As a writer she has logically evolved since her first publications. After the success of The House of the Spirits it may have seemed difficult to produce anything better, and the critics followed closely every movement of the then very young novelist, who, though, effortlessly proved to be able to better herself and become the great exponent of literature in Spanish that she is today. “Success brings self-confidence and assurance,” she admits, “I have been fortunate that my books have been published and read, and that they remain in the bookshops for many years after they’ve been written.” Humbly, she adds, “If my books were unsuccessful, how could I continue writing? How would I make a living? Twenty-odd years ago I didn’t know what path I should follow, but I could already guess that it wasn’t going to be an easy one.”
Her work reflects, in some way or other, people, and life around them, but her followers wonder if she herself is reflected in her books. “Writing is always autobiographical,” she says. “Why does one choose a subject or some characters if not to explore something pertaining one´s own life or personality? Of course I am in my books, sometimes in disguise and sometimes openly.”
She is able to masterfully turn the attributes of her loved ones into those of her characters. Her family is one of her biggest source of inspiration. Life around her, her interests turn into her stories and sometimes (she was already accused of this in her childhood years) into her lies. Young Isabel would fantasize and develop her own account of events. Even then, as she confesses to her good friend Celia Correas Zapata in her autobiographical book Isabel Allende: Vida y Espiritus, she made up stories for her brothers.
In likewise fashion, Gregory Reeves, the main character of her novel The Infinite Plan is based on her own husband, William C. Gordon. The novel follows the story of a ‘gringo’ and his experiences and relationships with the Hispanics in California, narrating in the third part of the book, his participation in the Viet Nam war. It is in that part that she articulates through Reeves: “People. War is people. Life or death, you kill or you die. We are the good ones and they are the bad ones. A bullet is a great democratic experience.”
Impressed by such powerful words, I ask the writer to give me her truthful opinion about the current conflicts around our stormy world. “Bush’s politics have not helped to diminish terrorism,” she asserts, “they have increased it. The causes are the same as before, those that have exacerbated the guerilla movements: poverty, inequality, desperation. We must now add the religious element, which encourages certain people to sacrifice themselves for a cause. They must find themselves in a dead-end street situation in order to want to wrap themselves in explosives and blow themselves up in the air. Fundamentalism has increased, not only Islamic, but also Christian, Jewish, and so on. It is always dangerous. I believe that this won’t be resolved by being violent, but by searching the way to improve the human condition.”
Her beginnings as a journalist doubtlessly have a lot to do with her broad interest and knowledge about politics, the World and current affairs. She confesses, again in the biography written by her friend Celia, to be interested in everything, to enter into other people’s lives. “Of course I do, if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t have anything to write about,” she told Celia. They are referring to the family but to a certain extent I take the liberty to translate this into a broader context, into an obvious preoccupation for the surrounding world. I think I begin to see this curiosity, this frequent indignation for the pain of others in one of her Eva Luna stories: De barro estamos hechos [We are made of mud]. In which she remembers one of the biggest journalistic scandals in the Hispanic world: the death of Omaira Sánchez, broadcast live after the girl got stuck in the mud after a volcanic eruption in Colombia. “The media have the right to deliver news to the audience,” she answers to my question about the rights of the press and its frequently obscene interference in the private lives of the news protagonists. “The obscenity in the case of Omaira Sánchez was not that the press was present at her death, it was that the journalists could carry TV cameras by helicopter and that they could not take a pump to suck up the mud and save the girl.” She is of the opinion that it is best to deliver the news to the World so that it stays in our consciences, “in order to prevent it from happening again,” she says. I, nonetheless, remain slightly skeptical regarding the correct functioning of our consciences, remembering the many times I have heard words and stories about the atrocities endured by the Jews during the Second World War, for example, or the repeated pain of so many victims of dictators without conscience. Without looking further, I can’t but help considering the Allendes, directly affected by the army’s intervention in their country. I think about the innumerable people killed under the Junta government of the infamous General. “Pinochet will not pay for his crimes against humanity, corruption and robbery,” Allende tells me, “he won’t be sent to jail and I doubt he will be judged. He will, however, go down in history as the person he is: a despicable being that stained Chile’s history with 17 terrible years and its consequences. Pinochet and his henchmen did everything in their power, even set up a foundation to hide the truth and convince the World that ‘they had saved Chile from Communism’.”
