Among my preparations for moving to Chile included some literary research of the country’s famous authors. I’ll have to get to Mistral and Neruda, but my first story was Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits. Written in 1981, during the decade after the Pinochet Coup, the book was an instant best-seller and award-winner for a reason: it represents a beautiful compilation of Chilean historical fiction, social anthropology, and Latin magical realism. House of the Spirits is a timeless classic that is a must-read for anyone seeking deep insights on love and the life cycle, family, or simply an intense, fun, dynamic story.
Allende begins with Chilean society at the beginning of the 20th century: a calm post-colonial country dominated by social hierarchy and stratification, religious conservatism, and vast economic inequality. The story follows the rise of Esteban Trueba, a boy from the lower middle class who inherits a plot of land in the Norte Chico and, through hard work and brutal treatment of the peasantry, converts Tres Marías into one of the most successful haciendas in the entire country. His love for two sisters from the upper class Del Valle family of Santiago envelops him into a culture of heartbreak and otherworldly premonitions that will last his whole life. His traditional rigidity towards class and gender roles leads to him losing the love of his wife and his children. While his success in business and disdain for Marxism gives him great political prestige, he becomes increasingly alone, shrinking both in stature and spirit as he ages. Trueba is a fascinating character throughout the book: he embraces a dual role as both protagonist and antagonist, a cruel, insensitive, cunning fox of a man also possessing flashes of compassion and unwavering love for his family and his country. He is a metaphor for the Chile of Allende’s time, a heart-achingly bittersweet collection of beauty and tragedy, with good intentions but unable to see past outdated views until too late.
House of the Spirits masterfully ties together the progression of the Trueba family with the political processes that lead to the 1973 coup, ending with overarching lessons on the grander meaning of society and existence. Love plays a central role in the story: it bridges social barriers, personal ideologies, and in many cases safety and common sense. Despite being one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the entire country, Esteban cannot prevent his daughter from falling in love with the son of his peasant foreman, his eccentric sons from practicing Eastern mysticism and illegal abortions for the poor, and his beloved granddaughter from becoming a leader of the guerrilla political opposition, a role that eventually leads to her torture and mutilation. Following the electoral victory of Allende’s Socialists (the Candidate becoming the President), Trueba almost singlehandedly engineers a military coup to restore the power of the Conservatives, ever distrustful of workers’ rights and communism since his days as a pseudo-feudal patrón. However, this plan backfires when the military installs a totalitarian dictatorship and begins ruthlessly hunting and persecuting any opponents of the new regime, on both the left and the right.
In Allende’s most important illustration, Trueba realizes that a lifetime full of hate, anger, and manipulation has taught him nothing in a situation where every man is for himself, without the aid of detrimental, traditionalist social structures and constructs. Much like the country of Chile, Trueba learns the lessons of humility, defacement, and embarrassment as tanks and death squads roam the silent streets of Santiago. Esteban loses his son, must embrace his bastard son-in-law, and admit his defeat in order to save the remainder of his family and his dignity. By giving up all pretenses of superiority and entitlement, Trueba is able to die peacefully, his loved ones secure and a life of rage and torment finally over. He does so in the background of a shattered state, emphasizing the importance of courage, passion, and love in the face of an uncertain, cruel world beyond personal control. House of the Spirits is a powerful story of magnificent proportions, a reflection of personal conduct and societal priorities amidst the ethereal realities of the universe.