So the moral of the story is that concentration camps are really great places, where lives regain their meaning and community flourishes.
OK, just kidding, although the final chapter of this novel does feature what has got to be the most uplifting concentration camp scene in all of literature.
This is a rich, gratifying, puzzling, frustrating, and rewarding novel. I know that I didn’t finish it back in high school, and I’m not sure how far I made it. To be honest, everything after Alba’s birth felt new to me this time around. With a few exceptions, the magic realism that I devoted so much blog space to in my earlier entries started to seem less and less relevant as the novel progressed – maybe because one of the purposes of the magic realism is to establish the texture of the novel’s world as a place that is mysterious and inexplicable – and therefore it becomes less necessary after that texture is firmly established – or maybe because the last hundred pages of so of the novel take place very much in Esteban’s mental space, which is ordered and oriented around temporal power, not around mystery.
I find it very hard to write an actual review of this novel – what I want to do instead is write an analytical essay. Or maybe several analytical essays. One of them would definitely be about Eden imagery, which is everywhere in this novel and becomes even more interesting when placed side by side with “the Christopher Columbus,” a local whorehouse-turned-hotel whose name suggests the divide between the pre-Columbian Latin America alluded to in much of the novel’s magic and the post-colonial politics, commerce, and violence that characterizes the modern Latin America in which the characters live. And it would also be fun to compareThe House of the Spiritsto other realistic novels or nonfiction accounts of Marxist revolutions or to write about the complex ways that the Trueba and Garcia families are plaited together over three generations via rape, sexual love, violence, anger, loyalty, physical disfigurement, and connection to the physical land of Tres Marias, serving as a microcosm for a larger world in which the wealthy and the poor are always yoked together. And then there’s all the animal imagery – these people are constantly characterized in terms of animals, especially at moments of birth, sexual consummation, and death, and this characterization all echoes the death of the mermaid-like (or actual mermaid?) Rosa and her gruesome-yet-reverent evisceration on the kitchen table.
And of course there would need to be an essay about that darned Barrabas.
But I am not going to write an essay, because we don’t write essays here on Postcards from Purgatory. We write reviews – and the AP challenge is mostly about reflecting on the impact of certain works of literature in our lives at the age of eighteen and again now, eighteen years later. As a teenager, I thought this book was a really dumb choice for a high school literature class. At 36, after ten years of teaching English, I don’t think it was a bad choice at all. I can’t say that this is a work of literature that I love, but I would absolutely relish the chance to discuss it with a group of smart, motivated students like the kind typically found in A.P. English classes. But here’s the thing: unless my memory is really badly failing me, I don’t think we ever discussed it in that way. I don’t remember puzzling through how we reacted to the magic realism and why Allende might have chosen to use it or why Latin American writers so often seem drawn to this technique. I worshiped my A.P. English teacher. But as I reread this book and look back and think about it, I can’t remember him teaching me anything that helped me to make sense of its wonderfully rich – and, to me at eighteen, bewilderingly foreign – landscape. And that bothers the hell out of me. I have a feeling that this A.P. challenge is helping me recognize a very strange and sad irony. I became an English teacher for many reasons, but a desire to be like Fr. Murphy played a large part in my choice of careers. Certainly he was the teacher I wanted to emulate the most. I think secretly I always thought I could never be half the teacher he was. And in struggling to become like him, I ended up in a very roundabout fashion discovering that the teacher I wanted to be was someone very different. I feel terribly disloyal admitting this, but I think it’s true.
So back to the more comfortable terrain of the novel. I enjoy this novel as an intellectual exercise. In fact, as an intellectual exercise I would place it right up there with some of my favorites: Song of Solomon, Franny and Zooey, Hamlet. But unlike these three works, The House of the Spirits does not reach me on any level except the intellectual, and for that reason it will never be a favorite of mine. I absolutely do think it has its place in an A.P. English curriculum, though, but if I were to teach it I would build up a chain of texts to look at together, maybe placing it side by side with Beloved, another novel that deals with the supernatural and one in which a woman deprived of political power finds subversive ways to create an independent life for herself – or Wuthering Heights, a novel that deals with dark and overpowering sexual love without relying on magic realism (although there is a ghost in Wuthering Heights, briefly) – or maybe an Invisible Man-Song of Solomon-House of the Spirits triad, building from strict realism to moderate magic realism to the real thing with three novels that are epic in scope, ask large questions about politics and culture, and look in complex ways at power, politics, sex, race, and identity.
It occurs to me that in our A.P. English class we did read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw shortly after The House of the Spirits, maybe even immediately after it. And that short novel has ghosts in it too. It may be that Fr. Murphy was trying to build up a unit sort of like the ones I’m describing above, and I was either too dense or too stubborn or too distracted or too frequently absent to figure it out. I am entirely willing to admit that my own failed receptivity and/or assumption that I already knew it all is more responsible than any fault of my teacher’s for my failure to see these larger connections.
I don’t know. What do you think, Jill?