Magical Realism

D.A.N. Jones

  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin
    Cape, 368 pp, £8.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 224 02231 8
  • Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor
    Hodder, 304 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 340 36033 X
  • Careful with the Sharks by Constantine Phipps
    Cape, 216 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 224 02308 X

It is obvious that Isabel Allende’s novel about Chile, The House of the Spirits, has something about it that appeals to women readers: but I cannot imagine what that something is. ‘Magical realism’ is the vogue-word: but this seems to me a farrago of fantasy-triggers. I was astonished when Marina Warner asserted on television that the book ‘gives you an astonishing understanding of a political situation’. On the same day, Marilyn Butler was equally effusive on Radio 3 and Hermione Lee assured us in the Observer that the author has ‘impeccably heroic socialist and feminist credentials’. My daughter-in-law brought home Cosmopolitan with a long extract, prettily illustrated, and an astounding comment from Emma Dally: ‘Although it is not a “women’s novel”, the strength of the female characters is quite astounding.’ Isabel Allende herself on television has described these figments as ‘strong women who are somehow opposite to violence and torture, all this male world’. They had struck me as rather ineffectual ladies.

The grandmother, mother and daughter in this ninety-years-long family chronicle are called Clara, Blanca and Alba – names which, Isabel Allende explains, stand for whiteness and purity. Their principal man is Esteban, the grandfather, a landowner and Conservative senator, with his own peculiar regard for whiteness: he is made to say, during Chile’s democratic period, that his nation can ‘set an example for this continent of Indians and Negroes who spend their time making revolutions. Here the Conservative Party wins cleanly and openly ... ’ But when a Socialist candidate approaches, the old fool wants the other landowners to gang up and, literally, ‘make mincemeat of him’, on the grounds that ‘you can’t expect the weak to have the same as those of us who’ve worked from sunup to sundown and know how to invest our money ...’ This boringly stupid and vicious man is treated with great tolerance by the author and by the ladies of his house, as if sighing sweetly: ‘You know what men are!’

Esteban spends much of his time brutally raping the daughters of his peons; sometimes he goes to brothels instead, to be coddled by lovable whores. The ladies of his house don’t seem to mind. Esteban might plead in mitigation that his wife, the pure Clara, no longer sleeps with him, preferring to cuddle up with his sister. Clara is an unusual sort of woman: she is a clairvoyant, surrounded by female spiritualists, and she made her mark as a little girl by shouting ‘fucked’ in church, during the priest’s sermon. She once had a sister with beautiful green hair and Esteban wanted to marry her, but she was unfortunately poisoned by a politician and he had to marry Clara instead. Hard luck, Esteban. After witnessing an autopsy on the green-haired corpse, Clara refuses to speak for nine years, despite the efforts of her dear old nanny, who dresses up in bogey-man costumes to frighten her into loosening her tongue. Clara’s magical powers enable her to locate the severed head of her mother (Nivea, another symbol of purity) lost in the woods after a car-smash: this head goes into the hat-box in the basement. Clara is too pure to concern herself with her sons or with any domestic duties: after all, she has servants and Esteban pays them when he is not raping their daughters. Clara prefers dealing with the ghosts in her house, including those of some old South American mummies, almost the only local product: everything else seems to have been imported.

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