Folktales and Fascism

Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, the CBC March selection, considers words, ideas, and stories as tools of power and connection.

isabel allende, the house of the spirits, novel, fiction, fascism, folktales
© Isabel Allende

In a video for the California Book Club, Isabel Allende told Alta Journal that the title of this month’s CBC book pick, The House of the Spirits, was decided by a coin flip, and it’s just as well, because, despite its serious political-history sections, the book reads like folklore, and old myths and legends taught to children to impart morals often lack a cohesive title. The ancient wisdom within them is far too great to be contained.

These stories arise spontaneously when a bit of insight is required. They’re adapted to situations in which they’re needed—molded and reformed for those who need to hear them and also those who need to tell them. Not only does Allende’s work relay family lore and history, it serves as a Russian nesting doll of lessons, full of parables and cautionary tales illustrated by various characters. Drawn from Chile’s rich oral and poetic tradition, the novel is told like folklore that is meant to be spoken aloud. Words and their act of communication are of the utmost importance to Allende—and they prove critical to fighting the nightmare of fascism, which is fixated on physical action: violence, rape, and torture are its chief tools.

On the first page of the novel, we learn that “[Clara] was already in the habit of writing down important manners, 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.” From that first mention of both an “I” and an “afterward”—indicating the omniscience afforded by time—the reader understands that as they witness, they are accompanied by a narrator and by Clara, whose notebooks are the artifacts that “bore witness to life.”

When I first began reading the story, this unnamed narrator irked me. Not enough to take me out of the magical world she was relaying, but I felt almost threatened that this person had found and was using the work of someone I had grown to love, and I didn’t understand who she was. She felt like an invader in the magical del Valle clan. Who was this person who had broken into Clara’s notebooks? Of course, the answer is not revealed until the end of the novel, although there are some clues along the way, and when I accidentally spoiled it for myself about halfway through the book after reading something online, I was shocked. Clara was still alive. Blanca was just a child. What interested me, though, was the constant reminder of things to come, a pervasive foreshadowing indicative of a spoken tale and its powers. Statements like “the old man could not know that he was giving Blanca something that would later be her only means of survival, as well as her sole comfort in the sad hours to come” and “in the years to come they had more than one occasion to recall them” kept me on the edge of my seat. I wondered when the tragedy of Pinochet’s brutal violence would rain down on the characters I loved.

Allende prizes this feeling of being told something by someone you trust, a confidence that each woman in the del Valle clan experiences as they grow up. Words from women have profound effects throughout The House of the Spirits. The novel itself feels of a piece with the consequential secrets its characters share. Esteban Trueba’s sister Férula’s announcement that he will die like a dog haunts Esteban until his final hours, repeated in the pages of the book many times after Férula’s own demise and after his mother’s feeble request that he marry is taken to heart.

Pancha García “had managed before she died to poison [Esteban García’s] childhood with the story that if only his father had been born in place of Blanca, Jaime, or Nicolás, he would have inherited Tres Marías, and could even have been President of the Republic if he wanted.” Allende repeatedly mentions Pancha García’s storytelling, thereby indicating that a few spoken words changed the course of many lives, almost more than the birth she is speaking of. Férula’s confessions to the priest and her repetition of the rosary among nonbelievers save her at difficult junctures. Characters gain and lose voice based on who they decide to be, with the simple switch of one word—a name—such as when Jaime uses his mother’s maiden name to interact with leftists he knows would be perturbed to learn he was the son of a prominent conservative. And when the Poet dies and the people sing slogans of revolution and his poetry for him, they feed resistance and allow sorrow to be felt.

The thoughts, feelings, and words of each of Allende’s characters inform their circumstances and the setting of the novel more than Allende’s descriptions of action and place inform the characters. By virtue of this focus, her own story is pitted against the forceful physicality of the fascism she describes. And in describing its realities, much as Alba does, she engages in this battle at multiple levels.

Of course, words and the exchange of ideas are among the first things that fascists seek to eliminate. In almost every fascist government that has risen to power, it is the students, intellectuals, and artists who have been eliminated first. These are the people who trade in (and live by) words and ideas. Book burning, which is most closely associated with the Nazis, was also committed by Pinochet’s junta during his dictatorship in Chile. In The House of the Spirits, all of the books and written documents in the big house on the corner are burned “on an infamous pyre.”

Words don’t abandon Alba, our faithful narrator. However, they become the very thing that keeps her alive in her cell as she writes “a testimony that might one day call to attention the terrible secret she was living through.”

The narrative unfolds with constant reminders of what horrors are to come, which runs the risk of making readers feel that perhaps these events were bound to come, but Clara’s insistence on not reusing names because it confuses things in her notebooks might just offer a way out. As Alba is given her own name, she is given an opportunity to “break that terrible chain.”

History does not have to repeat itself, and fascism is not inevitable, and Allende’s is a tale of history. More legend than prophecy.•

Join us on March 16 at 5 p.m., when Allende will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman to discuss The House of the Spirits. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.


Nasim Ghasemiyeh is an assistant editor at Alta Journal.
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