I’m about 1/3 of the way through The House of the Spirits. I last read this book in its entirety my freshman year of college in a comparative literature class. This was not an English class. At my university, there was a separate department called Comparative Literature. I am sure that I used to know the difference between the two, but as of 2012, that bit of knowledge has left my brain, to be replaced by something more important, like the dose of Valium to give to a seizuring dog, either intravenously or per rectum. Yes, the doses are different. As a brief aside, I am amazed on an almost daily basis recently how many mundane details of the past I seem to have let slip away. I wish I could say it didn’t upset me. But it does, a little. I used to want to write down every detail of every minute of every day so I would never forget anything. It would have been my version of Clara Trueba’s “notebooks that bear witness to life.” Sadly, that never happened.
So at page 142 of 433, here’s what I’m thinking. I am still enjoying The House of the Spirits, which doesn’t come as a surprise to me, since I loved it the first time around and I still enjoy Allende. There are more characters than I remember—for the life of me I did not remember that Clara and Esteban had twin sons who were a few years younger than Blanca. Granted, their story is definitely a secondary narrative, so it’s not a surprise that I’d forget. Also, I have traditionally preferred reading about women; I’m getting better about that, and have branched out to reading novels by and about men in the past couple of years. And if you’d asked me a few weeks ago about the narrative voice of this book I would have said that it’s third person omniscient. I would have been partially correct. There are also parts in the first person with the voice of Esteban Trueba. I still don’t like him much. But the reasons for disliking him are a bit more concrete now. More on that later.
Allende’s prose is so similar in this book to her more recent novels; her voice has not changed, though her subject matter has become more varied. Wikipedia says that this novel is likely a roman a clef (nonfiction with a filigree of fiction, for those of us who haven’t taken an English class in a while). It seems to me that writers often choose their initial subject matter from familiar things and then branch out. Allende is a great example of this. These days her fiction has many and varied subjects, and since I’ve read all of her adult novels, I’ve watched her grow away from the familiar and into different places, times, and situations. Her characters always have a close affiliation with magic, but as time goes by they are less and less grounded in what I imagine to be her past. It’s actually been a joy for me as a reader to watch this happen. Her writing is less polished in this book than it is in her newer ones. It seems like once every few pages she makes a foreshadowing comment. It’s almost too much to keep track of! I know that she still does this, because it struck me as “typically Allende” when I started reading, but I don’t imagine it is as frequent now.
Last night I read a passage at the end of chapter four in which Esteban and Clara have an argument about the nature of the poor, and whether or not the wealthy should help them. It sounded to me like a liberal and a conservative arguing today. Possibly I have had a similar argument with one of my coworkers. I’ll leave it to your imagination which voice I was. Anyway, the point of mentioning this was that Allende has captured what seems to be a timeless argument. HotS was published in 1982, 30 years ago. It takes place in Chile, in the mid-twentieth century. And I can hazard a guess that in another 30 years liberals and conservatives will still be arguing about the same damn things. Perhaps this is why nothing ever changes? Because people are basically either Clara or Esteban, and no one will give a little to get a little (or maybe even a lot). I suppose we should all be pleased with ourselves for being so firm in our principles. Or should we be horrified at our stubbornness?
Back to the book….