by Ted Gioia

On January 8, 1981, while living in exile in
Venezuela, Isabel Allende received a phone call
telling her that her grandfather was dying. She
began writing a letter to him, which gradually
morphed into a fictionalized account of the
tumultuous recent history
of her native country Chile.  

"In 1981, in Caracas, I put a
sheet of paper in my type-
writer and wrote the first
sentence of
The House of
the Spirits
," Allende later
recalled.  "At that moment
I didn't know for whom I
was doing it, or from whom.
In fact, I assumed that no
one would ever read it except
my mother, who reads everything I write. I was not

even conscious that I was writing a novel." Her
efforts to publish the book in Latin America met
with rejection, but after The House of the Spirits
was released in Spain in 1982, it became a global
bestseller and a critical success.

Allende's family had been at the focal point of

the conflicts that polarized Chile—and the global
community—during the preceding decade. Salvador
Allende, often described by the author as her "uncle"

but actually her first cousin once removed, had won
the 1970 election to become Chile’s President. With
36% of the vote, Allende narrowly defeated former
President Jorge Allesandri (who received 35% of the
ballots) in a fiercely contested three-way race—thus
becoming the first Marxist to win a democratic

election for head of state in South America.  Three
years later, his administration was removed by a
CIA-supported coup, which ushered in a 17-year
period of military control.

This interlude in Chilean history has been seized

by many who aim to draw larger lessons—about
everything from the scope of US imperialism to

the efficacy of Chicago-school economics. Both
Left and Right engaged in ideological warfare to
appropriate and interpret this story, although the

heat of the debate has been softened somewhat
by subsequent events—notably the end of the
Cold War and the return of democracy to Chile.
Even so, the passion of Allende's fictionalized
account has lost none of its intensity, and her novel
stands out as one of the most frequently read works

of Latin American fiction during the last half of
the twentieth century.  

In Allende’s novel, the country that provides the

setting for the conflict is not mentioned by name.
The character based on Salvador Allende is referred
to simply as the "Candidate" and, later, as the
"President."  Pablo Neruda appears under the

guise of "the Poet," and other characters represent
various real world personages, while much of the
unfolding political drama follows closely the

actual historical events of the era.

Yet Allende attempts a far bolder transformation

here than the usual masquerade of the roman à clef.
She borrows the fanciful trappings of magical
realism to impart a mythical and mystical tone to
her narrative.   Only a short while before this
book appeared, an author of Allende's ideological
persuasions dealing with a historical novel of this

scope would probably have relied on the tenets of
socialist realism.  "Only the love of life gives the

artist his unreserved truthfulness towards everything
that he perceives and reproduces," Marxist literary
critic Georg Lukács had declared back in the 1930s,
advocating a scrupulous realism that was destined

to become a dominant attitude among the more
politicized fiction writers of the middle decades

of the century.   Allende follows, in contrast, the
admonition of Neruda, who once proclaimed:

"Poets who are not realist are dead. But poets who
are only realist are dead also." Following in the
footsteps of Márquez, Rushdie, and others pioneers
of modern magical realism, Allende shows in these
pages that a writer can impart a powerful fabulistic
quality to even a historical novel by mixing elements

of gritty realism with large helpings of the fantastic.
The technique is not a new one—Homer did the
same in the Iliad and the Odyssey—but in the midst
of a century that suffered perhaps from an excess
of realism, broadcast live into homes for the first
time via radio and television, authors only
gradually rediscovered that a bold legend could be
as persuasive, perhaps even as up-to-date, as the
latest headline.    

The House of the Spirits is a multifamily and
multigenerational tale whose timeline is roughly
coterminous with the 90-year life of Esteban
Trueba, an adventurer, businessman and politician
who sometimes takes over the novel as first-person
narrator. The century long span here may remind
readers of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's One Hundred
Years of Solitude, whose influence looms over
Allende's work.  But she also had a more personal
reason for this expansive chronology—her
grandfather, whose final days spurred Allende to
start this book, lived to the ripe age of 99.   

At the outset of
The House of the Spirits, Trueba
falls in love with the beautiful Rosa, whose green
hair and bewitching appearance seem more
appropriate for a mermaid than a woman.
Esteban extracts a promise of marriage, but only
on the condition that, before any wedding takes
place, he will have proven himself capable of
supporting her in some degree of wealth and
comfort.  Inspired by confidence in his future,
Trueba seeks his fortune as a gold prospector.
When Rosa dies, the victim of an inadvertent
poisoning, Trueba is overcome with grief. In
despair, he travels to a remote area of the country
where he turns his energies to rebuilding a family
farm, long in ruins. His successes eventually brings
him back to the city, where he marries Rosa’s
younger sister, the eccentric and sibylline Clara.

Clara, whose spirit and presence dominate

Allende's novel, had already foreseen the proposal
even before Trueba’s arrival. Her clairvoyance is
accompanied by other gifts—she can move
objects without touching them, commune with
the dead and extraterrestrials, and float her chair
across the floor with no apparent source of motion.
She is incapable of matching the love of her
mercurial husband, whose passion for Clara
rises in proportion to her distraction and
emotional distance. But she provides a
powerful, countervailing presence in this
patriarchal household, and inspires by example
the next two generation of women—led by her
daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba. These
women espouse compassion, charity and
idealism—sharply contrasting with Esteban’s
ruthless pragmatism.  

The family prospers financially, even as dissent

simmers beneath the surface. Trueba’s hot temper
brings him into constant conflict with the rest of
his family, but his intense drive and ambition help
propel his political career. After the election of
the leftist President, Trueba gives support to the
military factions that eventually overthrow the
government, but is embittered when the new

authoritarian regime turns on its own supporters.  
The divisions in his own family are now echoed in
the larger turmoil of the times, and events take a life
of their own beyond the now elderly patriarch’s
ability to shape or influence.

The House of the Spirits is a sweeping, expansive
work—one that would be impressive for any writer,
but especially for a first-time novelist tackling such
large themes.  Not everything works here; at
moments the book shifts gears, lapsing for a spell
into the conventionality of a
telenovela or the one-
dimensionality of political sloganeering. But these
passages never last long, and Allende soon manages

to insert a compelling dose of drama and vitality
into the onrushing events and personages of her
fictionalized Chile.  

This work operates at many levels. It is historical

and personal, fantastical and political, passionate
and eerily placid, sociological and metaphysical.  
With so much content squeezed into her novel,
Allende runs the risk of losing steam at the end,
especially with a 90-year-old narrator taking stock
of a much diminished society and equally decimated
family.  But our author rises to the demands of the

final pages, bringing this moving story to an
inspired conclusion….and one that transports
the reader full circle back to the innocence of opening
paragraph.
conceptual fiction
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende
Click on image to purchase
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction


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