[Marxism] Christopher Hitchens and Isabel Allende

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 5 07:43:39 MST 2005

(A disgusting but revealing piece by Christopher Hitchens on a new edition 
of Isabel Allende's "House of the Spirits," for which he provides the 
introduction as well. In this pieces, we learn that Victor Jara had 
"sinister" communist politics. We also learn that Isabel Allende 
"understands how it came to be that many middling and even poor Chileans 
eventually welcomed the Pinochet moment." I must also comment that about 10 
years ago Marc Cooper wrote an interesting piece in the Nation Magazine 
trying to figure out Pinochet's appeal--he was Allende's translator back in 

A house divided

Twenty years after its first publication in English, Christopher Hitchens 
pays tribute to a seminal novel by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende - one 
of the few 'magical' fictions ever to have its wish come true

Saturday March 5, 2005
The Guardian

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

It is while speaking of the island of Crete, in Saki's story "The Jesting 
of Arlington Stringham", that the eponymous character says that the place 
"produces more history than it can consume locally". We all know of certain 
distinctive countries on the map of which this seems to be true. For some 
reason, a lot of them also begin with the letter C: Czechoslovakia (which 
now exists only in memory), Cuba, Cyprus - and Chile. And there is also a 
literary surplus that often comes with these territories: think only of 
Kafka, Kundera, Yglesias and Neruda.

For people of a certain generation (my own, to be exact: those of us 
sometimes vulgarly described as the baby-boomers), the imagery and 
cosmology of Chile is a part of ourselves. A country shaped like a long, 
thin, jagged blade, forming the littoral of almost an entire continent, and 
poised to crumble into the ocean leaving only the Andes behind. A place of 
earthquakes and wine and poets, like some Antarctic Aegean. And a place of 
arms: the scene of the grand 20th-century confrontation between Allende and 
Pinochet. The nation's territory includes the Atacama desert, an expanse of 
rainforest, a huge deposit of copper, a great valley full of vines, and the 
mysteriously statued Polynesian outpost of Easter Island, known to the 
indigenous as Rapanui, or "the navel of the world".

The voices and portents in La Casa de los Espiritus are also somewhat 
cryptic at times, as befits the school of "magical realism". This style, or 
manner, was actually pioneered somewhat earlier than most people think, by 
Jorge Luis Borges in neighbouring Argentina. In 1926 he published an essay, 
"Tales of Turkestan", in which he hymned the sort of story where "the 
marvellous and the everyday are entwined ... there are angels as there are 
trees". In 1931, in The Postulation of Magic, he announced that fiction was 
"an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments", as bodied 
forth in the "predestined" Ulysses of James Joyce.

 From the very beginning of Isabel Allende's narration, disbelief is 
suspensible in the most natural way, and (if you pay attention) the 
premonitions begin to register. Rather cleverly - and subversively - the 
action begins in a church. Bored by the blackmailing liturgy, and by the 
devotional decorations which make an everyday trade out of the officially 
supernatural, the Trueba family is preoccupied with the truly extraordinary 
developments within its own ranks. Effortlessly, we find ourselves 
conscripted into the truth of this tale; from green hair to the gift of 
prophecy and divination and the taken-for-granted ability to fly. Just off 
the centre of the stage, in carefully placed hints and allusions to the 
Prussian goose-step, to the future burning of the books and to the Marxist 
gentleman referred to as "the candidate", we can also pick up the faint 
drum-taps of the far-off tragic denouement.

Children and animals are often the conveyors of the magical: innocence and 
experience being in their cases less immediately distinguishable. Clara and 
the dog Barrabás would make an almost cartoonish filmic double-act for 
anyone with the necessary entrepreneurial imagination: a sort of Scooby-Doo 
with the facts of life thrown in.

Here it is Isabel Allende's brilliantly dead-pan and dry humour, concerning 
such things as the beast Barrabás's murderous penis, that draw us into the 
story and make us surrender. In counterpoint to this highly bearable 
lightness, her notes of seriousness are correspondingly weighty. (Why does 
nobody ever believe Clara's prophecies? Because nobody ever believed 
Cassandra.) By the time we reach chapter five ("The Lovers") we are 
suddenly aware that we are watching a parody of Animal Farm in reverse, 
with a song about the chickens organising to defeat the fox, heard by a 
wealthy landowner who wants to put a stop to such romantic nonsense.

