Isabel Allende and the grievances of the 'boom': "Bolaño said that she was not a writer but a writer"

Through the screen, the first watercolor blue of the Pacific is intuited.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
26 May 2023 Friday 22:23
1 Reads
Isabel Allende and the grievances of the 'boom': "Bolaño said that she was not a writer but a writer"

Through the screen, the first watercolor blue of the Pacific is intuited. It is nine in the morning in Sausalito (California) and Isabel Allende, well combed and made up, is sitting in her office –although the place where she writes daily is located in the garden, “the little house”, she says- . She does not look like the eighty years that she has fulfilled. Cuatro has been married to Roger: “A gringo with a thick accent from the Bronx, but the guy is affectionate and has good manners. And that is the only thing that is needed at my age”, she affirms.

In his study, white walls, shelves, a couple of orchids, well-stacked books and some photos. “Look, this was Paulita”, she will tell me when we have been talking for more than half an hour, after having affirmed, and gesturing, that the death of a daughter leaves pain under the skin. In the background, a painting by her mother, Panchita: “She painted very well, but she lacked self-confidence. We were raised like this. Now that has changed."

But you have repeated that you are passionate. Can you be a passionate old lady?

Wait: I'm not an old lady, huh! I am old, proudly old, but not old. I do not need help to move or to eat. That is the difference

Allende is the one that sells the most books in Spanish -more than 75 million-, the only woman who was counted between the so-called Latin American boom and post-boom. It was not easy for her: she only kept memories of her father, a diplomat, until she was five years old, because Tomás Allende - Salvador Allende's brother - abandoned her mother and her three children. Dictatorship, exile, the loss of her daughter Paula, drug addicted stepsons, her companions who disdained her.

They accused her of being sentimental and easy. But without meaning to, she was entering thousands of other people's lives through her literary voices. Her readers, millions around the world, have always been her anchor. She has never let go of a pain that continues to connect her with lost stories. She made an autobiographical cast after the death of her daughter Paula, aged 28, in Madrid And the Isabel Allende Foundation created one, in memory of her daughter, who had worked volunteer in marginal communities (in Venezuela and Spain)

The award-winning writer spends humor, energy and an exquisite education. She doesn't want to travel, or parties or revelries, but her expression is effervescent, as frank as it is spellbinding. On June 7, her new novel The Wind Knows My Name (Alfaguara) will be published, a story about abandonment and the border, the guerrilla, exile, and love between equals. It is also a contemporary x-ray of the human condition in extreme situations whose stories beat between pain and hope.

'The wind knows my name' deals with stories of abandonment and the emotional swarm that crossing the border entails.

Through my Foundation, we help high-risk people at the borders. Every so often we get tremendous stories. That is why a character in the book like Anita, a blind girl, exists. Those who work to help people like her are, above all, women: psychologists, lawyers, social workers... With them I did the research for the book. That's why I know exactly where the border crossing is.

The novel starts in Vienna in 1936 and the persecution of the Jews.

Years ago I saw a play about Jewish children who left Austria, Poland, etc.. for England. alone. The parents knew that sending them on a train was the only way to save them. Today, in Central America, what the gangs do is tremendous. They rape girls and integrate boys into criminal gangs. The only thing parents can do is send their children to the United States.

The exodus is a constant throughout history.

Nothing changes. Right now there are children from Ukraine who are in the same situation: their parents have taken them out of the country, sometimes alone, to save them from the war.

Do you always start your books on January 8 out of superstition?

For discipline. There are many things that try to keep me from writing: conferences, interviews, my Foundation... And that's the only way I have to dedicate myself to what I like the most.

But I read that he complained about discipline because it took away his freedom.

It's just that before, discipline made me feel secure and now I don't need that security. I still have some traces of that time. For example: I am sick of punctuality. That's one of the problems I have with Roger. Because he lived 48 years with a late Italian and it drives me crazy!

His writing is sensual and bewitching

It will be for the music of the words. I don't know anything about music, huh, but music is universal. In The Wind Knows My Name I wanted to associate an old man with a girl, and the music helped me to make that connection.

In 'Mujeres del alma' you affirm that you have been a feminist since kindergarten.

