Friday, December 31, 2010

Decades 2010 Challenge: The House of the Spirits

It's been a while since I ventured into South American literature and magical realism, and this 1970 book provided a pleasant reintroduction to both.

Framed by a journal motif, the story follows the Trueba family through three generations and is inhabited by eccentric characters of both sexes. The patriarch, Esteban, given to the extreme appetites and assumed privileges of the wealthy, founds two lines of descendants, one legitimate and one illegitimate. His wife, Clara the clairvoyant, their daughter Bianca, and Bianca's daughter Alba balance Esteban's masculine energy with an equally powerful feminine heritage that seeks to reconcile the spiritual with the personal and political. In this world, the man may be the patriarch, but the women carry life forward.

Magical realism requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but Allende makes the extraordinary seem a natural part of the story of these lives. Secret meetings, hidden rooms, and surprising coincidences mix with gauzy details and events that would be horrific in another novel (a severed head kept in a hatbox, for example). Allende doesn't use a lot of paragraph breaks, so there are pages of solid text, but that's never a burden. The fabric of events and sometimes surprising juxtapositions are all part of the tale. With Allende as storyteller, all you want to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Excerpt:

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner; but the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become. It was a bland, autumnal day that gave no hint of the events that the child would record . . . .

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