The romance between the rich man's daughter and the penniless son of the 
peasant is such a folkloric cliché that one has to become wary for an 
instant, even with an author who has already won one's trust. However, The 
House Of The Spirits depends for its ingenuity on the blending of the 
microcosmic with the macrocosmic: the little society of the family and the 
wider society of Chile.

Lineage is important in the unfolding of this, and the Truebas all have one 
dynastic name, while the "Pedros" - like the nameless French serfs who were 
all called "Jacques" - mark their descent by numbers: Secundo, Tercero ... 
just like monarchs in fact. Isabel Allende herself bears a great name that 
has become imperishable for non-hereditary reasons, and so it is rather 
generous of her, in the circumstances, to invert what is traditional and to 
make a hero out of what Marxism might normally prefer to cast as a villain. 
Esteban Trueba is a patriarch in every sense: a self-made man of property 
and a seigneur who haughtily insists on exercising every droit, libidinous 
or financial. His appetites are gigantic, and no peasant girl is safe from 
him, but he feels himself bound nonetheless by a contrat social and a sense 
of noblesse oblige.

My own family is not the only one where there exists an extraordinary bond 
between grandfather and granddaughter. The emotional strength of this 
phenomenon has been noted many times (some people even joke that such 
alliances are so durable and intense because they are based upon a common 
enemy). At any rate, we know from the highly candid and affecting memoirs 
of Isabel Allende that her own grandfather, Agustin Llona, was in many ways 
the "main man" in her early life: the representative of the masculine 
virtues. Indeed, he is the raison d'être of this novel. One day, in exile 
from her martyred country, Isabel Allende heard the awful news:

'that my grandfather was dying, and that he had told the family he had 
decided to die. He had stopped eating and drinking, and he sat in chair to 
wait for death. At that moment I wanted so badly to write and tell him that 
he was never going to die, that somehow he would always be present in my 
life, because he had a theory that death didn't exist, only forgetfulness 
did. He believed that if you can keep people in your memory, they will live 
forever. That's what he did with my grandmother. So I began to write him a 
long letter, elaborated from the awful thought that he was going to die.'

Esteban Trueba, the fictional memorial of this grand old gentleman, is 
life-affirming. He builds a grand estate at Tres Marías out of his own 
unremitting struggle with adversity, and accepts the responsibility for his 
tenants even as he declines to listen to any whining or subversive 
back-chat from them. He also becomes a distinguished senator, and leads the 
charge against the party of Allende, even irritating the more conciliatory 
conservatives who dislike making a fuss:

'"The day we can't get our hands on the ballot boxes before the vote is 
counted we're done for," Trueba argued.

'"The Marxists haven't won by popular vote anywhere in the world," his 
confreres replied. "At the very least it takes a revolution, and that kind 
of thing doesn't happen in this country."

'"Until it happens!" Trueba answered furiously.

'"Relax, hombre. We're not going to let that happen," they consoled him.

'"Marxism doesn't stand a chance in Latin America. Don't you know it 
doesn't allow for the magical side of things?"'

In the context, that's rather a clever question. And, in her grandpa's 
quoted opinion that forgetfulness is the equivalent of death, isn't there 
an echo of the author, much admired by Isabel Allende, who has most 
attempted to fuse Marxism with magic? Gabriel García Márquez, in his epic 
One Hundred Years of Solitude, describes a village which suffers an 
epidemic of insomnia. After an interval of chaotic and protracted 
wakefulness, the increasingly deranged inhabitants begin to forget the 
names of common objects. Their solution is to write labels and affix them 
to the said objects, which serves to keep the crisis at bay for a while. 
But then the insomnia mutates into radical amnesia, and they begin to 
forget what letters stand for, and how words are written or read ...

The class war is fought not just between the siblings of the Trueba dynasty 
and the humble Tercero family, but among them as well. Like many mighty 
patriarchs, Esteban Trueba is fated to be disappointed by his sons as well 
as his daughter. One of the boys, Nicolás, becomes somewhat futile and 
vapid, wasting his time on aeronautical fantasies and difficult women. 
Another, Jaime, becomes a conscience-stricken medical student who rejects 
his privileged upbringing in order to minister to the poor, or at least to 
make them the objects of his charity in the aptly named Misericordia 
District. (Ever since Graham Greene, I sometimes think, the socialist 
physician - Dr Magiot, Dr Czinner - has been an especially serious 
character. And of course, Salvador Allende himself was a doctor.)

