The reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors

The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende
translated from Spanish by Magda Bogin

I had been meaning to read Isabel Allende for years, so I heartily encouraged this book-club choice. I knew absolutely nothing about it going in but I did know a little about the author and it was interesting how that coloured my reading, especially toward the end of the book.

This is both a family saga and the tale of a country over the span of 70 or so years, beginning at the start of the 20th century. The country is clearly Chile though it’s never named. The characters – beginning with Clara del Valle as the youngest child of a large, wealthy family – and their lives are described by two narrators, one of whose identity becomes clear early on and another whose identity is not revealed until the epilogue. The longest-lived character – and therefore in some ways the largest presence in the book – is Esteban Trueba, whom I found inscrutable. He’s not hugely likeable but he’s also not 100% bad; he has genuine complexity that makes him difficult to write off or ignore.

In fact, that’s true of all the characters, despite the many stories packed in here and the sometimes extreme views depicted, they remain believably human. The family is not a metaphor – they’re well-drawn characters with shades of grey and sometimes confused loyalties – but they do represent types of people in Chile to an extent – rich landowner, activist student, charitable middle class, etc.

“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 sick room walls.”

In the beginning I found this book funny, charming and lovely, but then we get some shocking scenes – such as Esteban Trueba mistreating his farm tenants – that remind you that this is a book with a political agenda. Not that it’s rammed home at the cost of good storytelling, by any means, but I did find that the novel moved a little uneasily from family story with politics in the background to an overtly political story with the few remaining family members directly involved in the politics.

“She felt that everything was made of glass, as fragile as a sigh, and that the machine-gun fire and bombs of that unforgettable Tuesday had destroyed most of what she knew, and that all the rest had been smashed to pieces and spattered with blood.”

This book is an often-cited example of magical realism and it certainly starts with lots of magical/fantasy elements but they fade away until they’re only a memory of the surviving characters. Which I suppose forms part of the political message getting darker and more overt as the book goes on. But perhaps the magic is also part of the old way of life, which has been lost irretrievably.

“Childhood came to an end and she entered her youth within the walls of her house in a world of terrifying stories and calm silences. It was a world in which time was not marked by calendars or watches and objects had a life of their own, in which apparitions sat at the table and conversed with human beings, the past and future formed part of a single unit, and the reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors where everything and anything could happen.”

I did feel that the earlier politics was dealt with more subtly, with distance, whereas the later politics felt much more angry and personal. This reflects to some extent the characters who are the two narrators, but it also seemed a lot like Allende’s own anger, which would certainly be understandable. And the end section of the book is certainly gripping – probably the only section that truly is – but it felt like a very different novel, at times hardly even a novel but more an account of Chile in the 1970s.

We all agreed at book group that this novel is very readable, though it’s not one to rush through. And it is perhaps a little overlong – it could easily have been trimmed. But overall it’s enjoyable, and I am interested in reading more Allende.

La casa de los espíritus published 1982 by Plaza & Janés.
This translation published 1985 by Jonathan Cape/Alfred A Knopf.

Source: Waterstones Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

A gallop through time

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

This is one crazy book. I both loved and hated it. I took my time over it, reading just a few pages at a time, but I was never bored. Confused, surprised, shocked, maybe.

It is the 100-year-long story of the village Macondo in Central America and the family at the heart of it, the Buendías. The family found the village and ruin it, save it and destroy it, are worshipped by it and forgotten by it. It’s a family saga with a large and fascinating cast, but it’s not just that. Márquez uses magical realism to give added symbolism to certain moments, bizarrely making things literally happen that might have worked just as well metaphorically.

The timeline is not clear but I would guess it is roughly 1860s to 1960s. From humble beginnings the village gains a railway, motor cars, a pharmacy, a cinema. It plays a central role in wars and uprisings and yet its interaction with the rest of the unnamed country is minimal. Which is just one of the many references to solitude. Another example, and a nice example of the writing style:

“Taciturn, silent, insensible to the new breath of vitality that was shaking the house, Colonel Aureliano Buendía could understand only that the secret of a good old age is simply an honourable pact with solitude.”

A lot happens for 400 pages, and it is packed in largely by using a detached, minimal style. In brief scenes we learn the details of a character’s thoughts and torments, then by the end of the chapter their life will have been summarised and dispensed with. There’s a lot of death, much of it untimely.

With characters pairing off, reproducing and dying quickly, and a tendency to name all the descendants by the same three or four names, it can be confusing sometimes who is who. Handily a family tree is provided at the start of the book. As this shows each child’s parentage, many of whom are illegitimate, it might be considered a spoiler. But then Márquez starts the book by telling us the fate of the first character we meet, and teasingly dripfeeding more details through the early chapters. He repeats this with other characters and even with larger story arcs, but often by the time I reached the actual event I had forgotten the precursor.

Márquez manages to be very descriptive and evocative without using a lot of words or ever getting flowery. He creates a whole world for his characters within but somehow separate from the “real world”. It is an amazing, magical but also sad and suffocating place.

