The Book of Love in the Time of Dead Bodies
February 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
The only thing I knew for sure about Isabel Allende before I picked up this book was that she is a Chilean author who shares a last name with a murdered President of that country. And so, out of curiosity, I googled her before I read the book. The first thing I found was that she is not (as I had thought) the daughter of Salvador Allende – that is a different person, a politician of the same name. I also found that Isabel – the novelist – is very popular indeed. Wikipedia says she is “the world’s most widely read Spanish language author”, which is pretty impressive, when you think about it, given the quality and volume of Spanish literature that has come out of two continents across half a millennium, and the fact that Allende’s career as a novelist began only after the age of forty, and only after a successful career as a TV and magazine journalist.
Of course, I also found that her Wikipedia entry was ablaze with flames from such eminent personalities as Roberto Bolano and Harold Bloom. The general drift of their criticism seems to be that she writes frivolous, populist fluff, and lots of it, and that it isn’t really literature. To which Allende and her fans respond, is it a crime to write popular fiction? Does it cease to be serious literature just because it sells well? Isn’t such an attitude elitist and snobbish? To which, her detractors respond…actually I am not sure what they say (my research was perfunctory), but perhaps they would point to her website, the interviews, the Hollywood movies based on her books, the Oprah Winfrey show, the books targeting the young adult segment, and the numerous public appearances with celebrities around the world, and I think they would find the savvy marketing and shrewd self-promotion indecorous and unbecoming in an ‘intellectual’. There is a part of me that agrees – an over-emphasis on advertisement does reduce my admiration for talented people of any persuasion, as I begin to suspect their motives. Call me naive, but I automatically expect great surgeons to be motivated by the idea of saving lives, great generals by that of patriotism, great lawyers by the pursuit of truth and justice, and so on. Of course they should be well paid for their work, but the money itself cannot be their prime motive. As for great builders, poets, composers, and artists, I expect that for them, the process of bringing something beautiful into the world is its own reward.
Having said that, I also believe that while a whiff of commerce could taint a writer’s reputation, it cannot tarnish her text; any criticism of Allende’s books and whether they are literature, must be restricted to a discussion of their inherent literary merit, or lack thereof. I decided to find out for myself, and finally turned to the novel at hand.
Of Love and Shadows was Allende’s second novel, written in 1984 on the heels of the blockbuster success of The House of the Spirits, which had earned her high praise – some reviewers had hailed her a magic realist in the Marquez mould.
After all this hype and counter-hype, the book proved a bit tame: it was neither brilliant enough to merit effusion, nor badly written enough to deserve barbs. I was in two minds about whether it was a romantic story set in a politically charged environment, or a political novel with a romantic subtext. The two don’t mix too well, in my opinion – as exemplified by the critical scene where the two protagonists find the decaying bodies of several political prisoners buried in a deserted mine, get devastated by the discovery and its possible ramifications- and promptly proceed to console each other by making tempestuous love under the stars. If there is ever a justification for the immortal words, ‘Not In The Mood, Honey’, I suspect that it is under those precise circumstances, but then I cannot be sure, as I have personally never stumbled upon decomposing bodies and so cannot attest to their effect on the libido.
So it is a book in two halves – there is the Love and there are the Shadows. The political drama is intense, grippingly narrated, and clearly has its origins in Chile’s traumatic experiences under General Augusto Pinochet, as well as those of other Latin American nations under military rule for much of the 20th century. Allende’s scorn for the delusional and parasitic elite and her empathy for the common people of the land seem genuine enough, as does her anguish for their plight under the jackboots of the junta and her passion for democracy. So that part is the Love. The romance, for the reasons mentioned, I found a bit Shady. Allende clearly knows how to tell a story and hold an audience, and draws each character lovingly and painstakingly, although in monochrome silhouette: I sensed that for her, the characters were just pieces on a chessboard, tools for the advancement of the plot; that the story was bigger than any of them.
Finally, what of magic realism? “To me,” says Mexican critic Luis Leal, “magic realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel towards the world…if you can explain it, it’s not magical realism.” Without going into the complicated differences between magic realism and magical realism, I think it is irresponsible of a critic to hold this position – if there are inexplicable things about novels, we may as well dispense with the need for critics. Luckily, I am only a reader, not a critic, and can afford to confess my inadequacies freely.
To some, magic realism is about the incorporation of elements of fantasy into an essentially realistic story, either by means of magical characters or non-linear timelines. To others, magic realism simply means political critique. There’s a huge spectrum there. I will not pretend to be able to contribute to this debate, so all I can say, with reference to Of Love and Shadows, is that I found much realism in the politics, and not a lot of magic in the romance.