Thursday, May 25, 1995

Paula, by Isabel Allende

A review of Paula, by Isabel Allende
Published May 25th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Letters to Paula
Isabel Allende Devotes New Autobiography to Daughter

By Isabel Allende
Harper Collins, $24

On January 8th, 1981, Isabel Allende began writing a goodbye letter to her dying grandfather, a letter that eventually became her first novel, The House of the Spirits. Exactly eleven years and four books later, faced with her daughter Paula’s crushing bout with porphyria, Allende began another, very different letter. It began, "Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost."

Written in a Madrid hospital room and, later, from Allende’s home in northern California, Paula was originally intended as a reminder to her daughter of who she was and how she fit into the world. Paula’s condition deteriorated, though, and the letter started to take on a different identity as Allende slowly realized that her daughter would never read it.

What resulted was a memoir of astonishing power and grace. Allende’s first book-length work of nonfiction, Paula is both a personal history and an examination of mortality, her own as well as her daughter’s. Like her fiction, Allende’s life is peopled by ghosts, mad dictators, revolutionaries, and mysterious relatives, and this book is her attempt to reconcile with the demons as well as with the benevolent spirits of her past.

Born to Chilean diplomats, Isabel Allende’s history is as tempestuous and bizarre as that of her native country. She writes that Chile is a land of immense catastrophes, both political and natural, and that the supernatural takes an active role in daily life. Allende’s childhood was filled with hyperbolic oddities, such as a clairvoyant grandmother and a stern, unforgiving grandfather who was addicted to soap operas and professional wrestling. These unforgettable family members later resurfaced in her novels, as would a myriad of disappearing fathers, exploding uncles, and murdered dogs.

Even the everyday, supposedly ordinary events of Allende’s childhood were extraordinary by any normal standard. For instance, she was made to go to a gymnasium after school where she was hung by her neck by an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys in an ongoing attempt to make her taller. She writes that it didn’t work, that it just made her neck longer.

True to Allende’s style, her first two attempts at love, at the age of eight and again at fifteen, were thwarted respectively by murder and the possibility of incest. When she did eventually get married, to a conservative businessman, she discovered in herself the need to rebel against patriarchal Chile in general and against her own future in particular. She found work as a journalist, playwright, and talk-show host, and spent the next few years amusing, enlightening, and enraging polite Chilean society, gaining many supporters along the way, including the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Then in 1970, Chile elected Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende, to the presidency. This was an amazing event, because Allende was the world’s first democratically elected president. For most, though, including Isabel Allende, life went on as before.

While Allende was making gains for the women’s movement in Chile, there was another movement that she, like so many other Chileans, was unaware of. This apathy made the events of September 1973 especially shocking: The U.S.-supported military toppled the democracy and murdered Salvador Allende. Isabel Allende personally witnessed the bombing of the presidential palace, which was a turning point for her and her nation. At this critical point, all Chileans had to make a decision: either comply silently or risk their lives helping refugees find asylum. Allende opted for the latter and was eventually forced to flee the country to save her own life.

With Paula, Allende has reached another critical point, and she deals with it the only way she knows how—through her writing. She says that writing saved her life in the 1980s, and now she draws once again on the spirits of the past to help her make sense of the present.

Although Allende in universally acclaimed as a master novelist, this work of nonfiction may be her masterpiece. Its structure, balance, honesty, and humor work perfectly to guarantee Paula a place among the best literary and historical memoirs. Paula is a great introduction for those new to Allende’s work and is a watershed for her veteran readers.

—David Wiley

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