The creatures behind locked doors

Wednesday, March 18, 1992

The Stories of Eva Luna
By Isabel Allende
Penguin, 1991. 227 pp. $12.95
Reviewed by Mario Giorgetti

Told in the hyperbolic style of folktales, the stories in this volume are diverse and colourful. In structure, some of them are not unlike synopses of novels, and some are anecdotal. All of them portray grand passions in operatic themes as big as South America itself.

In the 23 stories there are some light diversions, some sentimental tales and some stories verging on the absurd and surreal. There are also brilliant jewels like "Two Words" and "Walimai", the latter a masterly story which takes you into unexpected emotional territory and resonates in memory long after reading.

Allende is not known for character-driven plots, and her writing depends heavily on exposition. Predictably, sparseness of dialogue tends to de-emphasise the role of character and deprives the reader of a focus for identification. This is not necessarily a defect, however, but a legitimate part of her writing style.

Allende distances herself somewhat from these stories by attributing them to Eva, the fictional protagonist and natural storyteller in Eva Luna, her 1987 novel, thus allowing for some licence in story content and structure. Eva Luna says about her mother:

"She sowed in my mind the idea that reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and colour it to make our journey through life less trying."

But this is not the magic realism we expect from a Carlos Castaneda or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These are, for the most part, picaresque tales set in the hallucinatory landscapes of South America.

Since the days of the conquistadores, reality for Latin American women has meant marginalisation and oppression by a staunchly patriarchal system. Allende has said that "To be born a woman in Latin America is to have a destiny of servitude, or, in the best of cases, of second-class citizenship". Her men and women are portrayed as insignificant creatures, struggling with the hard realities of these intemperate latitudes, against an overwhelming backdrop of poverty and oppression.

Following the publication of her acclaimed first novel, The House of the Spirits, in 1982, Isabel Allende has become a popular writer around the world, and from this perspective one would expect her writing to be coloured by some form of feminist rhetoric. But if Allende's fiction carries any ideology at all, it may be defined simply as a fictional (and sometimes fantastic) re-presentation of life in her part of the world.

At her lowest pitch, Allende is, like Belisa, the protagonist of her first story, a hack and a seller of words. At her highest, she is a doom. Her characters are confronted not with themselves, but with cruel gods that addle their already precarious lives.

This preoccupation with life's miseries and human mortality is a thread in Allende's writing that sometimes breaks into Gothic horror and macabre twists. In love there is always an element of despair; in life, the shadow of death. In Allende's feverish prose, the real is mirror-like: it becomes surreal and magical, occasionally bringing out into the light the monsters that crouch behind locked doors.

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