In Esteban García, the crafty youth who is also an illegitimate by-blow of 
old man Trueba, we are finally introduced to evil. Again spurning the 
ideal-types of radical romanticism, Isabel Allende portrays this cold, 
plebeian, ambitious type as the instrument of death foretold. Here is the 
sort of person, found in every society, who becomes a torturer and 
executioner when the state is taken over by sadists. By way of an ironic 
wrinkle in the genealogical plot, he gets his great opportunity from his 
unaware grandfather, who despises the surreptitious and whose combats have 
always been in the open. The patriarch wants the honest military gentlemen 
to seize power, to scatter the subversives, and to restore decency and 
tradition and order. But he wants them then to return to the barracks and 
supervise new elections. Esteban García, no aristocrat, desires the day 
when police rule will be permanent, and he himself can have endless 
official permission to humiliate his betters as well as his inferiors.

The House of the Spirits is, or perhaps retrospectively became, the first 
of a trilogy that is comprised of itself, followed by Of Love and Shadows 
and Portrait in Sepia. The "subject" is assuredly family life, which is 
also the tempestuous sub-text of much of Isabel Allende's non-fiction. But 
the story is about Chile.

For millions of people across the world, this very name took on the same 
resonance as had "Spain" 40 years before. On one side, the landlords, the 
church, the army and the fascists. On the other, "the people" in their 
various gnarled, exploited, neglected and semi-upright postures. 
Arbitrating and manipulating things were far-off superpowers and vested 
interests. My little summary does, admittedly, possess all the subtlety of 
a Brecht play put on in Berkeley. But sometimes things are quite simple, 
and even Brecht might have turned down the idea of multinational 
corporations instructing Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to use murderous 
force to protect their dividends. Given the starkness of this, as it 
appeared at the time, it is greatly to Señora Allende's credit that she 
contrived so much wit, grace and chiaroscuro.

The Spanish civil war is remembered today as having been a writers' and 
poets' war, among other things, and Chile in the 1970s possessed some of 
that quality also. In these pages one can re-encounter at least a couple of 
the relevant figures. Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest love poets of all 
time (and the hero of that gem of a movie, Il Postino) appears as The Poet: 
someone almost too numinous and distinguished to be named. Victor Jara, the 
radical balladeer of Allende's Unidad Popular movement, is to be found in 
the strumming and singing of Pedro Tercero.

Both real lives ended at the time of the military coup in 1973: Neruda died 
of natural causes - perhaps exacerbated by the violence of events - and his 
marvellous library was trashed by marauding soldiers. Victor Jara was 
dragged away in a round-up and murdered, but not before his sniggering 
captors had recognised him and gone to all the trouble of smashing his 
guitar-playing fingers. (Both of these men had dull and sometimes sinister 
communist politics, and after all it is George Orwell whose writing on 
Spain survives the burblings and mendacities of the Popular Front, but the 
face of fascism is still much the same whether it murders Lorca or pillages 

So the last third of the novel is really a palimpsest for those who 
experienced those years, or who wish to profit by studying them. Sex and 
love and family drama persist, of course, as they have to (and sometimes 
ecstatically in the first case). But everything is enacted in the shadow 
thrown by the first pages of the book: the great confrontation that has 
long been doomed to occur within the Chilean family as a whole. These pages 
are, to the Chilean revolution and counter-revolution, what A Tale of Two 
Cities once was to their French equivalents.

They also capture - if I may be permitted this - the best of times and the 
worst of times. Again, it is Isabel Allende's nuance, combined with her 
fair-mindedness, that astonishes. We watch the festival of the oppressed as 
it takes place on the old feudal estate at Tres Marías, but we also see the 
element of riot and Saturnalia as the peasants up-end the vintage 
wine-bottles, eat the seed-corn and slaughter the animals that were 
intended for husbandry. We meet the single-minded and zealous revolutionary 
Miguel but we also learn (and this through Jaime, who admires him too) that 
he could be "one of those fatal men possessed by a dangerous idealism and 
an intransigent purity that colour everything they touch with disaster, 
especially the women who have the misfortune to fall in love with them".

