Once Upon a Time, in Latin America

I realized at the end of last year when I was taking a stock of all that I had read through 2014, that my reading scope especially in terms of non-Anglo-American authors were limited to the point of nil. This was something that needed remediation for sure this year and a good place to begin seemed like Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits.

The House of Spirits has been standing around in my Classics list forever and every time there was a Classic Club Spin, I hoped to get it as the read of the event. It never happened, so last month I decided to take matters in my own hand; take charge of my destiny so to speak and attempt to read this novel anyway. It was not until last week I actually began reading it and not until day before yesterday I finished it. I needed a day or two, just to assimilate the kind of emotions and thoughts, this book had unleashed, before I could put it down on paper!

The novel begins at the eve of World War I and ends somewhere in 1960s and though the country is never called out, couple of minutes into the book, you know Ms. Allende is talking about her beloved country – Chile. The history and politics of Chile is intertwined through the rise and fall of the fortunes of the Del Valle-Trueba clan. The book begins with the eccentricities of the Del Valle family, which includes Rosa the beautiful, engaged to struggling miner Esteban Trueba, the youngest Clara who has paranormal powers and their politically ambitious father who plans of being a Senator at the Parliament and their suffragette mother.  Rosa dies soon after through a poison intended for her father and her fiance devastated by her death, leaves the mines and goes back to his country home his family hacienda, Las Tres Marías, to lose himself in rebuilding what his father had lost and in the effort forget about Rosa. He soon makes Tres Marias into a successful, well run, modern farm, but his methods are autocratic, feudal and violent, including his habit of raping the peasant women.  Several years later, summons from his sister about the impending death of their mother brings Esteban to the city and in an effort to fulfill his dying mother’s wish to see him married and settled, he seeks out Del Valle family in hopes that if they were in agreement in marrying of their eldest daughter to a pennyless miner, today as a successful man, he should be able to secure the hand of another of Del Valle daughter. Esteban and Clara get married and move into a city house along with Esteban’s sister Freula.  Clare gives birth to a daughter Blanca and eventually two sons Jamie and Niclolas. They become a model family from the outside though there is enough ferment inside including Esteban and Fruela’s clashes in trying to secure Clara’s attention. The family spends its summer months at Tres Marias and Blanca becomes fast friends with Pedro Tercero, who is the son of her father’s foreman and eventually lovers. In one of such visits, a terrible earthquake hits the country, completely destroying Tres Marias. Clara takes over the running of the farm since Esteban is seriously injured in the quake and unable to supervise the running of the farm and slowly brick by brick, Tres Marias comes back to its original form. It is at this point that a French count Jean de Satigny comes as a guest to the hacienda, with the intention of marrying Blanca who is now heiress to a large fortune. However he soon realizes that Blanca is in love with someone else and goes out in the night to meet her lover. In an effort to end this liaison and secure himself of Blanca as his bride, Satigny goes and reveals her midnight adventure to Esteban. Estaban , who by now has become increasingly more violent, beats up his daughter and hits Clara, leading to Clara and Blanca leaving Tres Marias and moving  back to the city house.  It is during this time that the Trueba boys also come of age – Jamie realizing that he needed to so something more to alleviate the terrible conditions of his fellow countryman, becomes a doctor and Nicolas in attempt to form and develop clairvoyance ability like his mother, gets involved in the spiritual movement. Blanca then discovers she is pregnant and is forced to marry Satigny by her father; the marriage does not last long and Blanca returns to her father’s city house to deliver her daughter – Alba. They year’s move on as Alba grows up in politically volatile atmosphere – Esteban becomes a Senator who is vociferous in his denunciation of socialism and these political convictions lead to a more disturbed household as Jamie becomes a socialist much to the anger of his father. In these years of turmoil, Clara manages to be the heart of the household and the soul that makes the house, home. With her death, begins the decline of the Del Valle-Trueba clan, leading to tragic results for the entire family, as deeds from Esteban’s past come to riddle and hurt his future, as the country is plunged in civil unrest, leading to a military coup and destruction of all democratic values.

The book is simply put beautiful. I know many people have said many things about this novel, but it is beautiful, the language, the characters, the plot! The characters are as true to life as they can get – I could see Esteban Trueba ranting and raging through Tres Marias; I could see Clara perform her clairvoyance tricks while taking care of her family.  I could see Jaime, Alba and host of all the characters that populate this book and make it come to life. You cannot hate even the most evil characters, because the author gently leads you to the understanding that what they are because of what they had to endure from others. There is no pedagogic teaching her nor a holier than thou speech, only a gradual understanding of men and women and how they become, what they are and the understanding of fate – a fate that is a result of your actions and one which will come back to show you the mirror in your own lifetime. The entire ensemble is real – of flesh and blood, even when there are elements of magical realism, you believe them, because you can see them. The books spans over 50 years of turbulent history, but not for one moment does Ms. Allende lose the plot or miss a beat. She wonderfully weaves in such motifs as the Class struggle, emancipation of women and  economic equality through the very structure of the book, without making these themes look like an add on. A complex historical saga is told in a simple style through the narratives of Alba and Esteban, two very distinct and clear voices that are consistent through the book and never change in their perspectives.  Finally the language of the book, though calm and simple is lyrical and striking. The descriptions are gorgeous and the understanding crystal clear for readers to grasp!

One of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of those that stays with you for a long time after you finished it!


3 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time, in Latin America

  1. Hooray! So glad you took matters into your own hands since the books never came up on a spin! It’s so good isn’t it? I read it yeas ago and still think of it now and then.

    1. Thanks 🙂 and I have to agree it is such a wonderful book. It is something that stays with you and something you would think about even after you read it way back!!!

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