Saturday, November 29, 2008

My invented country - a memoir of Isabel Allende

This is an autobiography of the Chilean author Isabel Allende. She has given a fascinating account of the people, her family and incidents which influenced her with themes and materials for her novels. Her imagination was incited and enriched by the eccentricities and idiosynchrosies of members of her extended family, based on which she had created many characters in her novels. It starts off with her father when she was four years old. He left the house one day saying he was going to buy cigarettes and never came back. But he had gone for good deserting his family forever. This he did during his posting at the Chilean embassy in Lima, leaving the family stranded in a foreign country. He went off on a wild spree disguised as a native Indian woman wearing bright petticoats and a wig with long braids. hmmm... Thereafter Isabel was brought up in the house of her patriarchal grandfather, where she grew up as a rebellious feminist in a conservative family.

Isabel has focussed more on Chile than on her personal life. She calls it as an invented country because she had lived most of her life outside Chile. As a child she had lived abroad with her diplomat stepfather and in 1975 she went into exile following the repression of Pinochet´s military dictatorship. She went first to venezuela where she lived for ten years and then emigrated to USA where she married a Gringo and is living as a happy immigrant in the melting pot of California.

Chile has been living in her imagination more than she had lived physically there. Melancholy and nostalgia flow throughout the book. She looks back at her country more emotionally and intensely to compensate for her forced separation. It became even more acute since Isabel started writing novels only after her exile. This had happened to a number of Latin American writers who were exiled from their countries in the recent history of the region especially from the forties to the seventies. Latino literature has been impacted by this culture of exile and crisis of identity.

Isabel explains the somewhat insular character of Chileans, protected by the Andean mountain range in the east, Atacama desert in the north, Pacific Ocean in the west and Antartica in the south. Of course, today Chileans are more outgoing than the other Latin Americans in engaging the world and opening new markets for their exports.

She has used humour, wit and sarcasm to sharpen and spice up her commentaries on the Chilean society. This part of her writing is a discovery for me. I did not realise her sense of humour until I read this book and saw a video of one of her recent speeches. I have read her novels in which she has always written seriously. But in this book she is hilarious in making fun of the Chileans who are stereotyped as conservative and orderly, dull and boring people, much different from the colorful Latinos in the rest of the region. She says she found it difficult to understand and vibe with the exuberant and tropical Venezuelans, where she lived for ten years. The loud Venezuelans always beat her in ordering café ahead of her in the queue. Even in USA, she says she fails to understand the humour of her American husband who also does not understand the funny side of Chilean character.

She is more explicit in her comments on the sexual side of the Chilean society, which should be shocking to Chileans, who are said to be prudish and puritanical. She says Chilean women are like guerillas when it comes to love and they fall in love with considerable frequency. She quotes a statistic according to which 58 percent of married women are unfaithful. She tells a historic incident of the catholic church sending a priest to Chile, during the time of Inquisition, to confirm the rumour of Chilean women indulging in the sin of oral sex with men. So how did the Chilean women tackle this. They cornered the priest in an alley and castrated him. oops...We don’t know if this was a fact, fiction or magical realism. These are somewhat indistinguishable in Latin America.
She has commented on the Chilean bureaucracy, obsession with notary public, legalization of documents and stamping of papers over and over again. Her comments are somewhat outdated since Chileans have progressed now as the least bureaucratic among the Latin Americans. When I was in Venezuela our embassy went to the Customs department for clearance of the goods which had come for an exihibition. They wanted a copy of the gazette notification of the establishment of the embassy in 1950. I thought they were joking. They refused to clear unless we produced it and we had to get one from the archives of the National Library. The Latin American bureaucrats will not believe that you are alive even if you stand in front of them. You need to produce a certificate that you are alive and it should be legalised and attested by a notary public !!!

Isabel has not commented much on the Chilean politics except for a brief account of Salvador Allende, related to her. She praises his ideals and efforts to uplift the downtrodden. But she admits that he had made mistakes which gave the opening and excuse for the oligarchs to put the military in power. Allende was overthrown in a violent coup. The Chilean airforce bombed the presidential palace on 11 september 1973, which became the 9/11 in the history of Chile.

This is a useful read for anyone who wants to understand the Chileans who stand out different from the rest of the samba-salsa Latin Americans. I liked this memoire as much as the novels of Isabel Allende.