Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From 'The House of the Spirits' to 'Casa Allende'

It isn’t personal, everyone is responsible for his or her own feelings, and life isn’t fair.

Nico’s mantra of life. I just love it. It puts sense in this chaotic life. Though in his mother’s eyes, it is also one of the coldest look at life. But it can keep one’s sanity intact when trouble hits from back, front, up and down, in my opinion.

I took it from Isabel Allende’s novel, The Sum of Our Days. A memoir of her life that she wrote in the wake of the tragic death of her daughter, Paula.

The first novel that got me curious

I first fell in love with Allende’s work when I read Allende's first novel, The House of the Spirits. I watched the movie, and I was so curious about the actual story that when I saw the book at a garage sale, I bought it. And that was when I got curious about the author.

The House of the Spirits had such a

vivid portrait of what life was like in Chile in the twentieth century. And what was fascinating to me was also how vivid the portrayal of the spirits in Esteban Trueba’s house. And of Ferula, Esteban’s sister, who at the end seemed to live on as another spirit in Trueba’s house. The author must have experienced these things herself. And as I later found out in Sum of Our Days, Isabel Allende truly was a believer in spirits.

And apparently the book did cause her to be opposed by her family. She used ‘grandparents, some uncles, and other bizarre characters in my large Chilean tribe as models, as well as political happenings of the time and anecdotes I’d listened to my grandfather tell for years, but I’d never imagined that some people would take it literally’.

For years some members of her family did not talk to her, or avoided her. But the movie remedied the situation, as great as ‘photographs of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons have replaced those of my grandparents’.

And now having read 'The Sum of Our Days', I found it filled with lessons of life. From dealing with grief, to dealing with the unborn. From being in loneliness, to finding a circle of friends who you can really rely on. About surviving a marriage, or the un-married. About dealing with own frustrations and lost of ideas (she experienced a writer’s block for sometime). And there are many more lessons that I took without feeling that I was being ‘taught’, because the language in the novel was like a conversation between Allende and Paula. And what a beautiful conversation it was.

Her personal experiences that have made a mark

And I just love her tongue in cheek way of describing events in her life. My favourite was when she described the event where she was trusted to carry the Olympic flag in the Winter Games in Italy, in February 2006. It was here she met Sophia Loren, who she described as ‘from another era, very different from today’s models and actresses, who look like skeletons with false breasts. Her beauty is legendary, and apparently indestructible’.

It was also here she met Wangari Maathai, ‘who works with women in African villages and has planted more than thirty million trees, changing the soil and the weather in some regions’. Allende was very impressed with this woman, who she described as someone who ‘glows like a lamp, and I felt an irresistible urge to put my arms around her, something that occasionally happens in the presence of certain young men, but never with a lady like her’.

It was heartwarming to read someone of her current stature describing what she felt when she finally took the walk down the arena with the Olympic flag in her hand. ‘I trotted behind on tiptoe, holding my section above my head with my arm extended. I was dwarfed beneath the damned flag. Of course all cameras were focused on Sophia Loren, the eternal symbol of beauty and sexuality, and that worked in my favor because I appeared in all the press photographs, even though between Sophia’s legs’. And it was her four minutes of fame that she never wants to forget.

She has traveled a lot especially for book launches. But one of her most remembered journey, apparently was same like mine: a trip to India!. She took this trip with Tabra, her closest friend, and Willie her husband. At first she did not want to go there but her friend and husband convinced her that there was more to India than ‘devastated villages, starting children, and nine-year-old girls sold into early marriages, forced labour, or prostitution’. She also thought of Paula, who one day went to India and convinced her that India is the richest source of inspiration for a writer’.

She came back home from India, fascinated. She said that India was one of those experiences that mark you for life, memorable for many reasons’.

I could not help thinking and remembering my own trip to India two years ago. I only spent two days of traveling though was there for seven days, the five long days I was in a concentration camp…literally, I had to concentrate on some training while my mind was wandering somewhere else!. But up until today, those two days really left a mark on my mind. India is indeed fascinating, some kind of a psychedelic experience, that somehow lingers on my mind till today.

