Allende, Isabel: General Commentary
ISABEL ALLENDE: GENERAL COMMENTARY
SUSAN FRENK (ESSAY DATE 1996)
SOURCE: Frenk, Susan. "The Wandering Text: Situating the Narratives of Isabel Allende." In Latin American Women's Writing: Feminist Readings in Theory and Crisis, edited by Anny Brooksbank Jones and Catherine Davies, pp. 66-84. Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon, 1996.
In the following essay, Frenk considers the gender-based, socioeconomic, and political motivations for feminism in Allende's fiction.
Negotiating a path through the critical geographies which have mapped the academic reception of the narratives and public personae of Isabel Allende is a disorienting experience indeed. For all their differences, however, most of these geographies participate in a general deterritorialization as they steer her texts down unmarked roads. This essay offers a reading of the faded signposts and diversion signs along the way, with a tentative sketch for an alternative journey.
Texts are produced and exchanged in a global market-place. In the process a woman, some women, come to represent 'women's writing'—as Jean Franco notes, a commodity that currently sells well in pluralist regimes (Franco 1992). Allende's texts, which engage from exile with Chilean society, are marketed additionally through a dehistoricized 'magical realism' (Martin 1989) and through an academic 'teaching machine' which markets cultures to students while simultaneously feeding the media profiles of trends and superstars (Spivak 1993). It is from within this machine that I write, an outsider to Chile trying not to fall into too many of the potholes excavated by critics working on post-colonial terrain. As they wander from Chile to North American and UK academe and through different fields of discursive struggle Allende's texts generate many readings. The readings produced here are motivated in part by a need to celebrate the achievements of a woman writer in institutions and societies where (despite recent market successes) writing by women and the work of women who teach and research it remain devalued. This essay starts, however, from the assumption that we risk compounding these women's difficulties if we fail to contextualize the voices we gather, or to tease out the threads of 'woman' into the women who speak through these texts, those who do not, and those who are spoken by them inadequately.
FROM THE AUTHOR
ALLENDE ON HER STYLE OF WRITING
In the best of cases, literature attempts to give voice to those who are not granted it, or to those who have been silenced, but when I write, I do not assume the task of representing anyone, of transcending, of preaching a message or explaining the mysteries of the universe. I simply try to tell a story in the tone of an intimate conversation.
Allende, Isabel. Excerpt from Isabel Allende: Life and Spirits. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 2002, p. xv.
What follows is a first stage in this process. It starts with the women's movements which, in different ways, have challenged the linguistic regime of lo no dicho (the unsaid) and the attempted abolition of the interlocutor, risking gendered, 'private' bodies in order to assert a broader integrity of the body. Allende's first novel, La casa de los espíritus, appeared only in 1982 and cannot be read as part of the literature of immediate resistance (Boyle 1992) nor assimilated to the different forms of testimonio (testimonial) generated by women inside Chile.1 Nor is La casa de los espíritus as radically disjunctive in formal terms or as wide-ranging in its representation of subaltern relations as the writing of, for example, Diamela Eltit. Instead, I would argue, it is precisely the familiarity of Allende's narrative modes which empowers women readers, enabling them to respond through different forms of resistance and rebellion. This involves the reappropriation of their bodies, not as the liberation of a natural body, but through the reinscription of bodies in new discourses, including the expansion of political rights to a similarly de- and reconstructed pleasure. What is at stake here is not pleasure as a libidinal escape route from the social but an investigation of the politics of romance. Unlike Wolfgang Karrer—who has claimed that in Eva Luna 'Mimí and Eva submit gender structure to change, but ultimately preserve it' (Karrer 1991: 161)—I would argue that the politics of romance in Allende's narratives preserve the specificity of different bodies while troubling the dominant sex-gender naturalizations of them.
A reading of the integrity of sexually differentiated bodies, and of the discursive empowerment of gendered subjects as a strategic response to the situation of Chilean women, can take us beyond the theoretical impasse of 'feminist misogyny'. In her recent exploration of this phenomenon Susan Gubar notes that, since both feminists and misogynists must exploit and expropriate words from a common linguistic store, 'their discourses necessarily intersect in numerous ways, undercutting or supplementing each other over time [in] a cultural "heteroglossia" of gender ideologies and power asymmetries' (Gubar 1994: 465). This is helpful in reassessing the articulation of two pivotal elements in the seemingly polarized critical reception of Allende's writing, and in writing on Latin American women generally: femininity and motherhood. Anxious to escape the straitjacket of motherhood as naturalized self-abnegation, critical writings as diverse as Jean Franco's illuminating but ultimately negative analysis of motherhood in Rosario Castellanos (Franco 1992) and Debra Castillo's lament at the prominent role of marriage in Allende's narratives (Castillo 1992) seem to want to abolish positive representations of motherhood. However, such writing can be revised in a matrix which recognizes the systemic positioning/construction of women while at the same time enabling their agency—in negotiating, resisting, and transforming systemic relations and generating new identities—to be appraised.
