There are many speculative fiction sub-genres associated with America: Both North and South. Each has impacted our sense of wonder in different ways. When I think of North America, I think of superheroes and the weird west. When I think of South America, I think of magical realism. Let’s talk about magical realism.
Other speculative genres attempt to instill in us a sense of wonder, hope, curiosity, or even fear, of what lies within the imaginary realms, which is good because they’re constantly expanding, and constantly changing, and I never got tired of exploring them. Magical realism does something different though, something that is very beautiful, but also very wrong (in my opinion). It treats the imaginary as boring.
This is built-in and very deliberate. The purpose of magical realism, more often than not is to deliver a statement about the real world; a kind of literary political or social commentary. As such these works tend to heavily invest in the real (character relationships, geographical setting, historical background), and the magical is just another part of the background. Somehow it works, and we get beautiful literary works, which I really want to hate, but can’t. This is The House of The Spirits by Isabelle Allende. It took me almost two weeks to complete, and I lost a lot of sleep to complete it, but it was good, which means there is a lot to critique.
“Nivea convinced her husband that the study of foreign languages was not important for a child with telepathic gifts, and that it would be far better for her to continue piano lessons and how to sew.”
This book tells the stories of four generations, and how these stories helped shape the story of Chile. Each of these four generations lived in a different time period, and their stories combine into an overarching narrative that has some very strong points to deliver about socialism, capitalism, and a hope for a better future, which was destroyed.
The four generations belong to the del Salle and Trueba families. The first generation are Severo and Nivea del Valle. They are the parents of Clara, a clairvoyant with low-level telekinetic abilities who can talk to spirits. Clara’s existence is a trial to the del Valle parents. She has zero interest in household duties, is very distracted, and her predictions had an annoying tendency to come true, which didn’t make them any less traumatizing. Also she spent most of her childhood not speaking. She marries Esteban Trueba, the del Valles fade into the background, and we move on to the second generation.
Esteban Trueba is a man of immense passions. Originally, he falls deeply in love with Rosa Del Valle, and spends years amassing a fortune to be worthy of marrying her, but then Rosa was poisoned. Esteban, still has a fortune though, and he does want to do right by his mother and continue the family name so he offers to marry Clara. Clara can see the future so she readily accepts, knowing full well that she isn’t marrying for love.
The passions that drive Esteban are all consuming. They lead to many positive actions like the rebuilding of his country estate, Tres Marias, and him taking responsibility for the peasants on his land as their patron. They also lead to many many acts of cruelty. He frequently rapes his peasants to satisfy his sexual urges (they were less than human to him), and produces a multitude of bastards. He is jealous of Clara, and physically banishes his sister, Ferula, from his house because he thinks she is trying to come between them (she is). At one point he hits Clara, destroying their marriage, and he tries to murder his daughter’s lover. He also swears a lot.
The third and fourth generations are Esteban’s and Clara’s children (Blanca, and twins Jaime and Nicolas) and grand-daughter (Alba). Esteban deeply loves his family, but he frequently loses control, and ends up doing things that drive them away, and this costs him a lot.
As the book progresses we learn about the history and society of Chile in the twentieth century. From the early feminist movements to which Nivea belonged, to the 1939 earthquake that devastated the country, to the rise and downfall of socialism and president Salvador Allende (a relative of the author), culminating in the rise of Pinochet.
During the first three quarters of the book, the historical elements are felt mainly in the background and most of the story focuses on the characters and the toxic relationships that shape their lives. However, by the final quarter of the book, the larger history begins to dominate and resonate, and we see the individual characters get swallowed up by the events they helped shape and create. It was a very powerful experience.
A Lot To Cover
“Her Uncle Jaime felt that people never read what did not interest them and that if it interested them that meant they were sufficiently mature to read it.”
There is a lot to say about this book, more than I can cover in the space of this review. Therefore, I am going to focus on three things that caught my attention:
- Toxic relationships
- An attempt to rewrite history?