My mother was a 25-year-old woman, with three children and no husband, who lived on the charity of her father and her brother until she remarried my stepfather. Since she was a kept she had to put up with a lot. I grew up in the midst of all that and had no choice but to reveal myself. I was thrown out of the nuns at the age of six, but not because she was bad, but because she was the daughter of an estranged woman.

And you never looked for your father?

Never! If he didn't care about me, why would he care about me?

His mother married very young.

In my Foundation we work in this sense. In Africa, we have a show called Too Young to Marry. In Afghanistan, they trade girls for sacks of rice. Well, we want women to know that they are worth a lot. But in some countries we take a small step and in others we cannot. And then there is what has happened in the United States: a tremendous setback in abortion and contraceptives are already being limited. Terrible. We have the case of Gabriel Zamora, a nine-year-old boy who was sent alone to the United States. The coyote that should have brought him abandoned him in Guatemala. He was missing for two months, crossed the border three times and was deported three times... He is now 32 years old and has written a beautiful book, it is called Alone. He has an Einstein visa, which is given to geniuses here, and he has graduated from Harvard. He arrived, despite everything, but many others stay on the road.

Success did not take long for you.

But the success was unexpected, yes, The House of the Spirits changed my life.

You wrote your first book in the kitchen, right?

Yes, in an apartment in Caracas. She didn't know what he was doing, if it was going to be a novel or what, she didn't have a script, nothing. The only thing I wanted was to tell all the things I remembered about my family in Chile, the anecdotes of my grandfather, the terror that my country had experienced with the dictatorship.

Why this need to count?

I was always a good reader, I lived my childhood with a book in my hand, but I began to approach literature through the periphery, without daring to say: "I want to be a writer." Among other things because he had no role models. All the boomers were men. And the writers that I had read were English ladies who had committed suicide. All of them! Imagine!

But he did journalism, and in 1967 he had a column titled 'Civilize Your Troglodyte.'

Yes Yes. She wrote for Paula magazine, made by four women. I was not a journalist, I was daring. And there I learned a lot. For the first time in Chile there was talk of abortion, of domestic violence... It was a very feminist magazine for the time. But I really wasn't. I married too young not to stay single. I was one of those housewives who waits for the husband with a Martini. Completely stupid. One of those who dreamed of Prince Charming: a handsome, strong, elegant man who would notice you and protect you. Then those are the worst, they are the ones who mistreat you.

That kind of difficult man, so exalted by romantic love...

That you could have as a lover, but not as a husband.

Do you believe that love has a specific duration?

Yes. It lasts me about twenty years. Then I realize that it doesn't work anymore and I spend another eight years trying to fix it. But not anymore: as soon as things begin to deteriorate: bye fish!

Is that security determined by age?

Yes. I am 80 years old and I feel good, healthy. I am aware that I don't have much life left and I want every day to be a celebration. I wake up every day with two dogs and a husband, in that order, what a wonderful thing! But time goes by quickly and many people my age are deteriorating: one fell and broke his hip, another got Covid and was left with sequelae... You have to take advantage of the present. Look, I am living the happiest time of my life, second only to when my children were little and I loved raising them. I have no responsibility. My parents are no longer here, my children are perfectly fine and don't need me, my grandchildren don't look for me much and they dedicate themselves to studying...

What place now occupies the libido?

In the daily, simple, private life that I have with Roger. I get home, open the door and a feeling of nest welcomes me. There are the flowers, my dogs, Roger cooking. That's delicious. With Roger we have tremendous complicity: we plan what movie to see at night, when to meet up with friends. And then there is writing, which is a deeper pleasure. If I'm not writing, I'm thinking about what I'm going to write. Always. I am all the time involved in my stories, abstracted from the harsh reality that surrounds us.

Do you believe in any religion?

Of religion, nothing. But I do have a spiritual part. Because the mystery of existence cannot be easily explained. My grandmother used to say that there are infinite dimensions and that the transition between one dimension and another can be so subtle that you don't even realize it and that the living can be with the dead if you remember and love them. And it's true: that's how my mom and Paula are still alive. Also my stepfather, whom I have loved very much. But especially my mom and Paula. Here I have it, look how pretty Paulita. In this photo I am with my mom when she was little. Look at this other one: here my mom was already about 45 years old..