If we relate La casa de los espíritus to the power of motherhood in the mobilization of Chilean women's groups, and to the rearticulation in the novel of this power in opposition to the discourse of the Pinochet regime, motherhood emerges as historically variable. Mother-daughter relations in particular do not replicate a natural femininity but accommodate new versions: they do not reinforce the patriarchal power of the father but instead provide a mode of empowerment of women's bodies and psyches which the patriarch cannot control. The later novel, Eva Luna (1988), expands this type of intergenerational relation between women beyond the biologically grounded narrative of motherhood. It also removes female-male relations almost completely from marriage. This, I would suggest, is related both to a more developed concern with subaltern experience and to the growing autonomy of women's movements (in Chile and elsewhere) through the 1980s, as a consciousness took shape of the need to negotiate political alliances with and within mixed, but still masculinist, opposition groups from a separate sphere of female identification and empowerment.
Allende's narratives can also be read as confronting the oppressive regime through a discursive experience of pleasure and desire which can seem scandalously inappropriate to the scale of suffering under Pinochet. Yet if we read Allende in the light of Patricia Chuchryk's study of women's organizations in the Chilean transition to Democracy (Chuchryk 1989) we can trace a process in which survival and resistance lead to a questioning of patriarchal relations, and in which pleasure and desire are no longer perceived as luxuries but identified as the very substance of those relations. These pleasures are produced in relations of denial and internalized self-denial, prohibited by external and self-imposed surveillance, and mobilized in the service of powerful others. They are harnessed within a specific phallic order which must be re-appropriated and redirected according to a different imaginary economy, as a vital part of political projects to alter other relations. These relations include the socio-economic, which was until relatively recently the only sphere recognized as political by the Left.
In this analysis, the question of the integrity of the body expands from the bodies of the disappeared to include the discursive relations in which the bodies of the protesting women are imprisoned. It links domestic violence and state violence through the deconstruction of relations of gender and sexuality. There is a growing corpus of critical work which argues convincingly that Allende does more than 'put "quality" writing … at the service of the formulas that have always acted as female pacifiers—heterosexual romance combined with seigneurial goodwill toward the subaltern classes' (Franco 1992: 73). Franco goes on in the same piece to include Allende among a number of women writers who unsettle 'the stance that supports gender power/knowledge as masculine … displacing the male-centred national allegory and exposes the dubious stereotyping that was always inherent in the epics of nationhood that constitute the Latin American canon' (Franco 1992: 75). Yet her earlier comment implicitly excludes Allende from the confrontation of the middle-class woman's specific social positioning and the 'ambiguous overlapping of privilege and the aesthetic' (1992: 75) in women writers, a confrontation which she analyses in the writing of Clarice Lispector, Carmen Ollé, and Tununa Mercado. The analysis of post-colonial gender politics here must therefore integrate the representation of subaltern relations.
In Eva Luna and La casa de los espíritus these relations are associated with appropriations of bodily and discursive pleasure,
[Consuelo] sacó la cuenta de que en sus treinta y tantos años no había conocido el placer y no lo buscó, convencida de que era un asunto reservado a los protagonistas del cine. Resolvió darse este gusto y de paso ofrecérselo también al enfermo a ver si partía más contento al otro mundo.
(Allende 1988: 22)
[Consuelo] looked back over her thirty-odd years and realized that she had not experienced pleasure, nor sought it, convinced that that sort of thing only happened in films. She resolved to have a taste of it herself and to offer some in passing to the sick man, to see if he would depart this world in a happier state.
In Eva Luna, Consuelo's appropriation of the pleasure which has been unavailable to her as marginalized sirvienta (maid) comes about through a process of rebellion. This process is linked to the issue of discursive power, which initiates a series of actions that affirm her as an agent, gradually transforming her from the mirror image of her master's desires. When she decides to try to save the life of the indian gardener (who has been bitten by a poisonous snake) we are told that 'por primera vez en su silenciosa existencia, Consuelo desobedeció una orden y tomó una iniciativa' (for the first time in her silent existence Consuelo disobeyed an order and took the initiative) (Allende 1988: 21).2
Consuelo reappropriates her body in a ritual undressing which culminates in loosening her hair: 'deshizo el rodete que llevaba enrollado en la nuca como exigía su patrón' (she unfastened the hair which, at her master's insistence, she wore coiled at the nape of neck) (Allende 1988: 22). Then, as she begins to make love for the first time, she initiates a dialogue with the stricken indian/subaltern/male other in a language produced by her own desire: 'Susurrándole palabras recién inventadas' (murmuring newly invented words) (1988: 23). The love she offers the indian is accepted, he is restored to agency, and in the mutual pleasure and exchange of their lovemaking Eva is conceived.
