Maggie Shipstead in the New Republic has a long (and accurate) negative review of the new Isabel Allende novel. Unfortunately, Allende’s work just isn’t that good. I say unfortunately because as the most famous Latin American woman writer and given the propensity of critics to treat women authors differently, in other words call a novel by a woman women’s writing, her work is a disservice to the books that are really worth reading.
It has to be said that the fact that Allende’s books are translated from Spanish introduces an element of critical uncertainty. In 1987, reviewing her second novel, Of Love and Shadows, John Updike wrote that “perhaps the translator should share the blame” for the primness of the prose. At this point, 17 books in, I think the time is past for blaming the translator. Take this sentence from Maya’s Notebook: “‘So the fucking slut wants to go back to California!’ he mocked threateningly.” Its bland aggression and adverbial clunkiness would be cringe-worthy in any language. And no translator could have snuck in the cheesiness of Maya’s description of her mixed-race lover’s body: “He looks like Michelangelo’s David, but his coloring is much more attractive.” Or the exposition of the obvious that takes over the dialogue as the plot devolves into a goofy caper: “‘Good thinking, Mike,’ interjected my Nini, whose eyes were starting to twinkle as well. ‘To fly, Maya would need a ticket in her name and some form of ID—that leaves a trail—but we can cross the country by car without anybody finding out.’” Allende has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and speaks English fluently. She reads her English translations and offers notes on them. It might be time to accept that this style, with all its limitations, is her style.
A certain overstuffedness, of course, is one attribute of magical realism, an aesthetic that Gabriel García Marquez popularized and Allende embraced. Maya’s Notebook, as I read it, is a realist novel with a few fantastical flourishes that seem less about speaking to life’s absurdities and more about indulging in sentimentality. For example, a dog senses a woman is dead in her house and begins howling, which sets off all the other dogs, and the mass howling brings the neighbors running—to the correct house. There is also a ghost who pops up here and there and is treated with a certain earnestness, but there are no grand, obviously magical gestures. No one has the power of telekinesis or naturally green hair, as in The House of the Spirits; and no one ascends to heaven while hanging up the laundry, as in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A magical realist novel about contemporary Las Vegas that incorporates the fantastic, the dreamlike, and the mythical sounds like a intriguing idea, but this is not that novel.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who follows Latin American literature that there would be some controversy about Isabel Allende and Chile’s National Prize for Literature. I haven’t heard a kind word for her in a while, usually it is wrapped up in criticisms of popularity, but none of her recent books have really interested me. She doesn’t have to spend all her time writing magical realism, but I just don’t trust her when she writes about the US. Global Voices has a quick run down on some of the chatter that is accompanying her nomination. You can decide if it is petty or warranted.
Isabel Allende, author of The House of Spirits and the recently published Island Beneath the Sea, among other novels, is one of the best-known and most-read Latin American writers. This year, she is a candidate for the Chilean National Prize for Literature, a prize given by the government, the Ministry of Education, and the National Council of Culture and the Arts. Her candidacy has sparked debate among literature critics, writers, and average Chilean citizens.
Isabel Allende was born in Peru while her father worked there as a diplomat; her father’s cousin was Salvador Allende, the president who was ousted by a coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Isabel Allende now lives in California. As reported by the Latin American Herald Tribune, “Her books have been translated into more than two-dozen languages and 51 million copies of her novels have been sold.” However, some critics, and even some readers, think her popularity is not enough reason to give her the prize.
I haven’t read an Isabel Allende book in ages, but I noticed she had a new one coming out and as one of the most famous Latin American authors in the States, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the reviews. For old time sakes, at least. What is obvious is that if you live by magical realism, you die by it. Every reviewer I came across was asking for some of the good stuff, that old magic that made House of Spirits famous. It is a little lazy to demand a writer keep writing in the same style. Again books from Latin American authors must fit some sort of mold and here it must be the exotic locals, war and love. At least the Times review mentioned Alejo Carpentier.
I wasn’t much impressed by the reviews. From the NY Times:
The resulting canvas contains no less than the revolutionary history of the world’s first black republic as Allende portrays the island’s various factions: republicans versus monarchists, blacks versus mulattoes, abolitionists versus planters, slaves versus masters. She revels in period detail: ostrich-feathered hats, high-waisted gowns, meals featuring suckling pigs with cherries. Her cast is equally vibrant: a quadroon courtesan and the French officer who marries her; Valmorain’s second wife, a controlling Louisiana Creole; Zarité’s rebel lover, who joins Toussaint L’Ouverture in the hills. But for all its entertaining sweep, the story lacks complex characterization and originality. And its style is traditional. Where, you wonder, are the headless men — or, in Allende’s case, headless women? Where is the magical realism?
Ultimately, however, Allende has traded innovative language and technique for a fundamentally straightforward historical pageant. There is plenty of melodrama and coincidence in “Island Beneath the Sea,” but not much magic.
The review from the LA Times was a plot summary. At least you will know what happens in the book.
With this admirable novel, Allende cements her reputation as a writer of wide scope and amazing talent. Although very traditional in its unfolding — readers enamored by her use of magical realism will find little in this narrative — this historical novel does what one hopes a book of its ilk will do: transport readers to a new world, open up history and make it come alive, and cause readers to forget time passing in the world the author has so carefully and lovingly built.