A Family of Stories

CBC host John Freeman writes about the stunning multiplicity of tales assembled by author Isabel Allende within The House of the Spirits, the March selection.

isabel allende
© Isabel Allende

So many stories, like families, wind up reassembled in a place they’re not from. The Sarajevo Haggadah, for example, which like all Haggadahs tells the story of the biblical exodus and is used during seder, is originally from Barcelona. But it was a Bosnian city that secured its fate during the Holocaust, and all across Sarajevo today you will trip over tales of how it was hidden during the era of the Nazis. There are even bars that declare it was hidden there.

Going back further, One Thousand and One Nights turned up in Egypt in the early ninth century, though the stories probably originated in Syria. Still, neither nation can claim to be the birthplace of Scheherazade’s tale, which, like Homer’s poems, appears to have been assembled across time, before it began to be standardized in the 1500s and then popularized in the 1700s by a Frenchman, since when there have been scores of editions, some of its descendants illustrated and rare as art. A gorgeous new translation is currently appearing now by a British Syrian translator, living in Paris, Yasmine Seale.

Each of these books has traveled so widely and been relied upon by so many—for comfort, for faith, for wonder—that to say they belong to anyone or any place is as strange as saying a corporation should have a patent on an apple. Yet this is the world we live in, one that insists on property and on individuality. What if the novel itself emulated the far-flung, open-ended journey of these books? What might such a book look like? How would it read? What might it say about us, as people, traveling texts as we are, passing through time: told, ignored, redacted, and amended? And what would family look like within its pages?

One answer is The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende’s dizzyingly powerful 1982 debut novel, a sensuously written tale about the rage with which one man tries to control the arc of his family line and a vivid, actual account of what those years were like. Allende began her novel about three generations of the del Valle–Trueba family while she was living in exile in Caracas, Venezuela, where she’d fled her collapsing nation, as a letter to her dying, beloved grandfather. To wish him alive. To put down family memory in one place, in a world that seemed to want to erase the past. “Barrabás came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy,” the book begins, introducing three key factors in the novel: the sense that spirits walk among us, that Clara is at the heart of the book, and that at one point, there was an “us.”

Over the next 500 pages, all of these things will change. Clara, whom we meet when she is just a child, grows into an old and fantastical woman, a grandmother, whose formidable gifts of sight are finally (and fearfully) recognized. Barrabás, who walked among them, a stray dog they’d taken in, is murdered before Clara’s wedding to Esteban Trueba, an ambitious and covetous man who eventually buys his way into politics. And the family that the two of them form, the families they come from, unravel like the state that they come from, where a socialist revolution turns vengeful.

The road between these poles of events is violent, often shocking, and impossible to stop traveling down once you start. Told in long, rich, energetic paragraphs, The House of the Spirits draws on the muses of tragedy: love and hatred, envy and sorrow, accident and murder. If there is another book as brutal and as full of love written in the 20th century, perhaps it is Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Like that book, plague and poison stalk this one’s pages. Soon after we meet Clara’s wondrously beautiful sister, Rosa, she is whisked from this life by a potion meant for her father. She is given fatally tainted brandy as a sedative when she is sick and dies as a result.

What a metaphor lurking in this tragedy. That what families give to children in love may also kill them. Also: that what is toxic in a family cannot be contained and will, by nature, claim collateral. Rosa’s death draws out and reinforces her sister’s clairvoyance, as Clara had predicted there would be an untimely death. Now she knows that what her dreams tell her are true. But she also learns to observe. The scene where she watches with horror and grief as her sister’s body is prepared for burial, violated again, is one of many that are so beautiful and hard to forget that they feel, in memory, like a dream.

Like today’s showrunners, Allende knows we all love a villain, but even more, we love a complicated one with a character arc. When we first meet Esteban, the violent, seething husband to whom Clara will eventually be joined, he is in love with Rosa. When she dies, he retreats to the countryside, his grief turned to rage, a powerful fire he applies to rejuvenating Tres Marías, the hacienda his family owns there. In short order, he molds it back into shape with a mixture of brutality and sensibility, rewarding himself for this effort by casually assaulting any of the young women who are dependent on their work there.

Allende never lets us forget Esteban’s fundamental nature, but she gives us windows into what suppresses its most terrible aspects—and what griefs stoke them. One of the book’s most harrowing scenes is when Esteban is called back to the capitol as his mother is dying. He has become rich beyond his dreams. She is bed-bound, riddled with sores, being eaten alive by worms and staying conscious just so she can say goodbye to her son, who looks upon her with terror and fury and shame. He had left her behind with a sense of righteousness in his heart.