Going back to feminism, I would like to ask you…

Oh my dear! What we have to do about that is unseat the patriarchy. And that is not overthrown by reproducing what men do. We have to go another way. Nothing is too radical. The pendulum goes back and forth, back and forth. There are always setbacks, but because every revolution is messy and chaotic and with errors.

Have you been offended for being a woman and a writer?

Many times. More in Chile than elsewhere. Because there is what we call chaqueteo: someone rises up and there is no lack of someone pulling his jacket to stop him. It's envy, bad milk. And if you are a woman, much worse! Of all the national prizes for Chilean literature, only five are women (Allende obtained it in 2010). They gave Gabriela Mistral the Nobel, the Nobel, dear!, and despite that, for a long time she ignored her work in Chile. The envy of colleagues is very harmful. In my case I have had the support of my readers -more readers than readers-.

Did you suffer direct grievances from your fellow writers?

Clear. Roberto Bolaño said that I was not a writer, that I was a writer. Jorge Edwards affirmed that I did not do literature, that I did simple commercial works. Then Carmen Balcells asked him: "Jorge, but have you read it?" And he replied: "no and I'm not going to read it." In other words: she was the rage that she had because I sold more than him.

Carmen Balcells, the charismatic literary agent, always supported her.

I was nobody and she received me with enormous respect and affection, she told me: "You will have to work twice as hard as a man to obtain respect and recognition." She also added: "Anyone can write a good first book, but the big test is in the second." Carmen was very clear.

Your daughter Paula died at the age of 28, after several months in a coma. How do you survive that?

You never heal from that. Sometimes I surprise myself saying: “Paulita, Paulita”. But I don't know exactly what I'm doing, calling her or what. I get many letters from mothers who have lost or are about to lose their daughters. And what do you tell them? Well, the pain will always be within them, but also that life has other things to enjoy.

Did your mother encourage you to marry again?

Yeah! She told him: but why mom? We can be lovers and that's it. And she: look, lovers come and go. Husbands, no. The husbands are trapped. Oh my mom!

In 'Mujeres del alma' (Alfaguara) she tells that she has 'non-binary' grandchildren.

Yes Yes. Look: any classification... is bad. Nothing should be imposed on us, we are people of all colors and of all genders.

Have you had any vices throughout your life?

Vice? I don't identify any. Perhaps my only vice is writing. I tried marijuana. I tried ecstasy with a psychiatrist. Ayahuasca, a couple of times. But it was just that: try.

Have you been to therapy?

Yes. After Paula died and to try to fix my previous marriage. And we separated: there were no lawyers, no lawsuits or anything. Later I found out that he cheated on me when Paula was dying. But I didn't know it at the time. And how good. Because that would have killed me already: the death of my daughter and the cuckolding at the same time, no, no, no!

You are an elegant and seductive woman...

And vain!, hahahaha. One day the people from Vogue came, wearing evening dresses, and I asked why. And they told me: because you are the great lady of literature and we want a very aristocratic image of you. They were a lot of clothes that I would never wear! Do you know what's up? That I am never fashionable, but I am always dressed up. Roger never sees me in a mess, without combing my hair, without makeup... I always think: today is when I'm going to look better than ever.

Has your relationship with the mirror always been good?

It wasn't good. I have always had a tendency to gain weight. If I didn't take care of myself, I'd be a ball. I didn't feel attractive. I'm short. When I worked at Paula magazine, I would see a lot of great models and I would look at myself in the mirror and… no, no. Years passed and little by little I wanted to look good and I began to dress up and, hey, today I feel good.

How do you experience erotic passion at your age?

The erotic passion does not end. My mother, shortly before she died, at ninety-eight, told me that she had had an erotic dream. I take estrogen and thanks to that I feel younger. But I am an eighty-year-old woman and I am married to an eighty-year-old man and the sexual desire we have is not the same as it was forty years ago, but one adjusts. We don't do stunts anymore, but… Hahahahaha. Look: sexual life is important, because it is full intimacy. That skin with skin…. It's wonderful, isn't it? That and other things, of course. One day Roger was asked what it was like to be married to Isabel Allende. And he said: it's like waking up as a child and knowing that they are going to take you to the circus.