By Isabelle Allende
Translated by Frances Riddle
“In this country there are always calamities, and it is not difficult to connect them to an event of life,” writes Violeta, 100, to a shadowy figure in the new novel by Isabel Allende. Violeta could just as well describe the epistolary epic that frames her own life, also full of calamities: the dissolution of a family fortune, a tumultuous marriage interspersed with love affairs, the machinations of family and friends for a century , all against political upheaval in his native country, an unnamed Latin American country.
Hooked by pandemics – the Spanish flu and the Covid crisis – “Violeta” recounts a feminist awakening in the midst of twin repressive forces, the state and the domestic sphere, in passages whose breadth is punctuated by sometimes stilted explanatory dialogues . When Violeta drops a subtle callback to “The House of the Spirits,” revealing her connection to its protagonist, one might crave the inventive details that made Allende’s debut novel an icon of post-Latin American literature. -boom: “Grandmother Nívea…had been decapitated in a horrific car accident and her head was lost in a field; there was an aunt who communed with spirits and a family dog who grew up and grew until he reached the size of a camel. This novel forgoes such chimeras in favor of the realism of the titles in a stylistically straightforward translation; there are no more camel dogs, only the stare absolutely without sentimentality from Violeta as she recounts the brutality of a fascist coup, her anguish over the disappearance of her son, a political exile, and her strained relationship with her father – who she later discovers can to have had a hand in both .
This middle section, the strongest in the novel, recounts the events leading up to dictatorship in a country like Chile, with a dictator like Pinochet, in unwavering, airy prose that focuses on the class and gender tensions that play out in everyday life. Violeta delivers humorous reprieve and no-nonsense ruminations—she dislikes children (“the only good thing about children is that they grow up fast”), resents men whose “success can be attributed to her” ( “as he researched, experimented, wrote… I took care of household expenses and saved up”), finds the marriage stifling (“as quiet as life in a convent”) and laments the double language that qualifies her as an “adulterous woman, a concubine, a capricious lover”.
When Violeta finally contemplates her own passive collusion with the regime, having amassed wealth and led a comfortable life as a country bled around her, I wished for a bit of the same insight. Violeta’s naïve, at times colonialist focus translates into a reckless romanticism: “The mixture of races is very appealing,” she writes earnestly, of a mixed-race acquaintance. She praises her grandson’s missionary work in the Congo “in a community that was just a pile of garbage before I got there”, and while admitting her ignorance (“I didn’t know anything about Africa … I was unable to distinguish one country from another”) fails to recognize the saviorism and essentialism behind his praise. Violeta’s calculation leads to the development of a foundation to support survivors of domestic violence – but a conclusion that “if you really want to help others, you’re going to need the money” is circular logic that feels like a watery offering on soggy altar-blood, quietly tiptoeing off the page after careful rendering of the political graveyards that haunt the Latin American psyche.