In the wake of this fresh loss, Esteban appears to have possibly changed. He returns to the hacienda bewildered, like perhaps he recognizes his own youthful folly. But it proves to be an extraordinary glimpse of how the powerful view a shared enterprise: theirs. Esteban inquires of Rosa’s family whether they have a daughter still of marriageable age. Clara, who has remained silent for years in the aftermath of her sister’s death, is there and, to the enormous surprise of her family, speaks. She had foreseen that she would marry, and so she does: a turn of plot that would seem absurd were it not the way so many marriages happened at that time.

It is a shame that this book is not taught more, because it reveals what a great pulmonary system story is when treated as both pump and blood. A dramatis personae of The House of the Spirits would run to many pages, and it would be pointless, because one of its strengths is the way it marshals tiny forces to nudge the big ones—connecting people supposedly of consequence and no consequence. Linking actions across the entire body politic of a family. The rage Esteban feels when his mother dies will be echoed many years later when one of his many bastard children feels just as unfairly bereft.

Although The House of the Spirits begins as a family story, it gradually becomes the story of a nation—even if that nation isn’t named. Many of the many characters in this book are wealthy, and they often don’t see the patronizing and dominating ways their needs, their sense of entitlement, their ways of living—including Clara’s—depend on the work and labor of others. When The House of the Spirits was published, socialist revolutions in many places were turning violent through the actions of the CIA and others. A political system is an attempt to try to tell a story about a country: The House of the Spirits is also a book about how often that telling erases people.

Esteban is so determined to control the story of his family, as if it were an empire he is building, that he cannot see how hated he has become, and how alone. The House of the Spirits highlights the split realities by narrating them in tandem. Allende uses a roving third-person voice that enters the minds and hearts of all characters, so we watch as, within the del Valle family, separate relationships grow in the shadow of Esteban’s inflexibility. His wife develops a deep and abiding relationship with his sister, who is probably in love with Clara, an attachment formed because, while Esteban made his fortune, it was she who had to stay home cleaning the fetid bedpans and bedsheets of their dying mother.

Esteban often breaks into the narration, in his own voice, as if to correct what we have heard, almost as if what he previously read was a secret. Told in his own voice, Esteban’s actions always sound rational, unstoppable; he is motivated by love and desire. So many of Allende’s gifts in this book are poured into describing the fever of love, of desire, of longing, and in Esteban’s sections, we watch as he is driven mad by love, buoyed by it, and wary of what might take it away from him. To him, sadly, ultimately, it is a possession.

Meanwhile, alliances made in the shadow of his emotional stinginess grow explosive when they cross lines of class. On the hacienda, where Esteban is loathed for his sexual brutality and his smug sense of accomplishment, his children are not loathed for their father’s sins. They are forgiven for being of him. In part because such is the profligacy of Esteban’s raping that so, too, are many others on the hacienda. Of course then, Blanca, his daughter, will become fast friends with and eventually fall in love with the son of the hacienda foreman—between them, a tenderness exists as if the world around them hadn’t been made by pain.

In each chapter, Allende braids several stories into one. Many of them echo the book’s sense of entropy. Ants try to carry away the hacienda, and Esteban has to rely on the folk wisdom of his foreman’s father to coax them away. Using pesticides had failed. These juxtapositions contain so much, and they work on an intimate level, too. It’s no accident that the chapter in which Esteban knocks Clara’s teeth out in rage is also the one in which he has his greatest political success: being elected to the congress. And thus we get to watch Clara put her teeth in so she can fake a smile at his election party.

It’s hard not to hope violence comes to Esteban, or muse that, with time, elements of his character might be submerged in his and Clara’s sons, who were packed off to an English boarding school—much like the author was—for a brief period. One son is a spiritualist and an entrepreneur, the other a bookish mendicant who believes not in riches. Will these new natures hold, you wonder, as the years pile up? Or will his sons wind up paying the price for what has begun to seem like, and in fact is, a curse on the family?

With books assembled across time, like One Thousand and One Nights or Homer’s epics, the discovery—in adulthood—that there was not one author can be a relief. That, of course, such a vast and dense work of literature doesn’t fall out of the sky into one mind. By contrast, rereading The House of the Spirits today, it’s astounding to realize one writer made this book. A novel of such force is often a blunt instrument, but an elegant hand orchestrally moves The House of the Spirits along right up until the end. Images and themes echo across two or three hundred pages, and patterns are passed from grandparents down to grandchildren. Earthquakes appear and happen again, separated by decades, and what we hold in these pages is the survivor of such rubble: a family, a book. Allende may not have succeeded with the impossible, keeping her beloved grandfather alive forever, but in many other ways, she has done something staggeringly better: conjuring how desperate and futile is the desire to live on and to show how tenderness makes living on far more possible.•

Join us on March 16 at 5 p.m., when Allende and Freeman will appear in conversation 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.

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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