MIAMI — Shortly before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Isabel Allende suffered one of the greatest losses of her life: the death of her mother.
On Tuesday, the Chilean author published “Violeta”, a novel that begins and ends with an epidemic and covers the last 100 years of history through the eyes of a grandmother inspired by her mother, Panchita, one of the women who marked her the most.
Violeta, a strong woman who manages to overcome countless obstacles, gradually reveals the details of her family and love life to her grandson Camilo, whom she has raised since the day of his birth.
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Set primarily in Chilean Patagonia, with moments in Argentina, Miami and Norway, the novel deals with a wide range of themes, from feminism and verbal abuse, to human rights abuses and the homosexuality, amorous passions, infidelity and even global warming.
Over its nearly 400 pages, it also reviews the socialist movements, communism, the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone and the democracies.
“Violeta, like my mother, was a person, a beautiful woman, who was not very aware of her beauty. She was smart, visionary, talented, with great money-making ideas,” Allende, 79, said in an interview in Spanish from her home in California. “She takes all the risks, whether it’s her love life and the life she wants to lead… The difference is that my mother has always been financially dependent on someone.”
So Violeta, the woman who tells her grandson that his life is worth telling not so much for its virtues as for its sins, is part Allende’s mother, part herself and “much of imagination”.
The novel, published in the United States by Ballantine, an imprint of Penguin Random House, begins when Panchita was born during the so-called Spanish flu of 1920 and ends when he died during the coronavirus. in 2020. Allende goes through the nearly century-old life of a woman born into a conservative and wealthy Chilean family, a status that changed dramatically when the Great Depression left them homeless.
The original idea for the book came about after the death of Allende’s mother. Knowing that the two had had a very close relationship and had been able to exchange thousands of letters daily, some of Allende’s friends suggested that he write a book about his mother’s life. The novelist was still too emotional to see her mother with the perspective necessary to write about her.
Months passed and, when she felt stronger, she started “Violeta” inspired by her mother, but with one marked difference: the protagonist is a woman who supports herself and a good part of his family through his businesses.
The character of Camilo, a mischievous and rebellious grandson who was raised by Violeta and who later became a priest, is inspired by the Chilean Jesuit priest Felipe Berríos del Solar, a social activist critical of the Church who fights against inequalities and segregation and who for years had been a “very close friend” of Allende. The author dedicates the book to him, his son Nicolás and his daughter-in-law Lori, his “pillars” in his old age.
And from these conversations between a writer who describes herself as “completely agnostic and feminist” and a progressive priest emerged Camilo, to whom her grandmother Violeta confesses her admiration and tells her that he is the greatest love of her life. In real life, Allende feels the same about her son Nicolás.
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Perhaps that is also why a large part of the character’s childhood anecdotes are those of his son, who after having made his first communion in a religious school in Venezuela told Allende that he did not believe not in God and did not want to go to church, the author recalls.
Throughout her life, Violeta is marked by death: that of her mother; his daughter Nieves, the mother of Camilo (a young drug addict inspired by Jennifer, one of the daughters of Willy Gordon, Allende’s ex-husband); his governess Miss Taylor and a lover, Roy.
The writer herself lived through the death of her 29-year-old daughter, Paula, in 1992, and that partly helped her with the character.
“I could describe that terrible pain of seeing your daughter die because I had been through it,” says Allende, who in 1994 published the memoir “Paula” in honor of her daughter.
Along with love, violence, the strength of women and the absence of fathers, death is a recurring theme in Allende’s books, from “The House of the Spirits” to “A Long Petal of the Sea”. This time, the message she wanted to convey was what she saw as her mother grew old and lacked friends and loved ones.
“Loss is an important thing of old age. There is so much loss! Everything dies for you,” the writer says, reflecting on the experience of his mother, who died at the age of 98. “It was important to make that clear in the book, that the longer you live, the more you lose. .”
For Allende, the world’s most widely read living Spanish-language author, the coronavirus pandemic has been an opportunity. Away from her travels and world promotional tours, she bought the time she needed to turn more stories into books. “Violeta”, Allende’s second book on the pandemic after the non-fiction “The Soul of a Woman”, already has a third loan: a novel about refugees which is in the process of being translated (the author writing fiction in Spanish.)
And like every year, on January 8, she started writing a new one.
“I had the time, the silence and the solitude to write,” the author says, expressing her gratitude that no one in her family fell ill with COVID-19. “Maybe I always have stories, I don’t need inspiration; what I need is time to write.