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Luminous and Spellbinding
on September 19, 2000
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's luminous saga of the Trueba family, as seen through the eyes of the women, is more than a wonderful book; it is an ode to the courageous, compassionate and forgiving spirits that all people are capable of becoming. Even after witnessing the horrors of Chilean military oppression, Allende dared to write a novel that denies a basic pessimistic view of humans and instead reveals mankind's capacity to endure suffering and self-transformation for the sake of life, love and justice.
In The House of the Spirits, Allende shows us that the cruelest outbursts of evil and violence of which man is capable are committed during civil war: genocides, mass murders, concentration camps. Man is definitely mankind's greatest enemy. It is truly horrifying to think that the sufferings of Jaime Trueba could be supported by authentic testimony: "They tied their hands and feet with barbed wire and threw them on their faces in the stalls. There Jaime and the others spent two days without food or water, rotting in their own excrement, blood and fear, until they were all driven by truck to an area near the airport. In an empty lot they were shot on the ground because they could no longer stand, and then their bodies were dynamited."
Jaime is just one among many characters who suffers horribly under the military oppression portrayed in The House of the Spirits. Yet, Allende courageously dares to offer hope that reconciliation is possible and that people are capable of much more noble actions and emotions.
In this book, Allende seems to be telling us that evil is not a simple thing and that violent behavior is a complex act. She also portrays every act as having a cause, whether known or unknown. Alba, one of the main characters, is able to understand why Colonel Garcia, hating her so strongly, sets out to destroy, slowly and painfully, both her life and her spirit. Ironically, Alba is Colonel Garcia's own cousin, through both her grandfather and her father.
A luminous character, Alba, through an understanding of not only her own position in time and place, but also through an understanding of her greatest enemy and torturer, reconciles herself with life and chooses to forgive and "break that terrible chain" of hatred. Instead of hating, this extraordinary woman focuses her life and her love on the one man in her life, the guerilla leader Miguel, and her unborn daughter.
Allende's novel captures Alba's spirit of reconciliation in her name, which means, in Spanish, "dawn." Alba is, indeed, the embodiment of hope as she proves that people are not bound to be evil. Alba, herself, even suggests that that her enemy's hatred had a definite cause and that she, or anyone else, could prevent further malicious acts and emotions when she says, "And now I seek my hatred and cannot seem to find it. I feel its flame going out as I come to understand the existence of Colonel Garcia and the others like him...It would be very difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain."
Allende has told us that she writes to bring about necessary changes in Latin America of which the most important are "real revolutions of spirit, of values, of life." She says that the attitudes and beliefs of people's minds can shape the destiny of multitudes that so far have been living in only pessimism and despair. No one was born good or bad, says this book, and reality is what people believe it to be.
This absence of a judgemental tone may be partially explained by the fact that the military is an integral part of the people. Soldiers came from the families whose members were persecuted by these very same men. The characters of Esteban Trueba and his son, Jaime depict the sharp contrast between good and evil.
This is a book that will haunt you with its swirling romanticism, its superbly crafted interweaving of close family observation and political raison d'etre. Allende is a writer so graceful and elegant that she manages to break our hearts and fill us with joy at the same time.
Even after witnessing the horror that people are capable of committing, Allende refuses to despair. By exploring the causes of both the evil and loving actions of the characters in The House of the Spirits, Allende reveals the immense power for change that lies in our own spirits as long as we believe that we can make our world and ourselves a better place.