The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Like the spirits the haunt Allende's debut novel, ideas float through this epic, difficult to catch at, half out of sight, until, in the final quarter, they coalesce with all the power of the real and metaphorical earthquakes that dominate the story.
On the surface, this is a straightforward family saga charting the life of a well-to-do and powerful family in an un-named South American country. And straightforward is what it seems, accepting the magical realism that infuses it.
But the apparent simplicity of Allende's tale of an eccentric panoply of characters is deceptive. They allow her to explore, for instance, the Latin culture of machismo, which she shows as ultimately impotent, founded on weakness and not on strength.
The novel shows us the clash of cultures, from the indigenous peoples of the country to the imported ones of the Spanish, and the modernism that arrives from Europe and the US, all building the pressure that eventually explodes, like the volcano that causes devasation in the midst of the book.
We see the 'old' and the 'modern' religions as an illustration of how people take what they want from different sources to meet their personal needs.
But there are more than such social and anthropological observations woven into the story. Allende shows us a feudal society where, in spite of it being the middle of the 20th century, peasants are abused and threatened and driven from their homes, raped and murdered with impunity, with no rights and nobody to defend them.
Esteban Trueba, the central male protagonist, is just such a patron, justifying his own violent and abusive behaviour by continuing to believe in the peasants' inherent inferiority and laziness, and an oft-repeated belief that, unless he behaved in the manner in which he does, the peasants would have no homes and his land would go to ruin.
Trueba is at the core of the novel in many ways. He is the novels one constant figure as other characters come and go, including three generations of women. Throughout, we see the conflict between his conservatism, machismo and brutality, and the charity and spiritualistic ideas of the women.
Yet while Trueba and his ilk turn 'tradition' and the brutal defence of it into something close to a religion, and the women contrast that with their charity, Allende makes it clear that justice is absent from either of these.
And justice is at the heart of this novel. Finally, defeating electoral corruption as well as the ruling conservatives, the socialists win an election. But with justice finally on the horizon for the poor of the country, Trueba sets off the circumstances and the campaign that sees the democratically-elected government thrown out of power in a military coup.
Yes, this is Chile in 1973 and the author, who is related to the murdered Chilean president, brings her saga to its denoument with the imposition of the military dictatorship. In the searing final section, characters are tortured and murdered, while Trueba continues to deny the reality of what he has set in motion, even as his own family suffer the wrath of the new rulers.
But what sets this novel apart, is Allende's treatment of Trueba. Not only does she give him a voice throughout the novel – he tells parts of the story – but most importantly, she makes us ultimately feel pity for him. Trueba is a classic tragic hero. The ending is shattering – deeply humane and ultimately drawing hope from the ruins of a murderous military junta.
An extraordinary read – deeply moving and magnificently uplifting. I doubt that this will be a read that will be forgotten for a very, very long time. It is quite simply one of the most remarkable books that I have ever read.