I had a couple of problems with this book. One was the speed at which characters were written out. Except for the odd few long-lifers, I would just be getting to know and be interested in a character and bam they would die. My other problem is the, err, sexual proclivities of this family. I’m not a prude, I’m reasonably open-minded and the adultery and whorehouses are one thing, but bestiality? incest? Too far for me to be comfortable with. And once again paedophilia comes up (the reason I was uncomfortable with Márquez’s other major work, Love in the Time of Cholera, and yes I know that in both cases it’s strictly ephebophilia but that’s still something I’m squirmy about). It’s like he’s trying to push as far as he can, see what he can get away with.

I was genuinely moved by but also disturbed by this book. I can see how it generates a lot of discussion but whether I liked it? I don’t know.

Cien Años de Solidad first published 1967.
This translation first published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape 1970.

No ordinary life

Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie

Wow. I have struggled for three weeks with this book and there were times I hated it, times I wondered why I was punishing myself, but now that I am finished I find myself captivated by it, stunned by the world it created and almost, possibly, missing it.

This is no ordinary book. If the mass of prizes it has won – Booker Prize 1981, James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1993, Best of the Booker 2008 – do not convince you of that, then let me. I read a lot and I assure you that this is a very different book. It most definitely stands out. I am reasonably certain, though, that I will never call it a favourite. It’s just too hard a slog.

Rushdie is not known for being an easy or accessible writer but I have read three other of his books and this was by far the hardest for me. The style is complex, rambling almost, repetitive and yet secretive, at pains to point out patterns and symbolism, to explain history and myth, at the expense of making ordinary lives hard to follow. Although, if we’re to believe the narrator (a tricky one, as I’ll explain), no life is ordinary: “How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility…To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.”

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, a 30-year old Indian man, speaking both to us (in the form of writing his autobiography) and to his lover Padma. The book is split into three sections – his family history leading up to his own birth, his childhood, and his adulthood. Unusually for me, I found the adulthood section easiest to read, perhaps that’s because I was finally fully engrossed in the book by that point. Saleem was born at midnight on 15 August 1947 – the exact moment of India’s independence. Thanks to rich parents and a media campaign he is hailed as a symbol of the new nation, and indeed as a narrator he takes great pains to draw parallels between every incident in his life, large or small, and the fate of the nation.

Which is a big story to tell. The first 30 years of independent India were turbulent, to say the least, and Saleem does not move quickly. He lingers on details, gets sidetracked by memories or lost memories, resists telling what is difficult to tell, lies even. He is quite possibly the most unreliable narrator I have come across. He admits this multiple times, accusing his memory of failing him, though he has other excuses on some occasions: “I told you the truth…Memory’s truth…It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

And then there’s the magical realism. I have come across this before, but perhaps never quite so fully as in this book. The magical is central to the book and yet, just possibly, could be explained away as not magical at all. I will try not to give away too much, but it relates to how Saleem discovers that he is just one of 1001 children born in India during the first hour of India’s independence, and his attempts to create a community of “Midnight’s Children” and to follow all their fates. They are not all, thankfully, introduced as characters, but a handful of them in addition to Saleem’s own family and neighbours gives this book a large enough cast of characters to confuse me at times. Generally, though, Saleem spends plenty of words on reminding you of who someone is, with a string of nicknames related to characteristics or incidents in their pasts.

There is a lot of humour to balance out the necessarily harsh details of a country that suffered riots, war, police brutality and much else in this time period. Padma, our fellow listener, quite often interjects with disbelief or frustration or even contradiction to Saleem’s narrative. Many characters are described with far-from-subtle abnormalities, bordering on the grotesque, like a cast of circus freaks. Saleem’s view of the world is immensely narcissistic (he does, after all, believe his life to be inextricably linked with that of his great mother country) and yet his cruellest words are often aimed at himself.

Mostly, Saleem is a vessel through which the early story of India and Pakistan can be told. His family is ostensibly Muslim (though not devout) so that though he is born and initially raised in Bombay (as it was then called), other family members go to Pakistan shortly after its creation. The action moves throughout the two countries (three countries, after Bangladesh comes into being), with Saleem somehow being wherever the news is being created, where the eyes of the world are focused (or perhaps should be focused, but aren’t). It’s a stretch, certainly, but the whole is told in such a style that you either have to believe he is making it all up to make his point, or you have to suspend disbelief and accept it all, magic included.

As a story of India it is fascinating and I learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the resistance, almost cynical, to considering India a great nation: “A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulted into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history…was nevertheless quite imaginary…a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will.” And yet it made me want to learn more, want to go there and see the great festivals where paint is thrown over people in joyous celebration of life, where Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and numerous other religions have existed side-by-side for centuries, thousands of years even (not always peacefully, admittedly), where smell is a hugely important part of daily life (so often left out of descriptions in books, in this one it plays a central role).

But I can’t deny that I struggled, I found it hard to read. Not because of subject matter or lack of interest – the style itself is tough-going. And because of that, those times I have been asked, while reading it, if I would recommend it to others…I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer.

See also: review by The Girl.

First published by Jonathan Cape in 1981.