THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende (Knopf: $17.95; 368 pp.)

Saul Steinberg's celebrated map of New York Parochial set out Manhattan's West Side in large detail, followed by a blob for New Jersey and then, in growing haziness and dwindling scale, the rest of the country.

What would a U.S. Parochial map of Latin America look like, I wonder? A damp Mexican wading out of the Rio Grande, a cactus or two, a bit of Rio's Carnival, a bereaved Argentine mother. Also, a fat army officer in sun glasses, a lean, clear-eyed guerrilla, Fidel Castro shaking a congressman's hand and George Washington crossing Lake Nicaragua with a boatload of contras.

Every decade or two, we toss another hemispheric policy out from our veranda. Manifest Destiny, Good Neighborliness, the Alliance for Progress, Carter's human-rights doctrine and the Kirkpatrick-Reagan stipulation declaring it more inhuman to have the Left amputate your toes than the Right your legs. What we tend not to do is improve our map.

Isabel Allende's four-generational family epic, clearly though not explicitly set in Chile, could provide a few map coordinates:

The sense of a country being built by patriarchal landowners who were tyrannical and bigoted yet not without their own narrow values. The efforts of a younger generation of intellectuals and professionals to find liberal or Marxist alternatives. The collusion of the ruling class with the military revolt that turned out far harsher and more totalitarian than it had bargained for. And above all, the fact that the people jailed, tortured and killed are humanly, if not altogether ideologically, quite a bit like a Californian's son at Berkeley, a Bostonian's lawyer cousin, a New York professional serving on her school community board, or anyone's occasionally imprudent younger brother or sister. We meet the atrocity statistics and, in Pogo's words, they are us.

Allende, niece of Chile's socialist president who was overthrown and probably killed by the military rebels, tells a story of political and social growth and change. She tells it from the point of view of the Latin American left, with a mix of romantic nationalism and revolutionary zeal.

Her portraits of reactionary landowners, revolutionary students, dissident folk singers, eccentric playboys, devoted slum doctors and brutal policemen have a measure of both life and stereotype. She is torn between a genuine novelistic interest in the complications of human character and a clear urge to get these complications marching in the way she wants. She uses her pen as a baton; she also uses her baton as a pen.

"House of the Spirits" has the material and the sensibility to be an engrossing novel of contemporary history, helped sometimes and sometimes hurt by its zeal for justice. Its realistic detail is interesting and, given our Steinbergian perspective, valuable. Writing at this level, Allende is more than competent.

Her competence, however, wears a robe of fashion, and it is not a fashion she handles very well. Her book has been widely acclaimed in Europe for its record of Chile's bloody repression, for its politics, and for the mode of magical realism in which it is dipped.

We associate magical realism, of course, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He did not invent its mixture of myths and magic and odd but authentic fact, but he uses it better than anyone else. He makes a strange and compelling cargo cult out of the incongruous implants of European and American technology and mores in South America's hinterland.

The magical part is--as surrealism can be--an intensification of both the observable and the intuitive. There is no perceptible division among the political and social realism, the personal passion and the extra-natural ways in which a sense of fate and possibility is imparted.

It is not a way of writing that can be generalized. It has such a complex particularity that it resists borrowing. It is a decidedly made-to-measure suit of literary clothes. Allende's use of it is sometimes beguiling, but she rarely manages to integrate her magic and her message.

The two central figures in the novel are Esteban Trueba, a landowner and conservative politician who dies at 90, embittered with the military dictatorship that he helped encourage; and his wife, Clara, who died years before. Trueba is all nature, an autocrat, a womanizer, a political boss. Only his love for Clara redeems him, though he spends most of his life fighting her.

Clara is clairvoyant from childhood. She prophesies, moves objects without touching them and populates her house with spirits. At the same time, she is a down-to-earth housewife, mother, and doer of good works. Her magical properties seem to exist by themselves; set aside from her more prosaic struggles with her husband and her life. The same division holds for Alba, her granddaughter, who inherits some of the unearthliness but is also a student activist who is jailed and horribly tortured after the coup.

There is a galaxy of characters, some magically touched; some not. Clara has a sister who is part-mermaid and a monstrous dog who eats marmalade. Her daughter's lover, son of Esteban's tenant farmers, is his mortal enemy and becomes a fashionable left wing folk singer. One of the Trueba sons is a playboy and mystic; the other is a doctor who is a friend of the president's and dies with him when the army storms the presidential residence. An illegitimate grandson of Esteban's becomes a policeman who tortures the old man's beloved granddaughter.

It is a flow chart of Chile's tragic history, populated rather too tidily with representative figures, possessing a richness of incident and detail, if not of character, and decorated rather than transformed by the magic.

The latter, operating mainly through Clara and Alba, has an oddly traditional role. The two women represent Chile's spiritual bedrock upon which the vicissitudes of repression and revolt are played out. It is a spirit essentially of secular hope. Yet there are times when the womens' small miracles resemble the stories of the saints recounted with pedagogical intent and unalloyed ravishment in the children's devotional literature used in Latin America a generation or two ago.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World