Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The sum of our days – autobiography of Isabel Allende

After having enjoyed Isabel Allende´s first autobiography ¨My invented country¨ in which she tells the story of her life in Chile, I was keen to read the ¨ The sum of our days¨ which covers her second life in USA, with her second husband.

Isable has narrated her real life like a fascinating fiction. The autobiography reads like a novel. She entertains and amuses the reader making fun of her life, her beliefs and idiosyncracies. She bares her soul and shares her thoughts on love, marriage and family. She pokes fun at her practice of going to astrologers to know about future. She is a member of the ¨Sisters of Disorder¨, who get together and pray for solutions to the problems of others. Her family members and friends are as colourful as the characters in her novels. Their eccentricities and eclectism are fodder for Isabel´s story telling. There are events and experience which make the readers laugh, cry and reflect.

Some of the events in her life are shocking. For example Celia , her daughter -in -law discovers she is a lesbian and moves away with Sally, the girlfriend of the son of her husband from previous marriage. Both Celia and Sally had lived in the same house of Isabel and Sally was in fact working as secretary to Isabel. Celia leaves her three children to be taken care of by Nico, the son of Isabel, who cannot get over the shock. But Isabel not only continues her friendship with Celia but she even takes the side of Celia and supports her to the annoyance of her son. Before this conversion, Celia was a gay-baiter with very strong views and prejudices. Afterwards, Celia not only practises lesbianism but actively preaches the advantages of gay love. She advocates that everyone should try it and says that it is much better than being heterosexual.

Isabel talks candidly about how desperately she was looking for a second husband afer her arrival in US. She found Willie, who had a dysfunctional family, and was the right fit for her. Still, the relationship goes through ups and downs, with the Chilean way of life and the American approach colliding inevitably. The couple have to go for therapies to save the marriage. But Isabel is content with her choice of husband and in any case it is too late in life for her to think of another one. Willie, who is a compassionate lawyer later becomes a writer and gets his books published. Isabel ends the book reaffirming her love for Willie, saying ¨the sum of our lives, our shared pains and joys, was now our destiny¨.

Willie has built a new house on a hill in San Francisco in the Chilean style and named it as ¨House of Spirits¨, the same name as her first novel which made her famous. Sure, the furniture moves at night and there are odd sounds confirming the spirits in the air ! Isabel describes the house as her Taj Mahal.

Willie´s daugter Jennifer becomes a drug addict and is abused by other drug addicts. Eventually she disappears from the hospital after giving birth to a child. She is believed to have died. Willie is devastated by this tragedy. Isabel takes on the responsibility of taking care of the child. Later, the child is adopted by a lesbian couple.

While Isabel is quick to come to the rescue of the victims of tragedies around her, she is unable to overcome the loss of her daughter Paula, who died suddenly of a disease, after her marriage. Isabel has written a separate book ¨Paula¨. The pain felt by the loss of her daughter is a recurring theme throughout the book and her life, of course.

Isabel implants in California her Chilean system of family by bringing in relatives to live with her. She calls them as her tribe. She goes out of her way to help them and at the same time freely interferes in the lives of the members of her tribe , like a typical Chilean matriarch. It is interesting that her mother who lives in Chile is her soulmate. She is in constant correspondence with Isabel, giving news of Chile and advising her even on the family issues of San Francisco.

The cosmoplitan and avante- garde San Franciso is perfect setting for Isabel´s life and the incredible adventures and misadventures of her extended family. Isabel gives a glimpse of the life in the city through the experience of her friends. She describes the Bohemian lifestyle and love affairs of Tabra, which are equally interesting. Tabra, who makes a living by making and selling artificial jewellery finds USA as an unsuitable place for her convictions and ideals and eventually moves away to Bali. She tries countless blind dates and courts disasters and disapoointment. She receives applications from young studs seeking to be kept by mature and moneyed women. Her Mexican boyfriend, whom Isabel describes as ¨Plumed Lizard¨pursues restoration of the throne of Montezuma, the last Aztec king.

