I don’t feel like it’s been nearly long enough since I graduated from high school for babies to become voting-age high school graduates, but I’m learning that time is a funny thing, and never seems to slow down. In fact, it just goes ever faster. As I look back on the past two weeks I’ve spent rereading The House of the Spirits, I find myself thinking back to the person I was when I was 16 and reading this for the first time. So much about me is the same, but probably not as much as I’d like to think. One important thing has not changed: I still do love this book, though for different reasons, maybe, than I did then.
I wonder if part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much the first time around and Bethany didn’t had something to do with my foreign language choice: I took Spanish at SI for four years, and when we read The House of the Spirits I was just starting Spanish 4AP. I was as afraid of that class as I was of AP English, but maybe more so, what with it being in a foreign language. But I was fascinated with the language and the culture that Allende came from; it just seemed so much richer than English and American culture. In fact, I think of my AP Spanish teacher, Ms. Ackerman, often when I read Allende, even today. She was from Peru, and Allende was born in Peru. I imagine that they were friends, even though that is far from likely.
I remember the first time around I began to lose interest after Clara died, when the time of the spirits came to an end in the big house on the corner. And this happened again, though to a lesser degree. Clara was, by far, my favorite character in 1993, with Blanca a close second. Now, I still enjoyed Clara for her ability to walk both in and out of our world, but wish she had been a bit more present in the, well, the present. I know that the point of her was that she was never really fully invested in her life, and just floated along for the most part, but her characterization is too vague for me. Allende could do better now. An annoying thing is that I kept picturing Meryl Streep as Clara, because she played her in the horrible movie version from 1994. I found this irritating, because Clara is not, in my mind, supposed to look like Meryl Streep. But there she was, floating through my imagination in a white filmy dress. Don’t get me wrong, I love Meryl Streep. But her talents were wasted as Clara. Now, who would play a good Clara? Umm… Nicole Kidman? Gwyneth Paltrow? I don’t know. But this is beside the point.
This time around, I was much more interested in the facts of Chilean history immersed in the fiction of the story of the Truebas. I read several Wikipedia pages about Salvador Allende, the deposed socialist president, and about the coup. There’s still a controversy over Allende’s death—was he killed by the junta or did he commit suicide? And when exactly does the story start? The passage of time is a bit difficult to keep track of in general, and I’m sure this was purposeful on Allende’s part. It did not stand out as an annoyance in ’93, but it certainly drove me crazy in ’12.
One plot point on which my opinion definitely changed this time around was the relationship between Blanca and Pedro Tercero García. I was very invested in their relationship when I was sixteen, having a typical teenage girl’s fascination with love and romance and all that nonsense. Now, as a happily married adult, who has been in a committed relationship with her husband for almost 13 years, I see that love and romance simply do not need to be that difficult. That’s not to say that husband and I have had a perfect relationship, but the big stuff, if you really love each other, should be easy. Reading the sections about Blanca, I wanted to grab her and shake her and say, “Just leave with him, you idiot! What is keeping you with your family and away from the man you love?” Ultimately they were together, and I was happy for them, but the star-crossed lovers situation just didn’t do it for me this time around.
Esteban still bothered me, of that there is no question, and I completely disagree with his politics, but I felt an extreme sorrow for him by the end of the book. He had so much faith in the government and the military, and that faith is taken advantage of. His intention was never to finance the formation of a military dictatorship. He just didn’t want the Communists to take over. The betrayal by the people he perceives to be his equals destroys his soul more than the earthquake at Tres Marías destroys his body. I did not see the importance of his relationship with granddaughter Alba before. I took intergenerational relationships less seriously back then, I think. Now, as an adult with no relatives older than my parents’ generation, I appreciate the idea of an adult relationship with a grandparent, and regret so much that I didn’t cherish my grandparents when I had them. Alba is the only person Esteban loves completely and without reservation, without wanting to change some fundamental part of her. And she loves him, too, despite their warring viewpoints about just about everything. Their relationship was the crux of the story. I didn’t see it before, but I do now. If it weren’t for Alba, Esteban would have died alone, crumpled and broken. And I think when I was sixteen I would have preferred that for him. I couldn’t get past all the horrible things Esteban did as a young man (so, so many horrible things) and realize that he paid dearly for them. His relationship with Alba is his redemption.
Alba’s relationship with Miguel is a bit frustrating for me, much like that of her parents, but they really can’t be together because Miguel is off being a guerilla, and that’s no place for Alba to be, because she lacks training. She does her part for the resistance back in the Capital, and waits for the time when she and Miguel can be together. And I have no doubt that when he comes for her she’ll go with him.
I mentioned at some point that I did not even remember Clara having twin sons, even though they were “born under the watchful eye of their decapitated grandmother.” This time around, I found Jaime to be a most memorable character, and Amanda, the girl both Nicolás and Jaime loved, to be one of the most tragic characters I’ve ever read about. Amanda raises her much younger brother Miguel (yes, Alba’s Miguel) like her son. Nicolás and Amanda have a tempestuous relationship which ends badly, and Jaime does not see Amanda for many years, until Alba mentions that Miguel’s sister is very ill. He goes to see her, not knowing who Miguel’s sister once was to him. When they find each other again, “to have recognized Amanda, he must have loved her a great deal. She looked older than she could possibly have been, and she was very thin, just skin and bones, with a wan, yellow complexion and neglected, nicotine stained hands. Her eyes were red and bloated, without luster, and her pupils were dilated, which gave her a frightened, helpless look (337).” She is addicted to undetermined drugs, and once again Jaime saves her. After this, they are together, but not for the right reasons, Amanda out of gratitude and Jaime out of pity. They love each other, but the passion they could have shared twenty years prior has left them both. And that’s the greatest tragedy of all.
The House of the Spirits will always hold a special place in my heart, for all the same reasons as before this rereading. But also for a few more: the layers of Esteban Trueba, his growth, his loss, his love of his granddaughter; the beauty and tragedy of love; the trip into Chilean history; and of course, Barrabás the dog, who “came to us by sea….” In the world of The House of the Spirits, there is no beginning and no ending, and all of existence is a circle; you can get from one point to another just by walking across the middle.