The Stories of Her Life : Isabel Allende Weaves Novels of Private Pain, Public Passion

Times Staff Writer

She talks politics, burning with indignation at the injustices rampant in her native Latin America, and speaks rapturously of the role of literature in abetting revolution.

But it is in discussing the most mundane of events--how she met the San Francisco lawyer she resides with, for example--that journalist-turned-novelist Isabel Allende, exiled niece of the assassinated ex-president of Chile, shines so luminously as a born raconteur.

“I had been lecturing in San Jose (Calif.). I was in a restaurant with some friends; yes, there is a restaurant in San Jose. I looked across at another table, and there he was, eating a plate of pasta. He was alone. I needed a man.

“I walked over to him. What did I say? I said, ‘Hello!’ And then I said, ‘Tell me your life story.’ He thought I was crazy.”


Allende followed this encounter by sending the lawyer “a contract, listing all my demands, and the few concessions I was willing to make.” The lawyer, whom she now lovingly calls “the gringo,” protested that such things take time, why the rush. But Allende showed up the next day.

“I have stayed, since December,” she added with a smile.

Witty, Irreverent Tales

Allende, whose third novel, “Eva Luna,” will appear in this country this fall from Alfred A. Knopf, regaled fellow guests at a dinner here last week after a lecture she gave at the New York Public Library. Marked by wit and irreverence, her stories abounded: a dinner with a Soviet diplomat in Washington that turned into a show-and-tell of the plastic sex devices Allende had purchased for her daughter, a psychology student, on a trip to the Netherlands.


“Harrumph, harrumph, we do not have such things in the Soviet Union,” said “his excellency, Mr. Senior Diplomat.”

“My dear,” Allende remembered the diplomat’s wife remarking, “you do not get out much, do you?”

But Allende’s stories speak also of private pain and public passion, of politics, lost souls and an urgent need to write “as an act of human solidarity and commitment to the future.” In one moment she had table mates laughing uproariously as she first confessed that she disdained all exercise (“anything that makes you sweat except making love”), then placed hands on round, ample hips and ordered “the fattest thing on the menu,” profiteroles swimming in a pool of whipped cream and dark chocolate, for dessert. Just as quickly, the table turned sober as Allende told a story about her father.

Like Irene Beltran, the protagonist in Allende’s second novel, “Of Love and Shadows” (Knopf, 1987), Allende spent much of her 20s working at a women’s magazine in Santiago. And like Irene Beltran, Allende was the daughter of a man who vanished when she was an infant. Raised by her mother and stepfather, a Chilean diplomat and cousin to Salvador Allende, her only contact with her birth father came when, as a teen-ager, she stumbled across a trunk of children’s books that

had belonged to him, the sole relics of his existence that her mother had forgotten to throw away.

“It was forbidden,” she said in a voice that recalled the mystery. “I had to take the books out one by one and read them in secret.”

When she was 26 and working as a writer, editor and advice columnist at the magazine, Allende recalled, “I was called to the morgue to identify a body. It had on it the name of my brother.”

The body was unfamiliar to her, but later her stepfather identified the body as that of her natural father.


Readers in North America and elsewhere, many of whom study Allende’s books in universities, even writing papers and theses based upon them, have since pointed out to her that “in my books you never find a father, certainly not a kind father, anyway. You find either an authoritarian father, or an absent father.”

Meant to Write Letter

It amuses Allende that such readers have also psychoanalyzed the role of Barrabas, the dog in her first novel, “The House of the Spirits.” Allende insists she was merely writing about the dog she grew up with when she penned that first phrase, “Barrabas came to us by sea,” at home in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1981. For that matter, she told the audience gathered for her talk, “I was not even conscious that I was writing a novel. I thought I was writing a letter to my grandfather.” The talk was the first in a Book-of-the-Month-Club-sponsored series on “Paths to Resistance: The Art of the Political Novel.”

Allende had felt aimless since she fled to Venezuela from Chile six years earlier, two years after the coup that killed her uncle and felled his government. Unable to secure work as a journalist (“Have you ever tried to work in another country? Try it. You can’t.”), she had taken a job in school administration. Her children and husband were with her, but she felt cut off from the large extended family that remained in Chile. When she received word that her grandfather was dying, she sat down to write for him the stories he had told her as a child.

Death quickly claimed the 100-year-old man in Chile who had taken to his armchair, refusing all food or drink, but his granddaughter kept writing, discovering that she had “thousands of words stuck in my chest, threatening to choke me.”

Looked Like a Book

At the end of a year, there were 500 pages piled on her desk.

“It looked like a novel, not a letter,” Allende said.


She wrapped the bundle in pink ribbon and took it to some publishers, all of whom rejected it outright. Eventually an agent in Spain read it and liked it so much that she demanded the Allende manuscript be published as part of a package she had sold by another author.

For Allende, the catharsis had begun.

