Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

[Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden]

Rating: 3 ½ Stars

Chilean writer Isabel Allende shot into prominence with the publication of The House of the Spirits based on her own family, and the political history of her native country. She was the niece of Salvatore Allende, who was the President of Chile. After his assassination in 1973, Allende and her family took asylum in Venenzuela. Her writing is marked by the use of magic realism. Magic Realism is characterized as the use of fantastical or mythical elements in an otherwise realistic narrative, and an impartially matter-of-fact tone is used in describing both the probable and the fanciful.

“…She set the tray on the floor and for the first time in more than forty years knocked on his door.
‘How many times have I told you not to bother me,’ the judge protested in a reedy voice.
‘I’m sorry, dear, I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to die.’
‘On Friday.’
‘Very well.’ The door did not open.

As literary styles go, it takes a little getting used to.

The Stories of Eva Luna is a collection of twenty-three piquant tales told by the narrator at the behest of her lover. While the setting is firmly established in unnamed South American lands, the characters who populate these stories seem to have stepped out of fable and folk-lore, so surreal are their actions and motivations. Yet, they are oddly compelling. Even if readers, more attuned to Anglo-Saxon prose find themselves disoriented at first; very soon, we may find ourselves capitulating like Patricia in ‘Gift for a Sweetheart’ – we’re simply transfixed by the bizarre, yet fascinating spectacle of humanity paraded before us.

There are recurrent themes that thread through these narratives. Political persecution and dictatorial regimes form the backdrop for many of them. The decimation and exploitation of the native population, and the pillaging of the land by the non-ethnic races is frequently alluded to. Violence and lawlessness are rife; and yet, there is no ugliness in the telling. This lack of ugliness is in fact disturbing. The most vicious and reprehensible acts are recounted in a tone that is either dreamy or uninflected.

There are far too many tales of older men preying on teenagers. Living as we do in an age of media over-exposure to child abuse, we have been conditioned to an instinctive repudiation of ‘artistic’ attempts at casting girl-children in a Lolitaesque light. ‘Wicked Girl’, about a pre-adolescent’s sexual awakening could have  readers twitching with discomfort. To a startling degree, women seem to live their lives ardently worshiping at the altar of their own voluptuousness.

Perhaps this lack of inhibition with regard to social taboos is merely a cultural difference. It requires some mental adjustments for those to whom the reality seems less magical, and more distorted. However, though the book is pervaded by a humid sensuality, it seems to be a projection of longings that express through the body, but originate in the heart, and that is the essence of these tales – the human heart, in all its twisted, lambent, mysterious glory.


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