The House of The Spirits is full of foreshadowing. This book was written long before spoilers were considered taboo. From the very first sentence, “Barrabas came to us by sea”, we learn of Clara’s first canine friend, twenty pages before he is actually introduced, and this is just a taste of what is to come. Esteban ruminates about his granddaughter’s socialist tendencies hundreds of pages before she is born, and the author warns the readers of the dangers that will befall the family at the hands of Esteban’s bastard. It doesn’t ruin the book.
This book is intended to be heavy with details and is intended to be read slowly. The foreshadowing lets you know what is coming, and helps build a sense of anticipation. It’s sort of like a signpost that points to the milestones along a journey. It keeps you from getting lost, and encourages you to continue forward. I liked it. It wouldn’t work in a faster-paced book, but in a slow story like The House of The Spirits, it did a lot to keep the story from becoming plodding.
Pretty much every single character from the second generation onwards is entangled in toxic relationships. Esteban is a classic “I deserve better” character. He is a misogynistic, rapist, violent person, and it takes him decades to realize that women are human beings, and peasants are actually better than animals. He is still capable of loving in his own twisted way.
Clara knew this (clairvoyant), married him anyway, and stayed married to him. Ferula deliberately inserted herself into the marriage because she was jealous and inflamed Esteban’s passions. Clara also later consents to marrying her daughter to someone with some very weird fetishes.
This also carries fourth to the third and fourth generations as each of the children and the granddaughter Alba gets entangled in very unhealthy relationships. Happiness exists of course, but is something you earn as you get older when your passions begin to cool (in the case of Esteban very very older), until then they consume you and you suffer the consequences.
An Attempt to Rewrite History?
The villain in this story is Esteban Trueba, if you choose to view him as such. He is the Patrón, the owner of the land, and the peasants that live on it. His hard work and leadership bring Tres Marias back from ruin after fifteen years of no leadership. He invests his money, and his resources, and therefore he views himself as the sole owner of the profits. No Socialist is going to take that away from him.
Esteban enters politics as he gets older, and serves as a paranoid prophet of doom who warns against the rise of President Allende. After Allende is elected, the elderly Esteban joins an economic boycott of the president with the hopes of showing the harms of the new policies. This economic boycott, combined with outside US support lead the country into poverty, culminating in a military revolt.
Allende was a very popular president who attempted to dramatically restructure the economy as fast as he possibly could. He nationalized the copper and banking industries, confiscated and redistributed land, and also drastically increased social spending. By the second year of his presidency, Chile was experiencing hyperinflation and strikes. This was the context that lead to the military coup in 1973.
At the same time, the US (capitalism) was also meddling behind the scenes. Nixon’s government never wanted Allende elected in the first place, and heavily meddled in the election campaign. After he was elected, the CIA helped fuel the fire that led to the coup (although they claim no direct involvement). I do not know what type of role conservative groups played (like those with which Esteban associates) in overthrowing the government.
HOWEVER, as far as the book (and author) is concerned, there was nothing wrong with President Allende’s policies. It was only opposition from conservatives, and the US, that resulted in hyperinflation and poverty. As proof the book cites how goods suddenly magically reappeared in stores after the president was overthrown, which is basically an old canard against capitalists – they’re hiding their money from you. There is no attempt at soul searching, or rethinking socialist policies, and this is something the critical reader needs to be wary of when reading the book. This book may tell a historical story, but it is still a work of fiction, and it should very much be treated as such.
Capitalism vs Socialism
The Omer today is foundation in eternity, which kind of works if you subscribe to Marx’s materialistic concept of history. This book showcases the struggle between the ideas of capitalism, represented by Esteban Trueba, and socialism, represented by all those who oppose him. These ideas are the foundation upon which societies are built, and they are older than any one individual.
This book spans four generations. During these generations we see the material wealth and spiritual damage offered by capitalism, which is contrasted by the spiritual wealth offered by socialism. Ultimately Socialism loses of course because there is only so much you can rewrite history. However the ideas live on, and to this day struggle to shape the foundations of human society, which is kind of fascinating when you think about it.
About the Author
Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende is the author of a number of bestselling and critically acclaimed books, including The House of The Spirits, Eva Luna, Stories of Eva Luna, Of Love and Shadows, and Paula. Her latest novel is A Long Petal of The Sea (2019). Her books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages and have sold over sixty-five million copies worldwide. She lives in California.