As I keep reading (and I am, at a good clip, in spite of the fact that I’ve been engrossed in a couple of nonfiction books at the same time), I’m finding that Allende uses very different techniques to characterize her male and female characters. In fact, I am beginning to think that the primary purpose of the sections of the novel that are told in the first person from Esteban Trueba’s point of view is to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that Esteban does not see the world from a magical perspective. He is a man of power, but his power is entirely human and mortal. He sweeps women up onto his horse, gallops off with them, and rapes them. He smashes the telephone when he doesn’t like the news it conveys. He bullies his family, slices three fingers off his daughter’s lover, and uses his money and privilege to gain political power and enable the ongoing oppression of the peasants. He moves through the novel like a tornado. However, all of these forms of power are ephemeral and are reliant on his youth, physical strength, intelligence, and money – all of which he will lose as he ages and dies. It is the female characters in the novel who are characterized with magic realism, and magic realism becomes a complex system of symbolism for forms of power that are not mortal or limited by human flesh. I need to do a lot more thinking, though, to put into words what these forms of power are, exactly.
I’m also seeing a number of probable anachronisms in the small details of this novel, as when Esteban refers to a “modern Victrola” in what otherwise seems to be the 1940’s and when Nicolas thinks he can make a sensation by traveling by hot-air balloon in what otherwise seems to be the 1960’s. I remember similar small anachronisms in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which is a favorite of mine and uses magic realism in smaller, more subtle ways than Allende and other Latin American practitioners of this technique. I am going to assume that these details are not the result of Allende’s cluelessness. They could be placed in the novel to show how geographically isolated and behind-the-times the characters in the novel are. I think it’s more likely, though, that Allende is using these anachronisms for characterization – to make it clear how distant Esteban (and possibly other characters) is from the world around him.
I’m also aware that sometimes I use the term “magic realism” as an umbrella term for what could really be considered simple hyperbole. Esteban is characterized this way, especially with regard to his sexuality: “His horse played nasty tricks on him, suddenly becoming a formidable female, a hard, wild mountain of flesh, on which he rode until his bones ached… When he began to look with concupiscent eyes at the birds in the corral, children playing naked in the orchard, and even at raw bread dough, he understood that his virility would not be soothed by priestly substitutes” (55-6). In this passage, Allende manages with great efficiency to characterize Esteban for his brutality (with the suggestion that he might rape children without stating that he actually does), for the blurring of reality and fantasy in which he lives, and the overpowering influence of his libido in every aspect of his daily life.
Which brings me to my question for Jill. I am engaged in an ongoing discussion with myself about the significance of Barabbas the dog, who is mentioned in the first sentence of the novel and dies in chapter two, but is mentioned often enough after his death to suggest that he has a larger significance in the novel, and one of my theories is that he is a parallel figure to Esteban. One of the qualities that Barabbas and Esteban have in common is their insatiable sexual appetites. When Barabbas is aroused, “he would hurl himself into the street, overcoming every obstacle in his path, and remain at large for two or three days. He always returned with the poor dog hanging off him, suspended in the air, impaled on his immense masculinity. The children had to be whisked out of the way so they would not see the horrendous spectacle of the gardener hosing the dogs down with freezing water until, many gallons and kicks and other indignities later, Barabbas became unstuck from his beloved, leaving her to die in the courtyard of the house” (78).
So Jill, in your professional opinion: Hyperbole or Magic Realism?
Many, many more thoughts to come. I still don’t love the novel, but I love the questions it raises.