The only disappointment for me as an Indian is Isabel´s superficial and silly dismissal of India in a couple of pages. Even before her travel , she says she would not be able to bear the legendary poverty of India. Her daughter Paula had visited India and told Isabel that India was the richest source of inspiration for a writer. But what Isabel experienced in India was just perspiration and saw it purely from a materialistic point of view and not at all as a writer. She enjoys, of course, shopping in Delhi and stay in a palace hotel in Jaipur. She tells a horrible story of how an Indian woman tried to give away her female baby to her, because female child is unwanted in India. This is not ony bullshit but it should be a plain lie and dishonesty of Isabel to concoct this story. No Indian woman will ever give away her baby to a foreigner passing by, as she has described. Isabel's India visit is cut short by the midnight telefone call from her daughter in law announcing her bisexuality. Thus,India falls in a few paras between the lie of an Indian woman trying to leave her child with Isabel and the truth of the bisexuality of her daughter in law.

Isabel Allende is not the first Chilean writer to look down on India. Pablo Neruda, in his autobiography, has also dismissed India in a few prejudiced Naipulistic words, after having visited India twice. It is a pity that both of them have been so materialistic and arrogant when it comes to India and blind to the culture and spirit of India. During the visit of Chilean President Lagos to India in 2005, I quoted a poem of Pablo Neruda in the draft banquet speech by Indian President. But Mr Natwar Singh , who was External Affairs Minister at that time cut out the quotation. He disliked Neruda, whom he had met and found his uncharitable view of India. Never mind ..... This should not diminish the greatness of the two Chilean writers, whose books I have enjoyed. I bought many books of these two authors in Bangalore and Chennai.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Victoria Ocampo – Argentine writer and feminist

¨Victoria Ocampo – writer, feminist and woman of the world¨ is the book I have just finished reading. It is a 170 -page summary of the autobiography ( which runs into six volumes ) of Victoria, written and annotated in English by the American translator Patricia Owen Steiner.

Victoria wanted to be a writer in her youth. She sent her first writing to two authors for their comments. Both of them threw cold water and discouraged her. She found herself constrained by the censorship on her reading and writing imposed by the family and the society in the beginning of the twentieth century. Victoria was ahead of her times in the patriarchal society of Argentina. She rebelled against the restrictions and later flourished on her own when she got independence from her parents and husband. She became a writer and a patron of letters. Besides contributing to Argentine literature, She went beyond her country and built bridges with the cultural and literary world of Latin America, Europe, US and India. She became the first woman to be admitted to the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1977. This was a special satisfaction to this Queen of Letters, who had suffered discouragement from writing when she was a young woman.

Victoria founded, funded, published and edited a literary magazine ¨Sur¨ which had poems, stories, essays and social commentary of authors from around the world. Sur was the foremost literary and cultural journal of Latin America in the twentieth century. It gave voice to the Argentine and Latin American writers and exposed them to the outside world. It was also her revenge on men who stifled her writing aspiration in the early part of her life. She got the men to write for her magazine. It lasted for an impressive forty years from 1931.

Victoria established a publishing house ¨Sur¨, which published the works of eminent writers like Lorca, Borges, Bioy Casares, Sabato, Onetti, Octavio paz, Cortazar and Vargas Llosa. Sur also brought out spanish translations of North American and European writers. Victoria herself undertook translations of some books. She was more fluent in French than Spanish and she was proficient in English too.

Victoria became a grand patron of literature and culture in Argentina and even outside. She financed the trips of some European writers and artists to Argentina. She hosted the visits of foreign writers and organised literary gatherings. Her friends included Borges, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Virginia Woolf.

Victoria wrote ten volumes of essays, several books of non-fiction, short stories and literary criticism. Her lengthy six-volume autobiography is useful to understand the Argentina of her times. She is candid and provocative in her commentaries.