A second ritual of reappropriation and inscription marks Eva's birth, celebrating it as 'el momento más importante' (the most important moment) of Consuelo's life and deromanticizing the birth process by foregrounding the 'labour' involved (1988: 23-4). Consuelo's apparent self-sufficiency becomes mutual dependency with the woman who helps her to cut the cord and to whom she eventually entrusts her daughter before dying. This relation is the first of a series of encounters between women which challenge their internalization of patriarchal discourses of the feminine body. It is the godmother who says 'Mala cosa, es hembra' (What bad luck, it's a girl) (1988: 24) and insists on baptizing Eva and giving her a surname, the traditional marker of women as the property of men. Consuelo counters with positive reinscriptions and compromises based on respecting the beliefs of the other. By choosing the tribal name of the father as the child's surname Consuelo simultaneously endows it with a different collective meaning. She identifies Eva with the marginalized indians rather than the criollista patriarchal order and reinscribes her in a feminine lineage, since the tribe's name means 'children of the moon' (1988: 24).
Eva's birth brings further release from Consuelo's long education in self-silencing. Consuelo is represented as generating a rich store of counter-stories about herself and the dominant order. Because that order refuses a dialogical relation with her, however, these stories can only be told when Eva becomes first a listener and then their mediator/narrator: 'Aprendió a permanecer quieta y guardó su desmesurado caudal de fábulas como un tesoro discreto hasta que yo le di la oportunidad de desatar ese torrente de palabras que llevaba consigo' (She learned to remain silent, treasuring her boundless stock of stories discreetly until I gave her the opportunity to unleash the torrent of words within her) (1988: 13). Consuelo's discursive transformations are confined to la intimidad, the private sphere: in public she maintains a silence that renders her invisible to the powerful, 'como si no existiera' (as if she didn't exist) (1988: 5).
Consuelo's empowerment and double legacy of rebelión (rebelliousness) and storytelling are central to her daughter's eventual transformation,
De mi padre heredé la sangre firme, porque ese indio debió ser muy fuerte para resistir tantos días el veneno de la serpiente y en pleno estado de agonía darle gusto a una mujer. A mi madre le debo todo lo demás … Las palabras son gratis, decía y se las apropiaba, todas eran suyas.
I inherited my strong blood from my father, because that indian must have been pretty tough to hold out against the snake venom all those days and make love to a woman when he was on the point of death. Everything else I owe to my mother … words are free, she would say, and she appropriated them, they were all hers.
As Eva Luna progresses, Eva saves her own life by appropriating language and storytelling, sometimes adapting to the desires and discourses of others, eventually constructing alternative her/histories. Despite economic and social disempowerment, her belief in the integrity of her healthy woman's body and the possibilities of discursive exchange as a counter to capitalist relations enables Eva both to survive and to participate in the process of social transformation and public discourse.
Eva is the sole, albeit extraordinarily complex, narrator of Eva Luna. In La casa de los espíritus, bodily integrity and discursive power are explored through counterposed female and male narrative voices. Trueba embodies the monologic regime of authoritarian patriarchy, which encompasses censorship, disempowerment through discourses which demean the other (campesinos, women, or communists), and physical violence (raping campesina women or hitting Clara). His granddaughter Alba is eventually revealed as the female narrator who restores the interlocutor, both by directly contradicting Trueba and by writing down a counter-herstory of the forms of resistance offered by other women and campesino men, socialist politics, and protest songs. Gabriela Mora's concern about what she sees as Alba's 'passivity', too-ready desire to forgive past injustice, and her 'limiting' of political activity to writing can thus be rethought through a new understanding of politics in the novel (Mora 1987: 58-9). The centrality of discursive relations to regimes of power, the establishment of a solidarity between women which is not contained within a single party politics, and the dimensions of sexual politics in Alba's relationship with Manuel are all part of this rearticulated politics. Furthermore, as Ronie-Richele García Johnson has shown, Alba's situation at the end of the novel represents the apex of a gradual 'conquest of space' in the house (García Johnson 1994). We can read this as the democratization of the private which the Chilean women's movements came to see as indivisible in the struggle to democratize the public sphere in the 1980s. The difficult issue of Alba's discourse of forgiveness needs to be reread in the light of Susan de Carvalho's interesting study of male narrative voice in La casa de los espíritus and El plan infinito (Carvalho 1993-4). Carvalho argues that,
Allende's male narrators in the novels both reach a nadir at which they are forced to admit their impotence; but the narrative perspective allows also a portrait of the 'post-masculine' male, the man emerging from that nadir, who then reviews his past in segments intercalated throughout the novels. Thus the narrative structure involves various externalized images of the male character, each followed immediately by the repentant male narrator's enlightened commentary on the man he had once been, his recognition of lost opportunities—in most cases opportunities to express love.