“In the process of writing the anecdotes of the past and part of the history of my country, life became more comprehensible and the world became more tolerable,” she said.

Sometime, during the “private orgy” of her writing, she came to view her fiction as “unavoidable.” With each chapter, she was “exorcising some of my demons, fulfilling my own dreams.”

Responsibility to Readers

But Allende, a tiny woman who stood on a stool to see over the lectern at her lecture, soon found that “readers can be very tough” in dissecting the three novels she has written in these last six years.

“One has to be responsible for each word, each idea,” she said gravely. “The written word cannot be erased.”

That burden seems never to leave Allende’s consciousness. Though some fault her writing as overly romantic, love stories set against the horrific backdrop of Latin American political atrocities, Allende sees her mission as writing “to prevent the erosion of time,” writing “what should not be forgotten.”

Novels, she said, offer her a special “window” to the truth.

“One can register the most incredible evil, magnificent facts,” Allende said. “In a novel we can give illusory order to the chaos. We are able to understand the present and dream the future, to decode the mysteries of our world and to discover our true identity.”

Demons Come From History

North Americans and Europeans, she said, ask her how she and her fellow Latin American fiction writers “dare to invent such creatures and such personalities” that inhabit their novels: “earthquakes, tyrants, revolutions made with machetes, poets and critics.”

Such fancy is “not the product of our pathological imagination,” Allende said. “They are written in our history.”

In Latin America, “we inhabit a land of terrible contrasts,” she said. “Life is always suspended from a fragile thread. It is always impossible to speak of Latin America without mentioning violence.

“There is an apparent world and a real world” in nations marked by extremes of wealth and poverty, mired in “the worst political, economic and social crises since the conquest of the Americas,” Allende said.

Terror of Repression

“Repression grows day by day. We try to keep straight faces while our feet are stuck in a swamp of exploitation.”

Repression is “hard to explain,” she said. “Especially to you who have never experienced it. Terror isolates you.”

But somehow, Allende said, and her face lit up as she spoke, “Latin America is also a land of hope.” For her that legacy has translated into a feeling that writing is also “an act of hope, a tiny beam of light to show some hidden aspects of reality.”

A book “is not an end in itself,” she said. “It is only a way to touch someone, a bridge extended across loneliness and obscurity.”

To her audience at the library, Allende said she was willing to provoke “a scornful smile” as she extolled the virtues of “love, generosity, justice” in literature.

World Is ‘So Fragile’

“I am sure that we have the capacity to create a more gentle world,” she said. “Our present equilibrium is so fragile that a breeze can blow it to pieces.”

Love triumphs in Allende’s fiction. “But my books are political,” she said, because the characters “reconcile themselves to life and love, because these characters search truth and have the courage to live their lives” in the face of fear and cruelty and violence.

“So if you do not mind,” she said, “I will continue to write about lovers embracing in front of an abandoned mine where they have just found 15 bodies murdered by the regime.”

She smiled, looking much younger than 45.

“I suppose I am being very pretentious,” Allende said. “Well, most writers are, even women writers.”

Battling Illiteracy

One battle Allende shares with fellow writers in Latin America is the fight against illiteracy. Once banned, her fiction is now available in Chile. But books are so expensive, and the reading audience so small in a continent where only 50% of the population can read and write, that government censors apparently see little threat.

“In Latin America a book is nearly a luxury,” Allende said. “My hairdresser calls me ‘Dr. Allende’ because I usually have a book under my arm.”

Allende travels the way she reads and writes and eats and talks: with passion, and constantly. Though unofficially ensconced in the California abode of her “gringo,” she remains a resident of Venezuela. She is divorced, and her son Nicolas, 21, also lives in Caracas. Daughter Paula, 24, is a graduate student in community psychology at the University of Virginia.

Her departure from Chile was a personal decision, Allende explained, prompted by fear and threats veiled and actual to her family.

Real Danger or Just Threats?

“You never know if you are really in danger or if all those threats are just threats,” she said. “But you become very afraid.

“That is what happened to me. I saw that the dictatorship was becoming stronger every day. I was scared, that was why I left.”

As an exile, she said, “you never feel that you can plant any roots anyplace else. It takes a very long time to understand that your roots are within yourself.”

Belatedly, perhaps, Allende the storyteller has taken it upon herself to write the stories of Eva Luna the storyteller. After three novels, she finds she is struggling with the short story form.

“In novels, it is important what you put in. In short stories, it is what you take out,” Allende said. “For me that is very difficult because I talk and I talk, and I write and I write.”

With very little provocation, Allende began unraveling yet another story, this tale about the astrologers and practitioners of the occult who seem to gravitate to her out of nowhere. Soon she was sagely discussing astrological signs, nodding with authority as each person present revealed his birth sign.

What did it all mean?

“How should I know?” Allende said, laughing. “Why do I need to know about something to talk about it?”