Though I know that Isabel Allende was at the time heart and brain and soul 
a supporter of the Chilean Left, she does not present us with a politicised 
morality play. She understands how it came to be that many middling and 
even poor Chileans eventually welcomed the Pinochet moment, as a respite 
from disorder and dogma. Indeed, in her much later memoir My Invented 
Country, published 30 years after the coup, she freely says that the 
economic programme adopted by her famous uncle was a calamitous one.

Nonetheless, there was a point at which family and honour and politics 
converged, in a kind of redemption of all the wreckage and intolerance. The 
leaders of the French revolution, with the exception of Lafayette, went to 
the bad and consumed each other as well as many rivals. The leaders of the 
Russian revolution - with the arguable exception of Leon Trotsky - went the 
same way. There are numerous other examples of Jacobin and Bolshevik 
cannibalism and fratricide, or the analogues of same. The Cuban revolution, 
even as I write, is expiring in banana-republic futility. But Salvador 
Allende never murdered or tortured anyone, and faced his own death with 
unexampled fortitude, and that has made all the difference.

When I first met Isabel Allende, at the point that this novel was first 
published, she ended our conversation by recalling her uncle's last words, 
spoken over a hissing and howling static from an improvised radio station, 
as the western-supplied warplanes were wheeling and diving over the 
dignified old presidential palace of La Moneda: named for its former office 
as the Chilean mint. Here is what he said, as cited word-for-word in The 
House of the Spirits:

'I speak to all those who will be persecuted to tell you that I am not 
going to resign: I will repay the people's loyalty with my life. I will 
always be with you. I have faith in our nation and its destiny. Other men 
will prevail, and soon the great avenues will be open again, where free men 
will walk, to build a better society.'

Our interview concluded with her saying that her ambition was to see this 
come true, and to one day walk those avenues herself, "along with everybody 
else". I recall saying rather feebly that I hoped I could join her. At the 
time, Chile was in a grip of adamantine rule, as I had seen for myself, and 
the prospect of any liberated stroll or saunter or paseo looked distinctly 
faint. I was too pessimistic.

So I suppose this is one of the very few "magical" fictions ever to have 
its wish come true. (I can only think of one other such case: Theodor 
Herzl's Altneuland, a Utopian novel about a once-and-future Jewish state in 
Palestine, written by the founder of Zionism.) Herzl never lived to see his 
dream vindicated, and one rather wonders what he would make of the result 
as we know it today. But it was not only the veterans of the Chilean Left, 
emerging from torture chambers and frigid far-off camps on island prisons 
in the south Atlantic, who celebrated when Ricardo Lagos was elected 
president of Chile at the turn of the 20th century.

It was understood by all who gathered for his inauguration - the first 
member of Allende's old party to be chosen by unhindered ballot since 1970 
- that he would have to leave the balcony of the palace, and walk down the 
"great avenues" without a bodyguard, to be among the people. And so he did, 
amid a great hush and also a great rejoicing.

Well, I thought, I have lived to see it. I have also lived to see General 
Pinochet arraigned in his own country, providing in his person one of the 
great individual benchmarks (Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein) by which 
it is established that those who trample on law and justice will some day 
have to face a court. One trial cannot of course do duty for all the crimes 
and all the murders and "disappearances" and corruptions, but only those 
who believe in vicarious redemption and human sacrifice can expect all sins 
to be taken away in this manner, and though The House of the Spirits opens 
and closes with exactly the same sentence ("Barrabás came to us by sea") it 
doesn't do to forget that this Barrabás was only a large and randy dog.

In a conversation of some years ago, Isabel Allende went back yet again to 
the subject of her magnificent and maddening maternal grandfather, and 
described her lifelong and posthumous connection to him as one of "enraged 
intimacy". One Balzac, as Karl Marx is supposed to have said, is worth a 
hundred Zolas, but this Zola fan can see that "enraged intimacy" is what 
makes the Balzacian narrative imperishable.

· This is taken from the Introduction by Christopher Hitchens to The House 
of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, published by Everyman's Library on March 
10 at £10.99 hardback

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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