It is in this context of self-analysis, repentance, and reconstruction by authoritarian figures that Alba's projection of a future forgiveness is situated.
The integrity of the (gendered) body is restored, then, through the dismantling of an authoritarian regime which exchanges bodies as commodities, the property of the patriarch, in the different but interrelated economies of desire, discourse, and money. Women and other subaltern groups reappropriate their bodies through acts of resistance that simultaneously rewrite the political discourse of the Chilean Left. The strategic foundationalism of bodies can play a multiplicity of roles in this process. First it celebrates—without idealizing—the female body which has traditionally been discursively deployed to sublimate the male body, while male bodies are desublimated, brought under scrutiny in a deconstruction of their phantom identification with the phallus of power (Gimbernat de González 1991). It also reasserts the integrity of the body against physical and discursive violations, while separating the body into bodies which have historically been gendered differently. Finally, it provides a point of identification across the specific struggles of different women which acts as a mooring post in a journey of collective transformation.
By representing desires that cannot be reduced to the specularisms of desire for the phallus—whose rejection in Eva Luna is linked to Eva's reassertion of an autonomous gender difference—Allende undermines the monologic system of patriarchal difference. Instead of Lacan's descriptive/prescriptive family romance, Eva Luna, for example, starts from a refigured family in which the maternal and feminine are privileged. Eva first reaches out to the male other not in psychic rejection of her dead mother, nor even in substitution of that mother('s lack). She reaches out in desire and, in part, in response to the economic positioning of women and to the problematic models of femininity internalized by her other 'mothers' (Madrina and Elvira).
Eva undergoes a learning process which begins with love for the father, Riad Halabi. As she later realizes, his paternalist form of patriarchy permits her to appropriate the positive aspects of his discourse of femininity, to survive through his protection, and to be encouraged by him to depart on a journey towards an equal subject status which transcends paternalism. Nostalgia for the 'protection' afforded by a paternalist patriarchy was a common feature of the early years of the Pinochet regime, not only in the regime's own refiguration of the ideal family but amongst many women obliged to take on sole responsibility for family income in harsh economic conditions (Chuchryk 1989; Boyle 1992). In the novel, Eva's nostalgia is dissipated in a double movement. On the one hand, there is her realization that a paternalist regime infantilizes women. On the other, there is Riad Halabi's failure to recognize her as an independent woman who seeks equal subject status. She is thus outside the specularisms of paternalism, desirable neither as daughter nor as daughter/lover.
This experience is related to the reader in the critical self-commentary which characterizes key moments in the complex time shifts of the narrative voice (Aguirre Rehbein 1991). Another mode of critical appraisal is dialogue between characters of equal status united by bonds of affect and shared experience, as in Eva and Melecio-Mimí's discussions of bodies, genders, and relationships. Contested positions are set out in terms of both feelings and possible outcomes. Although, when Melecio-Mimí chooses not to have the operation, the narrative ultimately reinforces Eva's position, the different discourses have nonetheless illuminated their relationship and brought into play a range of evaluation systems. The final selection of one rather than another refers once again to the possibility of rejecting the violation of the body required to normalize Mimí in patriarchal gender terms. Having found a male lover who is not rigidly bound to the patriarchal order, Mimí goes on to make his/her gender troublingly public in Eva's telenovela.
Eva's journey takes her through a series of relationships with seductive patriarchal masculinities. However she finally chooses not the Romantic hero Huberto—whose performance of machismo continues in the gendered politics of the guerrilla group—but the contrasting male character Rolf Carlé. Despite their different histories Eva and Rolf are able to construct a common, hybrid, narrative together. Or rather Eva constructs one for them both. It is significant that, despite their equal socio-economic status, shared politics, companionship, and erotic compatibility, as in the basic pattern of romance literature there is still a difference to address—in this case Rolf's emotional difficulties: 'Ese hombre tan veloz cuando se trata de captar una imagen con la cámara, resulta bastante torpe ante sus propias emociones' (That man is quick to catch an image on film but pretty sluggish when it comes to his own emotions) (1988: 279).
