'My Invented Country': Life Within and Without Chile
By PETER CAMERON
Isabel Allende was born not in Chile but in Lima, Peru, where she lived
until she was 4. When her father, a secretary at the embassy, deserted
the family -- he ''went out to buy cigarettes and never came back'' --
Allende's mother was forced to return to her native Santiago. Allende spent
the next five years living in Chile,
until she moved to Bolivia, where her stepfather, another diplomat, had been posted. After two years in Bolivia, the family moved to Lebanon. She spent three years in Beirut before the civil war of 1958 caused the family to scatter: Allende and her brothers returned to Chile, and her mother moved to Spain before joining
her husband in Turkey.
On her return to her grandfather's house in Santiago, Allende was ''the
most miserable adolescent in the history of humankind,'' no doubt due to
''childhood and adolescence . . . marked with journeys and farewells.'' For the most part, she would remain in Santiago for nearly another two decades, marrying,
working as a journalist and having a family before circumstances forced her to leave once again. In 1975, two years after the brutal military coup that toppled the
socialist government led by her father's cousin, Salvador Allende, she fled, sleepless and trembling with fear, to Venezuela, ''carrying a handful of Chilean soil from my garden.'' For more than a decade, Allende lived in Caracas, until the publication of her first novel, ''The House of the Spirits,'' and the dissolution of her first marriage freed her to begin a new life in California, where she remarried and has remained ever since.
It isn't easy to piece together this timeline after reading ''My Invented
Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile,'' Allende's new memoir about
her life within and
without her native land. To make a coherent story of her experiences, a reader must sift and reorder fragments of information that are offered throughout the book,
rather like shards of pottery murkily glimpsed at the bottom of a river, where a swift current constantly rearranges them.
In many ways, given the tremendous amount of geographical, personal and political upset in her life, this disorder makes perfect sense. It is in Allende's novels -- many of them based upon her family's life and her own -- that coherence is achieved, for often it is only in novels, in art, where what has been irreparably sundered can be made whole. And so while this slim book may afford readers a truer and more intimate picture of Allende's life, it is a picture that seems both unnecessary and underrealized. Time and again, we learn that because an event, detail or story has already been told by her elsewhere, she will not tell it again. (''I won't expand on that here since I have already recounted it in the final chapters of my first novel and in my memoir 'Paula' ''; ''I won't repeat here the details of those years . . . because I have already told about them elsewhere''; ''I recounted her drama in the 'Stories of Eva Luna,' and I don't want to repeat it here.'')
''My Imaginary Country'' is full of holes that can be filled only by consulting the pertinent passages from Allende's earlier novels and memoirs. This can make frustrating reading for those who don't have her entire oeuvre in their heads or at their fingertips.
Allende has no illusions about her haphazard scheme and its effect.
''This book is not intended to be a political or historical chronicle,''
she confesses, ''only a series of recollections.'' Elsewhere she reveals
that ''I am writing this . . . without a plan.'' The book's random nature
is reinforced by her casual, chatty tone, which is always charming and
entertaining (although some of her humor can seem forced in translation;
Allende writes in Spanish and is translated here by Margaret Sayers Peden).
Her observations about how her initial estrangement and later exile from
Chile have come to form her and influence her writing are interesting and
expressed. ''Several times I have found it necessary to pull up stakes, sever all ties and leave everything behind.'' The first time she left Chile, as a child, she felt
''something tear inside me . . . an insurmountable sadness was crystallizing deep within me.'' ''The House of the Spirits,'' she tells us, ''was an attempt to recapture my
lost country, to reunite my scattered family, to revive the dead and preserve their memories.''
These observations about the effects of history and memory on her writing
are surrounded by more generic observations about Chile and Chileans. As
Allende is prone to generalizations (''Chileans are bad-humored''; ''Cubans are enchanting'') and exaggerations (Chile ''is the most Catholic country in the world --
more Catholic than Ireland, and certainly much more so than the Vatican''; ''We drank more tea than the entire population of Asia put together''). These remarks may
be characteristically Chilean -- ''we make statements without any basis, but in a tone of such certainty that no one doubts us'' -- yet they don't help conjure a
particularly vivid portrait of the country.
The freshest and most specific images in this book all come directly
from Allende's life. Some of the loveliest writing is about her maternal
grandfather, a ''formidable
man'' who ''gave me the gift of discipline and love for language.'' Clearly this autocratic and idiosyncratic man had a large and lasting influence on Allende, and the
picture of him that she creates in these pages is full-bodied and affecting. He was a man who ''never believed in germs, for the same reason he didn't believe in ghosts: he'd never seen one,'' and who admired the young Isabel's desire to be strong and independent but was unable to foster or even condone such unfeminine
characteristics. One of the most keenly felt holes in the book is made when she must leave him, when she flees Chile after Pinochet takes power.
Reading along, I kept wondering: don't fiction writers trust themselves? Or why don't they? It seems to me that everything Allende attempts to relate in this memoir she has already eloquently expressed in her previous books. But, of course, what is expressed in fiction is often elliptical and nuanced, and therefore not to be trusted. So here are parts of her story on the nonfiction record, in an enticing yet frustrating book that will send many readers back to the source (or the sources) -- her novels.
Peter Cameron is the author of four novels, including ''Andorra'' and ''The City of Your Final Destination.''