The World looks back on September 11th in horror, but it has almost forgotten the other September 11th, which we are now talking about, that of 1973, the date in which the lives of many Chileans, amongst them Isabel, changed forever: “I lost my motherland with the coup,” she explains, “when I had to leave the country. During 17 years I had the feeling that something fundamental had been taken away from me. In 1989 democracy was restored in Chile and I could have gone back, but by then I was married to an American and lived with my family in California.”The author currently visits Chile several times a year. She finds marked differences between her country of origin and the country where she has chosen to settle down, but claims that her travels have shown her that we are all essentially the same. It is the similarities that bring us close to one another. She remembers the Hispanic immigrants, poor, in many cases illegal and suffering as if they were “a different country, without any rights, with miserly salaries, exposed to all abuse, like a form of slavery.”
Her last novel is Zorro. I imagine the readers trying to understand if it is really El Zorro that we all know, so well interpreted by Antonio Banderas in the last two American films, or it is some other Zorro with new attributes and new adventures, reinvented by the writer. I personally looked for the novel enthusiastically, read it avidly, enjoyed every word, every chapter, every danger… every emotion! “I got interested in the proposal to write Zorro when I understood that I could have all the freedom to invent whatever I wanted,” says Isabel. The legend is enriched by her literary interpretation, the characters appear real and, at the same time, she keeps the magic that is always present in her narrative. The readers will be wrapped in the story’s plot unawares and find a logical explanation (no matter how magical it may be) to each and every event; they will see Diego’s body grow up, turn from the mestizo boy to the great masked superhero and witness the development of his double personality (the human and the magical one), under the constant guidance of his spiritual animal, which as can be guessed is … un zorro (a fox)!
Allende says she was captivated by the time in which the story is set: at the beginning of the 19th century. She did not find the research difficult. The plot unfolds in two continents and in several countries and the author takes us from one to the other easily, making us even feel the discomforts of the trip and the dangers that lie in wait for her characters. It is not only she who describes her work as: “a melodramatic novel in the same style as those written in the 19th century”. Several critics already have referred to her work in the same way. Isabel plays with language, and with the absence of it.
Bernardo, Diego’s companion, chooses silence as his only manner of expression. “I wanted to redeem the character of Bernardo, which TV series have traditionally treated as some sort of clown, a silly servant to Diego de la Vega. I wanted to confer him dignity, pride, an important role in the life of Zorro, but I had to keep to his non-speaking attribute. Instead of making him dumb, I decided that he wouldn’t speak because he was traumatized. Telepathic communication with his brother-friend, Diego de la Vega, was a way around the issue.”
Writing a man’s character whilst being a woman is no easy feat, but Isabel explains that it was not difficult to identify with the hero: “Perhaps because inside each one of us sleeps the child, the teenager, the young person we once were. I haven’t forgotten the stories I used to make up during my childhood, in which I was always the protagonist: brave, proud, adventurous.”
She confesses to have written the novel with incredible ease, and the reader can easily guess her happiness: humor dominates the plot right from the first line. She also confesses to be in love with the character. “Better said, I am in love with Antonio Banderas in his role of Zorro.”
And who wouldn’t be? I think, whilst I draw the image of the attractive masked man in my head. It is with this image that the great writer leaves me. Isabel says goodbye as she embarks on a new project. She takes refuge in her studio, her cuchitril as she herself calls it, every 8th January, the date when (it is no secret) she always commences new work at the beginning of the year. Once more the project promises to be “a titanic work”, she reveals. As soon as I have closed down her novel I start impatiently waiting for news about the next one. For the time being, I leave the author in the silence of her office, concentrating, listening to the voice of her muses, of her memories and of the spirits that are always by her side, as she puts it “the living, the dead and the literary”.