Their relationship rejects configurations of unequal complementarity, absolute incommunication, or domination/submission. Instead it proposes an equality that works not through the abolition of difference (which would mean the death of the subject) or through the subsuming of one difference into the realm of the other (the logic of specularity) but through respect for what Jacques Derrida terms 'the trace of the other'. Here the reassertion of gender difference functions to preserve the integrity of ethnic and other differences in a rearticulation of hybrid micro and macro identities. So, where Karrer reads the metaphors of fusion in Allende's writing as part of a homogeneous post-war mestizaje, I would argue a need to differentiate between specific ideologies of mestizaje in the context of emergent articulations of hybridity and transculturation.3
Yet we do need to look at the effects of the heterosexual focus in Allende's work, both locally and more broadly: in relation to the regime of lo no dicho (the unsaid) and the growing audibility of lesbian voices in Chilean women's groups, but also in relation to the global reception of Allende's work in contexts where the politics of sexuality have played a more crucial role in the 1980s. These other reterritorializations of her texts need to consider whether their magic realism resists or risks reinforcing the exoticism and hierarchical otherness of Latin America, and the tendency to represent machismo as a 'Latin' problem. I will argue that the discourse of magical realism in La casa de los espíritus challenges the capitalist destruction of nature and people not merely with a picture of suffering victims but with alternative knowledges and economic relations, forcing the Western reader to engage with them. Through the family of Rolf Carlé, Eva Luna can in some ways be seen to take this process further, placing authoritarian regimes and patriarchal relations in Latin America in juxtaposition with Fascist European regimes of the 1930s. This pre-empts the discourse of Latin America as a continent predis-posed to authoritarian politics. At the same time it explores the colonial and postcolonial relationships between the two continents through Rolf's wanderings (including his period in the determinedly isolationist enclave of his aunt and uncle) and through the figure of Professor Jones, while problematizing masculinities in Europe as well as Latin America.
The question remains whether, given the situation of a double censorship—that of the regime's compulsory heterosexuality, and the women's movement's initial inability to move beyond the association of lesbianism with an imperialist, man-hating version of Western feminism—we can nonetheless mobilize lesbian and/or homoerotic desire in Allende's texts. And whether, even in this highly coded form, it can still disrupt the compulsory heterosexuality that may be pivotal to authoritarian masculinity and social relations. If we accept Adrienne Rich's theorization of a lesbian continuum, rivalry for any kind of male attention can be resituated along this continuum as forms of appreciation, affect, and solidarity. In this way, the self-love of women can resist patriarchy without recourse to representations of physical lovemaking. The view that the containment of women's erotic desire and pleasure within heterosexual relations requires a form of self-rejection, even self-hatred, would be displaced by a concept of self-love which can include a fully erotic lesbianism but does not depend on it. In this picture erotic desire is displaced from the central position it commanded—at least in Western politics—in the 1970s and 1980s and placed on a continuum, or field, of positively valued relations between women and between women and men. Relations between men are not reconstructed to the same extent in Allende's work. The sole instance of an openly homoerotic relation—Melecio-Mimí and Aravena—is caught up in Melecio's hatred of his own male body, although this becomes a partial self-acceptance as transvestite when he turns down the opportunity to have his body surgically remodelled as female. This seems to suggest that the patriarchal regime is less amenable to micro resistance and modification by men than by women.
If, as Mario Rojas has suggested, the relationship between Férula and Clara in La casa de los espíritus may be read as oneway lesbian desire it is hardly a positive representation (Rojas 1986). In its possessiveness it is a specularism of her brother's authoritarian, controlling desire, in which woman is once again object or private property. Yet, as Rojas goes on to argue, Férula is part of the textual opposition between the 'amor/cadena' (chained love) of the Trueba dynasty and the 'amor libre' (free love) of the Del Valle women (1986: 73). Nonetheless, as the clearest coded representation of lesbian desire it remains problematic.
The concept of a 'lesbian continuum' still allows us to read the all-female households, the friendships, sisterhood, and even the political consciousness-raising and alliance between the women in the concentration camp and between Ana Díaz and Alba at the end of the novel as instances of the self-love that empowers women and makes it possible to resist the system of misogyny. Like Férula and Clara in La casa de los espíritus or Eva and Rolf's cousins in Eva Luna, all transform their rivalry for male attention into friendship. However, it remains the case that the fulfilment of erotic pleasure in mutual love between equals is exclusively located in the (future) heterosexual relationship between Alba and Manuel in the former novel and between Rolf and Eva in the latter. Similarly, Melecio-Mimí's homosexual relationship with Aravena is represented as an attenuated version of dominant-submissive relations between a purely performative femininity and a powerful masculinity. Although set in political opposition to the authoritarian regime this masculinity still represents the name of the father for Rolf, whom Aravena addresses as hijo (son). Literally and metaphorically miles from Rolf's tyrannical biological father, he is none the less in power.
