Toad's Mouth by Isabel Allende, 1991

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by Isabel Allende, 1991

The epigraph to Isabel Allende's third novel, Eva Luna, comes from A Thousand and One Tales of the Arabian Knights, an appropriate reference because Eva's vocation is to tell stories. In the prologue to Allende's following book, The Stories of Eva Luna, Eva's lover, Rolf Carle, pleads with her once again to tell him a story, and she obliges with 23—hardly 1, 001 but a pleasant start.

The world these stories create is one saturated in sensuality and mystery, a world that teeters always on the edge of magic and fantasy without ever quite succumbing to it completely. Above all, the stories are saturated with love, usually of an obsessive and all-demanding type. In addition, the political consciousness that characterized the early novels recedes into the background in most of these stories, although it is never entirely absent. In "Toad's Mouth," for instance, the ghostly presence of the English colonizers is constant, though they are seen in risible terms: "Since there was nothing there at the beginning of the century the English could carry away, they obtained permits to raise sheep." There are also brief but compelling portraits of figures familiar in Allende's stories—the English émigrés who perpetuate absurdly anachronistic habits drawn from the life in their old homeland—and references to the misery and loneliness of the ill-paid shepherds.

For the most part, though, the story concentrates on the obsessive love that abruptly arises between Hermelinda and an Asturian named Pablo. Hermelinda, we are told, "was in the business of solace out of pure and simple vocation; she liked almost all the men in general, and many in particular." In other words, she is a prostitute and like most of the prostitutes in Allende's fiction, she enjoys her trade. It becomes a means of financial and personal liberation. In contrast to the women in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, a writer with whom Allende more or less conducts a running dialogue in her fiction, the women she creates are not stoic or passive but assertive and independent. They enjoy life with at least as much gusto as the men, and sensual pleasure, the healthy and guiltless surrender to animalistic instincts, provides at the very least a brief distraction from the physical miseries of the peasants' lives. Hermelinda is several times imaged as an animal, perhaps only one step up from the actual animals with whom the starved men sometimes couple, the sheep and the just-skinned seals whom they can imagine as sirens. The "toad's mouth" of the title is her center of physical pleasure. There is a reference to her "memorable rump" and to "firm horsewoman's legs and breasts." At the same time, though she can charge the men a fortune, she shows glimpses of maternal tenderness for them, sewing patches, tending the sick, or writing love letters for them.

Pablo seems at first to be the most unlikely of nemeses for the carefree but wary Hermelinda. Physically unprepossessing, of European origin, and on the run from the police, "a surly, pugnacious loner who ridiculed the weather, the sheep and the English," he has little on the face of it to recommend him. He is also getting older, and in Allende's characteristic phrase, "solitude was seeping into his bones." But there is a fierce determination about him, a single-minded ambition that transcends hardship and danger. He becomes the hunter for whom Hermelinda was "as beautiful and wild as a puma." Love (and sexual infatuation), the qualities that so dominate stories like this one and others in the collection, such as "Wicked Child" and "The Little Heidelberg," are in Allende's fiction both eruptive forces that can possess a human being instantly and currents of feeling that can flow between the most unlikely of couples. Love is an irrational and inexplicable force.

Despite herself, Hermelinda submits to Pablo's dominance: "… he transfixed Hermelinda with a knife-like gaze, forcing her to abandon her contortionist's tricks." Exactly what happens behind the curtain we never learn. Unlike some of the other stories, the narrator, Eva Luna, does not appear in the narrative and is even able to profess doubt as to why Hermelinda and Pablo came together: "Or that may not have been how it was; it may be that she chose him from among the others to honour with her company." But when Hermelinda eventually emerges, it is to depart, in the traditional manner of fairy tales, without a backward glance at her erstwhile admirers, never to return. At the end of the story, the management of Sheepbreeders Ltd. has installed toys for the men to play with, above all "an enormous, open-mouthed ceramic toad imported from London so the drovers could refine their skill in coin-tossing, but before a general indifference, those toys ended up on the superintendent's terrace, where as dusk falls the English still play with them to combat their boredom." Compared with the reality of Hermelinda, in other words, the imitations pale in significance. Or, as García Márquez puts it in One Hundred Years of Solitude when the citizens of Macondo rebel against the illusion of the phonograph, "a mechanical trick … could not be compared with something so moving, so human, and so full of everyday truth as a band of musicians."

To criticize Allende for a lack of psychological complexity is to miss the point completely. Her stories are based on one of human-kind's oldest passions—the love of narrative. As she put it in an interview, "If you say, 'Come here, I've got a story to tell you,' I don't know anyone who won't come with big, round eyes. All the indigenous communities of Latin America have the marvelous tradition of the storyteller." Her characters have the slightly larger-than-life, elemental qualities of fairy tale and legend, and her stories could only have proceeded out of an oral culture, where the childlike capacity to wonder what happens next has not been destroyed.

—Laurie Clancy