William Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead; in fact, it is not even past,” and I think it’s hard to even begin to appreciate magic realism without considering this idea. Magic realism seems to emerge from cultures rich with oral tradition – cultures that, by necessity, possess long memories. Rereading The House of the Spirits, I was immediately struck by the circularity of the sentences, which reminded me of the circularity of sentences in other magic realist novels. For example, compare the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude – “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” – with the second sentence of The House of the Spirits: “She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own.” Both sentences make nonchalant statements about vast stretches of time (“vast” at least in the context of a human life, not in the sense of historical or geological time) and make equally blasé statements about moments within a human life (“when he faced the firing squad”; “when she was mute”) that should seem to inspire the reader to heights of terror and sympathy. In these sentences, we are not told what to feel, although both authors do use these early sentences to build suspense. In a magic realist novel, everything happens at once – and by “everything” I mean both the events that make up the plot and the human thoughts and emotions that give them texture. Open the novel to any given page, and we could be in the mind of any character and in any decade of the twentieth century. These are novels in which time is cyclical, not linear.
There is no way that I had the patience to deal with this novel when I was in high school. In high school I rarely slowed down – from eating breakfast at six a.m. while watching reruns of Happy Days (don’t tell the cool kids) to stopping for my morning coffee (black – I didn’t start adding cream until college) to bouncing from class to class at a school whose student handbook proclaimed THERE ARE NO FREE PERIODS AT ST. IGNATIUS to after-school activities to one of a series of babysitting jobs that kept me busy almost every afternoon and evening, plus most weekends. I did my reading for A.P. English on other people’s couches late at night waiting for the parents I was babysitting for to come home from dinner or the movies, or in the front seat of my 1974 Dodge Dart while parked outside a YMCA waiting for a seven year-old charge to finish his swimming lessons, or in my own home between the hours of midnight and six a.m. after taking a one-hour power nap and dosing myself with a disgusting homemade concoction made of a variety of caffeine products. I actually loved to read and looked forward to my English assignments, but my mind was in no condition to be expanded or stretched by literature; it was expanded and stretched almost to its limit by the routines of eighteen year-old life. I wanted my literature in prepackaged doses that fit into the templates that had been familiar for years: the coming-of-age novel, the tragedy, the straightforward narrative in which a steadfast hero challenges injustice.
I think I do have the patience for this novel now, but just barely. I have trouble caring for the characters in any form of literature that is not fundamentally realistic. That doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy some fantasy or science fiction novels, but these books have to be populated with characters who do believable things for believable reasons, and so far I’m not sure this novel is going to pass this test. For all of Allende’s rich, textured writing, she seems to remain too close to the surface of her characters. The “strangeness” of a character like Rosa seems to substitute for a sense of her internal reality, and I don’t like that. Green hair is no substitute for a soul.
A variety of themes are certainly emerging by the end of chapter 1: religious vs. secular authority, politics and economics, intergenerational relationships in families, relationships between the genders, and, of course – the old magic realist standby – the idea that romantic love makes people do really, really wacky things.
I also get the sense that Allende is looking to demystify death, to create an intimacy between the living and the dead in which there is room for grief but not for terror. I get that. But did they have to perform the autopsy on the kitchen table? And did they have to use the salad platter to hold Rosa’s intestines? Because that’s just gross. My eighteen year-old self – still very much alive inside me, by the way – wants to slam the book shut and mutter I don’t have time for this. But she’s not calling the shots this time – not yet, anyway.