support. That year, the CIA also backed and propelled a coup in my nation of origin, Uruguay. I am a writer born during Uruguay’s dictatorship, a child of the diaspora who learned of the brutal realities from a distance, as if through a vivid dream.

Allende did not write outside of the Iowa aesthetic on purpose. She didn’t know its rules and wrote from a place deep within herself, in a state of urgency and grief. I was exposed to aesthetic imperialism as an emerging writer, in formal workshops, but for all of the pain and alienation those messages caused, they also arrived too late. I’d spent years already working on my first novel in secret. I’d already been shaped by novelists who’d described realities upended by CIA-backed violence in a more full-bodied language. I had another house for my spirit. I knew there were other ways.

In the years 2007 and 2008, another Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, catapulted into the U.S. literary consciousness as his books were translated in quick succession. Bolaño famously scorned and belittled Allende’s writing. I recall, from those years, in U.S. literary spaces, more than one instance of a white or Latinx male writer taking his cue and mocking Allende while lauding Bolaño’s “serious” work. A fissure opened deep inside me on hearing these comments, a dark space that swallowed my silence.

Bolaño is brilliant. I admire his work immensely. I could say more, but this is not his essay. Most relevant are the 280 pages he devoted to a raw, unrelenting litany of brutalized dead women’s bodies in his novel 2666. These murdered women are devoid of any subjectivity whatsoever. I do not doubt Bolaño intended, with those pages, to decry the atrocities he described. But what does it mean when literature that erases women’s subjectivity is lifted up at the expense of literature where women’s subjectivity fuels the entire enterprise?

What about other women? I reached out to a few friends, each a leading Latina author, and asked whether The House of the Spirits had nourished them, made them more brazen. Cristina García, whose 1992 novel, Dreaming in Cuban, blazed trails for U.S. Latina fiction and was a National Book Award finalist, told me, “The novel centered women, the supernatural, and politics in a way I had not seen before. That, and its gorgeous language, was utterly liberating.”

Patricia Engel, author of The Faraway World and winner of a Dayton Literary Peace Prize, said that she, like me, first encountered the novel as a teenager and that “it was at once so deeply familiar yet like nothing I had ever encountered in a book, and it felt so very necessary and vital, even though it would take years before I understood why. The first copy I received was from my mother, who’d received it from her sister.… It was passed through the women in my family, from one generation to the next, because we all saw in it some reflection of ourselves.”

Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of the National Book Award finalist The Man Who Could Move Clouds, told me, “Reading The House of the Spirits was like receiving an electric current. I count it among the books I deeply cherish.” She went on to describe her own experience of talking with Allende backstage at Litquake: “When I told her about my memoir and my mother, telling her about people seeing her appear in two places at once, she looked off in the distance and gave a little disgruntled sigh, saying, ‘My grandmother was the same.’”

Ten years ago, when I was backstage with Allende, as I recall, I told her that my breasts were full of milk. She knew I had a wife, that I was in a same-sex marriage, and the fact of my queer maternity seemed to strike her deeply. We looked at each other for a long while, seeing each other. Being seen.

With another person, I would not have shared such an intimate fact about my body, which, in male-dominated spaces, could be read as unprofessional or diminish me as an intellectual. But with Allende, whose book had mothered me, it felt natural and utterly right. In that moment, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to find the words to convey what her work had meant; I could let that meaning live in the body, in the unsayable depths where novels can reach us with the glimmering mirrors and windows of their intricate architecture and where—if we’re lucky enough, if we’re brave enough—they can help make us more possible.•

Join us on Zoom on Thursday, March 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Allende will join CBC host John Freeman to discuss The House of the Spirits. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the novel. Register here for the event.

Carolina De Robertis is the award-winning author of the novels The President and the Frog, Cantoras, and other books.
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