She was a victim of the discrimination against women , as was the norm in the early part of the twentieth century. She rebelled against the oppressions of her family, the church and the society and became a feminist leader. She quit her unhappy marriage early on and lived independently for the rest of her life. She had many lovers, affairs and friends. She travelled around the world and moved in the artistic, literary and social circles of Europe especially in France.

Victoria was an iconoclast in a patriarchal society, a woman, who chose not to follow the easy path offered by her wealthy family. She used her money, charm and brain to do something extraordinary with her life from 1890 to 1979.

As happened to many other Argentine writers she also became a victim of politics. She was imprisoned for three weeks by the government of Peron for her criticism of his regime. Her passport was confiscated for two years untill the overthrow of Peron.

Two Indians had been inspiration to her; Gandhi and Tagore. Victoria was impressed by the idea of non-violence, spiritual energy and moral courage of Gandhi, who succeeded in translating his conviction into action. Gandhi became one of the most important influences on her thinking. She was moved after reading Gandhi´s biography in 1924 and her meeting with him in Paris in 1931. This is what she wrote after hearing Gandhi’s speech in Paris.
¨Gandhi spoke with extreme simplicity, without eloquence or tricks of an orator. His physical appearance seemed scarcely suited to impress anyone and especially a Parisian audience. But his spiritual energy dominated and galvanized the audience¨.
She wrote an essay on Gandhi in La Nacion newspaper in 1924 and later wrote a number of articles on him.

Victoria read Gitanjali in 1914 and said ¨it fell like a celestial dew on my anguishing twenty four year old heart¨. She described Tagore´s poetry as ¨magical mysticism¨. She felt powerful echoes in Tagore´s personal loving God, radiating happiness and serenity, unlike the demanding and vengeful God imposed on her in childhood. She was very excited when Tagore came to Buenos Aires in 1924. In her own words, it was one of the great events of her life. She wrote an article in La Nacion, welcoming Tagore. She hosted him for two months in Buenos Aires. There is talk of a platonic love between the sixty three year - old Tagore and the thirty four year- old Victoria. More on this in my earlier blog story http://latinamericanaffairs.blogspot.com/search?q=tagore

Tagore was rejuvenated by the beautiful Victoria on the flower-filled garden of the mansion overlooking the scenic bank of the immense Plata river. She was the muse of his Purabi poems in which she called her as Vijaya and dedicated the poems to her.

Victoria had a spiritual awakening from the encounter with Tagore. She was overawed by his intellect and serenity and she felt like a child before him. She listened to him mostly and did not dare to express herself as she would have liked to do.

The Tagore- Victoria encounter opened an intellectual, literary, cultural and spiritual bridge between India and Argentina. Since then, there has been a strong Argentine tradition of spiritual and cultural interest in India.

Nehru was one of the world leaders who appealed to the Argentine government to release her from jail.

Indira Gandhi was special for Victoria. She was the successful example of emancipation and fulfillment of the dreams of Victoria for women. Victoria received a honorary doctorate from Vishwabharathi University and this was personally handed over to her by Mrs Gandhi during her trip to Buenos Aires in 1968.

Ever since reading Gandhi´s biography in 1924, Victoria had a continuing interest in India. As a feminist she admired the participation of Indian women in the independence struggle under the leadership of Gandhi.

This short summary of the autobiography of Victoria and reproduction of some of her essays gives a glimpse of the cultural history of Argentina. Particia, the author of this book has been ¨reading, translating and thinking about Ocampo¨for almost twenty years. Patricia has interpreted the autobiography of Ocampo in an objective and balanced manner.
After reading this book, I am now inspired to read more about Ocampo. I have already started reading ¨In your blossoming flower garden¨ by Ketari Kushari Dyson.

The Tagore- Victoria story is fantastic material for a film. I am glad I have been able to interest Pablo Cesar, the Argentine director on this. I liked his preliminary script and the title ¨Thinking of Him¨, he has chosen for the film.