The Taj is just one of India's wonders that have been

imprinted on my mind...there are more...lots more

Her colourful family life

It is also touching to read how Allende has tried to ensure she has her ‘tribe’ around her. Being a Chilean who is used to a large family, she also wants to have it in the USA where she has migrated to. And it was no easy ride for her, neither for her family members.

Nico, her son, one day had to tell her that she was too much in their lives. She used to come into her son’s house uninvited, changed‘make myself scarce, and added that children must be separated from the mother or they will be infantile forever’ things in his home without approval, gave her grandchildren things that her son and wife have forbidden them to do or eat.

It was a blow for Allende. She ‘called Chile and talked with my parents. At first they didn’t understand very well what the problem was, since in Chilean families relations tend to be what I had imposed on Nico and Lori, but then they remembered that customs are different in the United States. Her father gave her an advice to ‘make myself scarce, and added that children must be separated from the mother or they will be infantile forever’. That opened her eyes, made her realized that her son and wife (who is an American), need their space.

That story made me reflected on my own family life. We live with my mother, and it must have been difficult to be her. Trying to restrain self not to intrude and yet, somehow sometimes has successfully done just that. We have had our disagreements. And I think now we are in good terms because of two things: we have made ourselves scarce from time to time by going to our Cocoon, or traveling. I guess, distance and scarcity can really make the heart grows fonder.

I am sure when Tara is married and has her own kids, I may do the same thing that Allende or my mother has done as a grandmother. Hopefully, I can still remember her father’s advise if we ever get into disagreement, as what I have experienced myself.

Her marriage life is not without problems. They almost got divorced. They consulted a therapist and worked hard on their marriage and they pulled through. She is often asked in interviews about her secrets to maintain her notable relationship with Willie. Rather than giving a formula, she told a story when she learned something from a composer and his wife who visited her family.

This couple renewed their commitments seven times during their long life together (they were in their sixties). The composer said, “In all, we have gone through seven marriages and no doubt there are more to come. It isn’t the same thing to be a couple when you are raising children, with no money and no time, as when you are in your mature years, established in your profession, and expecting your first grandchild”.

So I guess, just like running a company where we have the strategic meeting every year to review the year before and then to decide what the next target will be for the next year, the same goes with marriage. Well, not in such a ‘cold’ thing as determining a target. But, a review, re-establishment, re-adjustment, and, renewal, is going to be needed by both parties. I kind of like that idea. Rather than having myself busy only thinking of, “What should be my next business achievement?”, I should also be thinking of, “Where is this marriage going and what should we do more or less of to still make it work?”.

That may sound easy, but with our hectic life, somehow I think we forget about asking this kind of question about our personal life, till one day we realize it’s too late to ask questions. I am hoping I don’t have to be at such point. Thanks to Allende’s novel – I was reminded.

Inspirations to other writers

And to anyone wanting to be a writer, I think reading Allende’s book is going to be quite inspiring. It is just fascinating to read her rich personal experiences turned into a wonderful memoir of life. And it is also interesting, at least for me, to know that Allende has even published a trilogy for teens. She did this because her grandchildren often asked her to create stories for them using clues that they gave to her. And sometimes, her grandchildren asked her to tell them the same story that she has told them before – which of course she could no longer remember. So one day she decided to write a trilogy of fiction, with active participation of her grandchildren in giving her clues and inspiration.

What a wonderful way to bond as well, I think. And a very good reason to start writing so you have a memory of what it was with your loved ones.

A novel worth reading

So, all in all, my verdict for this memoir is EXCELLENT. Very easy reading though at some parts the topic is actually heavy. Very nice conversational language. And the best thing is, so much that you can possibly take as a lesson in life.

I like this a lot better than any Paulo Coelho novels which I somehow found too wishy woshy, and filled with languages that are too flowery. Allende uses words that are direct, and her sense of humour is remarkable. I guess this is perhaps the result of her years of training in Journalism before she turned into a novelist.

If you are looking for some inspiration in life, try reading this novel. And then maybe you can share with me what your favourite parts were.



  1. Ha! I got hooked with Isabel Allende because of "House of the Spirits" too! But I saw the movie first. Since reading that book, I can't get enough for Allende :)

    I must avoid reading this entry of yours, though, since I'm currently reading "The Sum of Our Days" too (just bought it at the airport on Sept 1 ;)).

  2. May....have you read the book? so how was it?. di-share yah


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