Book review: “Violeta”, by Isabel Allende


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.


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