Novelist’s purest symphony of being
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.