Here too, however, the text projects a dynamic of potential change. The possibility of the guerrillas entering the sphere of democratic political power and Rolf's defiance of his 'father's' injunction not to do anything too risky both point to the emergence of new relationships between men. Within such a relationship Melecio-Mimí, for example, would no longer need to deny the male body as the embodiment of the phallic order. In the novel, this need is positioned in terms of Melecio's brutal experiences and therefore figures as a historically produced desire, rather than the genetically imprinted imperative of the discourse first mobilized to explain his/her sense of self. However, there is nothing comparable for male readers to the spectrum of female to female relationships in Allende's writing: the mother-daughter relationships which permit change without requiring absolute separation or alienation; the sisterhood which moves from a biological representation, which acquires political and historical dimensions in La casa de los espíritus, to the metaphorical mother and sister relationships in Eva Luna. Even the male guerrillas—that potential site of homoeroticism and non-biological brotherhood and, perhaps, misogynist homosociality—remain locked in the mode of charismatic leadership.
This returns us to the issue of the mobilizing potential of texts which represent problems as well as solutions. Eva adopts a fraternal, friendly relationship with Huberto that is imbued with its own erotic history and posited as a temporary political alliance. However, it is rejected as a model for ideal relations between women and men within a narrative that ends in transition—political transition in the state, transitional relations between women and men—as the Utopian discourse of a reworked romance is both relativized and reiterated.
The representation of bodies in Allende's work is inseparable from the issue of her magical realism. Critics have broadly tended either to focus on Allende's debt to García Márquez or to read it as technique. Philip Swanson (1994) gives both of these tendencies a political twist in his analysis of La casa de los espíritus, and concludes that the magical eventually retreats as the women become more politically active. However, his assimilation of the magical to happy times now departed and his reduction of magical discourses to the status of anachronisms seem rather schematic. The early part of the novel has its share of horror after all, and the loss of the house identified with Clara is part of 'la época del estropicio' (the destructive era) in which the Pinochet coup takes place (Swanson 1994: 232). Moreover, the novel does not seem to support the parallel between Clara's magic and Trueba's fantasies asserted by Swanson. Rather, Clara's magic is recuperated by Alba in her (collective) narrative while Trueba finally comes to view his own law as part of a ninety-year history of lies.
A more productive line of enquiry is opened up by William Rowe's rearticulation of magical-realism, which he equates broadly with 'the suspension of Enlightenment rationalism with its emotion of superstition' (Rowe and Schelling 1991: 214). He traces its development to 'the imposition of the label "idolatry" upon native cultures [which] both foregrounded magic and denied it any cognitive dimension' (1991: 214). Magic thus became a marginal, syncretic,
alternative knowledge … shared by different social classes [and] primarily the province of women … In a second sense, insofar as the term has been used say of Arguedas' work, it involves native ritual practices which include not only the idea of magic as action produced by 'irrational' agencies but also a network of shared meanings which the practitioner engages with and reproduces.
(Rowe and Schelling 1991: 214)
In neither case is it reducible to the fantasy projections of individual desire.
Rowe goes on to note that magical belief is not treated exclusively as positive, but that its legitimation 'can be a vindication of pre-capitalist culture, against the logic of capitalist accumulation and positivist social engineering' (Rowe and Schelling 1991: 214). To this extent Allende's refashioning of the national allegory in La casa de los espíritus can be seen as a representation of a hybrid culture which differs from both the authoritarian capitalist modernization discourse of the regime and from the proletarianized vision of the Unidad Popular. Rather than an uncritical romanticization of campesino and female magical discourses, it is an evaluation of their power/knowledge relationships from the perspective of an outsider discourse—a discourse which proposes an ethics and politics of equality which does not threaten the integrity of equal embodied subjects. Where either the magical or the scientific are analysed as constructing subjects unequally, perpetuating inequality and/or violating the integrity of bodies, they are critiqued or abandoned. This is a postmodern relativization of discourses which confronts the politico-ethical dilemma of addressing conflict between discursive regimes. It also effects the troubling of the discursive boundaries between magical and non-magical to which Rowe refers.
In La casa de los espíritus, for example, campesino knowledge is represented as more efficacious than Western scientific knowledge in dealing with the plague of ants. This is a particularly richly layered scene in which the son who is modernizing distances himself from the discourse of his father yet has to recognize its validity. At the same time, the Western capitalist system is savaged for its 'black magic', for its reduction of people, the land, and knowledge to commodities, and for the large-scale destruction of peoples and territories set in train by these economic and discursive relations. Furthermore, the campesino resists this system with a narrative which symbolizes an alternative discursive relation to Nature, that of a conversation which places humans on an equal, not superior, level with the other inhabitants of the earth in relations of ecological negotiation. At first the son and the capitalist can only read this narrative literally, from the perspective of discourses which are constructed in the devaluation of the other. However, in the alliances between the different generations of campesino men and the Del Valle women the narrative proposes a place for both groups in an alternative narrative of the nation, presenting campesino patriarchy as different from the landowner's yet still in need of transformation.
