Review: House of the Spirits

March 8, 2011 Comments Off on Review: House of the Spirits

This book is astonishing, first and foremost because it will destroy any convictions you have about what makes writing great. I recently read that Tom Wolfe has four techniques that he says are indispensable for making good fiction, yet Isabel Allende ignores them magnificently, to excellent effect. Aside from this, the story is great, the characters are great, and the translation is amazing.

It’s about the del Valle/Trueba family, beginning with Clara as a young girl and ending with her twenty-something granddaughter, plus their entire family and the people who are important to them. The characters are complex and consistent and perfectly rendered in every way. The style is interesting: it has very little dialogue, and reads like a detailed summary, which works amazingly well. I remember all those years in English class being brained with the concept of “show-not-tell,” but Allende proves that if you can tell well, you don’t need to show. What’s amazing is the volume of narrative: it’s a very dense way to tell a story, and the book is over 400 pages of newsprint-sized summary. I’ve realized that the style is the same way I write when I outline one of my books; one of my outlines is finished, and I think would turn into a decent-sized novel (200 pages or so), and it is only a dozen pages long. If House of the Spirits was written in a conventional style, I have no idea how long it might be, but it’s fine—probably better—as it is. And I wasn’t aware that there were still conventions in writing, or that there were any techniques that are currently “in,” until I read this book. For example, Allende foreshadows with absolutely no compunction, which is jarring. Everyone vaunts the idea that there are “no rules” in writing, that everything has been done except the really extreme experimental stuff and it remains only for a new writer to pick a style; everything is equally valid because we are Enlightened now and nothing is taboo. But this book is old-fashioned in a way unfamiliar to many modern writers: detailed block summaries with foreshadowing, very little dialogue, and “telling” rather than “showing” would be more characteristic of the writing of an earlier century. But old-fashioned still works, and works well. Good lesson to budding writers such as myself.

In this case, I have to give as much of a nod to the translator, Magda Bogin, as I do to the author. What a perfect translation. I am not nearly as familiar with Spanish as I am with French, but I think I can tell where she had to be creative with her translations—I’m willing to bet that Spanish, like French, is much more rigid and has a smaller vocabulary than English, and good translations have to feel out the places where the writer might have used one of those words that exists only in English, or where a different English word matches the Spanish connotation better than the direct translation. I don’t know how much of the tone is Allende’s and how much is Bogin’s, but it doesn’t matter. This is the best example I have ever come across of a case where reading something in translation is an equivalent experience to reading it in its original language. The only dimension that could be added by reading the Spanish is perhaps appreciating Allende’s masterful way with the language…but Bogin possesses an equally masterful way with English, so the point is moot.

The plot is nothing extraordinary, and at the same time, it is extraordinary. It is nothing but a narrative of the lives and times of the Truebas, but it is as important and absorbing to the reader as his own life. Allende knows exactly when to bring in side characters, how much to describe them, and how far to intrude into their respective lives, which is a skill that I appreciate deeply after reading The Children’s Book, which of course is the perfect example of a story whose author did not have the delicacy to give her side characters their privacy. The characters are all portrayed with beautiful compassion, even the short-tempered, damaged, sadistic ones, and that draws the reader in. During the dark climactic episode of the book, I experienced the tunnel vision that signals absolute absorption: I was not conscious of the sun through the window, my cold feet, my thirst, the cat begging for attention; in fact, I entirely lost all sense of where I was and what I was doing, and the page in front of me was my world. And when it was over, I cried, but it wasn’t the result of shallow manipulation like The Five People You Meet in Heaven; rather, it was an honest reaction such as I might have had after actually living through the described events. What I like most about the book—I, the undisputed queen of generic fantasy worlds—is that, although it’s probably possible to pin down the place and time from certain clues, Allende avoids specific names and events (even the name of the country where it takes place!), being vague where she can (“the capital,” “the country”) and giving nationally prominent characters not names but titles like “the Poet” or “the President.” This gives the impression that the story is at once mythical/fantastical and universal, and the reader is totally satisfied with this version of the story and of the world, with no inclination whatsoever to try to pin down the facts.

I’m developing a major crush on magical realism. The title of the book comes from the fact that the Trueba mansion is full of resident spirits who communicate with Clara, who everyone can see and takes for granted. But they play a fairly minor role. The magical realist side of the plot is mostly expressed by these spirits, but it is definitely there, and I’m fascinated by how magical realism is different from fantasy, because it absolutely is. It’s even different from fantasy set in the world we see outside our windows, and I need to figure out how and why…and then I think I want to do it. Magical realism adds a sheen to this already wonderful book, like the most tasteful and artistic sprinkling of glitter imaginable. Please read. I have to read it one more time, but it may very well make my Important Books list someday.

EXCERPTS: (I have to include all of these because they are beautiful and they stick in my head like songs.)

The house was on the very edge of the city, and was ringed by a few rickety trees that had managed to withstand the onslaught of the desert. To the north, the wind had destroyed all vegetation, and she could see the immense plains of dunes and distant hills quivering in the sweltering light. During the day, she was overcome by the suffocation of that leaden sun, and at night she shivered in her bed, protecting herself from chills with hot-water bottles and woolen shawls. She stared at the limpid, naked sky looking for traces of a cloud, hoping that sooner or later a drop of rain would fall to break the unbearable harshness of that lunar valley.


Clara had no interest in domestic matters. She wandered from one room to the next without ever being the least surprised to find everything in perfect order and sparkling clean. She sat down to eat without ever wondering who had cooked the food or where it had come from, just as she was oblivious to the person serving it. She forgot the names of the servants and even of her own children, yet she always managed to be present, like a cheerful, beneficent spirit, at whose slightest footfall clocks began to wind themselves.


[on Férula, Clara’s sister-in-law]

She had come to adore the very air Clara exhaled, and even though she no longer had occasion to give her baths and sleep in the same bed with her, she found a thousand ways to express her tender feelings, and to this she dedicated her existence. That woman who was so hard on herself and others could be sweet and smiling with Clara and at times, by extension, with Blanca. Only with Clara did she allow herself the luxury of giving in to her overwhelming desire to serve and be loved; with her, however slyly, she was able to express the secret, most delicate yearnings of her soul. The long years of solitude and unhappiness had distilled her emotions and purified her feelings down to a few terrible, magnificent passions, which possessed her totally. She had no gift for small perturbations, mean-spirited resentments, concealed envies, works of charity, faded endearments, ordinary friendly politeness, or day-to-day acts of kindness. She was one of those people who are born for the greatness of a single love, for exaggerated hatred, for apocalyptic vengeance, and for the most sublime forms of heroism, but she was unable to shape her fate to the dimensions of her amorous vocation, so it was lived out as something flat and gray trapped between her mother’s sickroom walls, wretched tenements, and the tortured confessions with which this large, opulent, hot-blooded woman—made for maternity, abundance, action, and ardor—was consuming herself.


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