Nov­el­ist’s purest sym­phony of be­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­tonella Gam­botto- Burke

IT is no ac­ci­dent that Is­abel Al­lende has sold 51 mil­lion books in 30 lan­guages. She has changed the mod­ern lit­er­ary land­scape with dis­ci­pline, an in­ex­haustible imag­i­na­tion and crim­i­nal lev­els of charm; her oeu­vre is an aphro­disiac in it­self, as panop­tic in scope as the most be­guil­ing of love af­fairs.

To read her work is to re­sign from the quo­tid­ian. There is noth­ing or­di­nary about Al­lende’s worlds, how­ever ar­dently they may de­pict the ev­ery­day; whether writ­ing about her own life, that of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures or those of char­ac­ters ( hers and oth­ers), she im­parts a sense of mag­is­te­rial fri­vol­ity. And the latest of her 16 books, a mem­oir en­ti­tled The Sum of Our Days , is no dif­fer­ent.

A cel­e­bra­tion of life, it doc­u­ments the births and deaths, wed­dings and di­vorces, unions and re­unions, abuses, and shift­ing mass of Al­lende’s half- Amer­i­can fam­ily.

It be­gins in 1993, where Paula — the sub­lime mem­oir Al­lende wrote for her co­matose ( now 16 years dead) daugh­ter — ends, and threads through­out the in­ter­ven­ing 13 years. ‘‘ I am a born liar,’’ she mis­chie­vously as­serts, ‘‘ so fiction is my ter­ri­tory . . . Then, why tackle a mem­oir? I want to re­mem­ber. If I don’t write it, I for­get, and then it is as if it never hap­pened; by record­ing my life I can live twice.’’

Able to draw on the daily let­ters she has writ­ten to her ‘‘ im­mor­tal’’ mother for more than three decades, Al­lende is con­fronted by a se­ri­ous com­pli­ca­tion: her sec­ond hus­band’s fam­ily has no in­ter­est in be­ing ex­posed. Forced to rein in her rich de­scrip­tive prow­ess and ge­nius for ob­ser­va­tion, she shrugs. ‘‘ There is no lack of drama in my life. I have more than enough three- ring cir­cus ma­te­rial for writ­ing.’’

William C. Gor­don, a dis­as­trous fa­ther, re­formed wom­an­iser, ide­al­is­tic for­mer lawyer and now a pub­lished nov­el­ist, has been Al­lende’s part­ner since 1988. De­spite pro­fuse and el­e­gantly worded sprays of praise, Al­lende’s feel­ings for ‘‘ Wil­lie’’ seem un­cer­tain; emo­tion­ally bru­tal to­wards his five chil­dren (‘‘ Stop act­ing like a pansy,’’ is his re­sponse to his sons’ emo­tional con­flicts), he then grieves for their bru­talised souls. Bro­ken by heroin and pros­ti­tu­tion, Jen­nifer, his only daugh­ter, aban­dons her crit­i­cally ill, pre­ma­ture daugh­ter in hospi­tal be­fore even­tu­ally van­ish­ing; she is pre­sumed dead.

‘‘ If she were my daugh­ter,’’ Al­lende notes af­ter visit­ing Jen­nifer in jail, ‘‘ I would move heaven and earth to save her.’’

‘‘ She isn’t your daugh­ter,’’ he replies, ‘‘ with a kind of mute re­sent­ment.’’

Al­lende does not spare her hus­band in The Sum of Our Days , and nor does she ex­on­er­ate him from his obli­ga­tion to re­mem­ber. But this puni­tive — if jus­ti­fied — right­eous­ness sits

The Sum of Our Days By Is­abel Al­lende Fourth Es­tate, 320pp, $ 32.99

un­easily with her protes­ta­tions of spir­i­tual pas­sion (‘‘ Wil­lie told me that I was his soul, that he had waited for me and looked for me the first 50 years of his life, sure that be­fore he died he would find me . . . Only with you had I felt that we were a sin­gle spirit in barely sep­a­rated bod­ies. Now I feel that with Wil­lie.’’).

But does she re­ally love him as she loved her daugh­ter, or is she too emo­tion­ally ex­hausted to be­gin again?

‘‘ You al­ways said that I’m en­ter­tain­ing and that no one would ever get bored with me,’’ Al­lende writes, ad­dress­ing Paula, ‘‘ but that was then. Af­ter I lost you, I also lost my de­sire to be the life of the party. I’ve be­come in­tro­verted; you wouldn’t recog­nise me.’’

By ad­dress­ing her daugh­ter in the present tense, Al­lende not only cre­ates a sin­gu­lar in­ten­sity and in­ti­macy, but can con­tinue to prac­tise a love trun­cated by death. ‘‘ My youth,’’ she recog­nises, ‘‘ ended at your side, Paula, in the cor­ri­dor of lost steps in that Madrid hospi­tal.’’

Her daugh­ter’s ab­sence was, at first, ex­pe­ri­enced as a ‘‘ sharp pain’’ that brought her to her knees. But over time, it blurs. Sub­con­sciously, Al­lende seems to an­tic­i­pate a spir­i­tual re­union (‘‘ Ever since your death, Paula, I some­times am in­vaded by a dull pain, but it doesn’t last . . . how good it would be to die in this en­chanted for­est with Wil­lie, old, but in full con­trol of our lives and our deaths’’).

She ral­lies, though, shak­ing that sad­ness off like wa­ter. One of eight flag- bear­ers in the open­ing cer­e­mony for the 2006 Win­ter Olympic Games in Italy, Al­lende over­flowed: ‘‘ I looked like a re­frig­er­a­tor ( in my uni­form), but the oth­ers did, too, ex­cept for Sophia Loren . . . I con­fess to be­ing so happy that . . . I was lev­i­tat­ing . . . it is the one thing I do not ever want to for­get when se­nile de­men­tia erases all my other mem­o­ries.’’

Ul­ti­mately, The Sum of Our Days is a riv­et­ing work, as af­fect­ing and ef­fort­lessly sen­sual as Al­lende’s finest works, if pe­riph­er­ally coloured by con­scious or re­flex­ive self­de­cep­tion; her deep ab­sorp­tion of, and re­ac­tion to, the world and its di­men­sional in­ter­play — light, colour, sound, tex­ture, tem­per­a­ture — amounts to the purest sym­phony of be­ing. An­tonella Gam­botto- Burke’s most re­cent book is The Eclipse: A Mem­oir of Sui­cide.

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