The scene which ties these issues most closely to the integrity of bodies in La casa de los espíritus is the much commented-upon autopsy/rape of Rosa which leads to the symbolic silencing of Clara. Debra Castillo has written persuasively of the productive potential of analysing silence in writing by women. In this case it is a form of internal resistance to the regime which continues in Clara's spiritualist activities. As Swanson has noted, her second silence is part of an outward-looking rebellion which takes various public forms (Swanson 1994: 228).
Like silence, the discourse of love has made some critics uncomfortable and needs to be analysed in its specific (re)articulations. This is not the domain of the isolated couple of heterosexual romance, in which the dominant male and submissive female supplement one another's lack. Instead it offers a spectrum of affective relations which construct subjects respectful of the trace of the other, a will to relationship, perhaps, which can construct an equality in difference.
Towards the end of Eva Luna, Eva's bodily integrity is restored when she realizes that she has started menstruating again. She inscribes this in a discourse of love as an openness to a relation of mutual desire with the other, in this case with Rolf. This begins in companionship, in shared dreams and fears in the jungle, taking on an erotic dimension. It does not exhaust their relations, however. Eva is embedded in multiple relationships with others, across a spectrum of affect which sometimes includes sex but in which noneroticized relations are highly valued. The dual ending may reintroduce a particularly valued gran amor (great love) but it effectively relativizes Romantic versions of it: unlike Zulema, Eva will not die for or in love. She seeks not to annihilate Rolf's difference or her own, but to weave a collective story in which each participates equally, a conversation in which divergent histories are brought together. The Utopia inscribed here can thus be read in terms of the Chile of the transition to democracy. Suspicion of the authoritarian regime's motivation is coupled with hope for the possibilities of a better future. This hope emerges in the privileging of gender difference in the empowerment of women readers, the continuing struggle in both authoritarian and pluralist regimes, the representation of political alliances with Left men.4
The deconstruction of the Liberal Enlightenment subject has tended to rearticulate an ideal postmodern subject as infinitely mobile, while the deconstruction of oppressive sex/gender configurations in Western societies has tended to reduce the body to pure libidinality. As Spivak (1993) has reiterated, if the subject 'effect' is 'useful'—and in the case of the disappearances it is fundamental—then it can be deployed strategically (1993: 5). In La casa de los espíritus, economically privileged subjects are transformed through respect for the other, while Eva Luna's self at the end of her narration is indelibly marked with the traces of the others who have peopled her life in different kinds of relationships. The vision of subjectivity which emerges is kaleidoscopic, and memory mobilizes history not in the real time of events but in the simultaneity of each successive present,
Yo escribía cada día un nuevo episodio, inmersa por completo en el mundo que creaba con el poder omnímodo de las palabras, transformada en un ser disperso, producida hasta el infinito, viendo mi propio reflejo en múltiples espejos, viviendo innumerables vidas, hablando con muchas voces.
(Allende 1988: 273)
Every day I would write a new episode, completely immersed in the world I was creating with the all-encompassing power of words, transformed into a scattered self, repeated to infinity, glimpsing my own image in multiple mirrors, living innumerable lives, talking with many voices.
In this narrative various subaltern figures undergo fables of transformation, yet Allende's texts do not explore 'the heterogeneity of the subaltern' (Spivak 1993: 5) to the same degree in all cases. Broadly speaking La casa de los espíritus recognizes the subaltern nana but situates her entirely in the borrowed discourses of the dominant order. In Eva Luna, by contrast, Consuelo is the author of counter-discourses and Eva becomes an author of publicly circulated (televized) stories. Kavita Panjabi has argued persuasively that the figure of Tránsito Soto moves from the margins of Trueba's world to a central role which illustrates the interdependency of prostitute and wife in patriarchy and the need for the struggle of the women's movements to encompass all women (Panjabi 1991). She is nonetheless a sketchy figure in comparison with the narrative space occupied by the privileged female characters, and to this extent contributes to the long history of writing in Latin America which effectively silences subaltern women.
So while the integrity of bodies in Allende's work represents a powerful counter-discourse to both authoritarian and pluralist regimes, these texts cannot be said to harness the empirical 'thickness of description' (Geertz 1983) which testimonial pursues with varying degrees of success. They do, however, reposition different subaltern groups and legitimate subaltern discourses, while, in Eva Luna, subaltern women move from the textual margins of Allende's writing to the foreground.
Both locally and globally, then, Allende's writing constructs readings which are intimately bound to the political struggles of women. In the seminar room, absences and problematic issues can be productively mobilized to discuss the sex/gender/sexuality systems of different cultural contexts. The readability of these texts and their critical engagement with familiar narratives—family romance, the telenovela—enables political, ethical, and discursive dilemmas to be worked through in relation to theory which is otherwise often intractable in its performativity, universalism, and abstraction. This is a space where it is also possible to bring together other texts whose availability is often limited. The question remains, however, as to how work carried out in the 'teaching machine' can play a wider role in the transformation of postcolonial relations, in different discursive spaces and political movements.
- All references will be to the following editions of Allende's novels: La casa de los espíritus, 18th edn. (Barcelona, 1985), De amor y de sombra, 3rd edn. (Barcelona, 1984), Eva Luna, 3rd edn. (Mexico, DF). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.
- Consuelo's employer, Professor Jones, has no interest in trying to save the indian's life and, indeed, is eager to add an indian mummy to his 'museo de estatuas humanas' (museum of human statues), in true colonialist fashion.
- Mestizaje is affirmed uncritically in Karrer's article as it has been in much academic writing on Latin America. For a more critical discussion of recent Latin American theorizations of hybridity, see Travesía, 1/2 (1992), and Rowe and Schelling (1991).
- These alliances assume a clear consciousness of the machismo that has to be resisted, not least as a construction of desire in some forms of romance. Carlos Monsivaís is one of the few contemporary male cultural critics in Latin America to analyse machismo in both its historical and contemporary modes. For an introduction to his work which includes articles by a range of male critics, see Fem's special issue, 'Hombres', 18 (Apr.-May 1981).
List of Works Cited
Aguirre Rehbein, Edna (1991), 'Isabel Allende's Eva Luna and the Act/Art of Narrating', in Riquelme Rojas and Aguirre Rehbein (1991), 179-88.
Allende, Isabel (1984), De amor y de sombra, 3rd edn. (Barcelona).
——. (1985), La casa de los espíritus, 18th edn. (Barcelona).
——. (1988), Eva Luna, 3rd edn. (Mexico, DF).
Boyle, Catherine (1992), Chilean Theatre 1973-1985 (Rutherford, NJ).
Carvalho, Susan de (1993-4), 'The Male Narrative Perspective in the Fiction of Isabel Allende', Journal of Hispanic Research, 2.
Castillo, Debra (1992), Talking Back: Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism (Ithaca, NY).
Chuchryk, Patricia (1989), in Jane S. Jaquette (ed.), The Women's Movement in Latin America: Feminism and the Transition to Democracy (Boston, 1989), 149-84.
Franco, Jean (1992), 'Going Public: Reinhabiting the Private', in George Yudice, Jean Franco, and Juan Flores (eds.), On Edge: The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture (Minneapolis, 1992).
——. (1990), Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico (London).
García Johnson, Ronie-Richele (1994), 'The Struggle for Space: Feminism and Freedom in The House of the Spirits ', Revista Hispánica Moderna, 47/1 (June).
Geertz, Clifford (1983), Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York).
Gimbernat de González, Ester (1991), 'Entre principio y final: la madre/materia de la escritura en Eva Luna ', in Riquelme Rojas and Aguirre Rehbein (1991).
Gubar, Susan (1994), 'Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of "It Takes One To Know One"', Feminist Studies, 20/3 (Fall), 453-73.
Karrer, Wolfgang (1991), 'Transformation and Transvestism in Eva Luna,' in Riquelme Rojas and Aguirre Rehbein (1991), 151-63.
Martin, Gerald (1989), Journeys Through the Labyrinth (London).
Mora, Gabriela (1987), 'Las novelas de Isabel Allende y el papel de la mujer como ciudadana', Ideologies and Literature (Spring).
Panjabi, Kavita (1991), 'Tránsito Soto: From Periphery to Power', in Riquelme Rojas and Aguirre Rehbein (1991), 11-19.
Riquelme Rojas, Sonia, and Aguirre Rehbein, Edna (1991) (eds.), Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels (New York).
Rojas, Mario (1986), 'Aproximación socio-linguística a la narrativa de Isabel Allende', in Marcello Coddou, Los libros tienen sus propios espíritus (Xalapa).
Rowe, William, and Schelling, Vivienne (1991), Memory and Modernity: Popular Culture in Latin America (London).
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1993), Outside in the Teaching Machine (London).
Swanson, Philip (1994), 'Tyrants and Trash: Sex, Class and Culture in La casa de los espíritus ', Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 71: 217-37.
Zurita, Raúl (1993), 'Chile: Literature, Language and Society (1973-1983)', Travesía, 2/2.
"Allende, Isabel: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/allende-isabel-general-commentary
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