I remembered Allende when I came across her name in the wiki pages related to the history of Chile, which I was scanning at the beginning of our travels in Chile. We were officially married and on our honeymoon! We’d just arrived in South America, and I was looking for a book set in the country. The bestselling book from the niece of the president of Chile seemed like a good enough option, even though I knew nothing of her writing.
Boy was I in for a pleasant surprise. Magical realism sprinkled throughout, charming descriptive language compressed onto every page, and the history of modern Chile portrayed through the lens of a lovable and eccentric cast of characters from four generations of a wealthy family. The book extends from the time of haciendas and the rule of the landed gentry, to earthquakes that demolished the country, to the peaceful election of the liberal socialist president, to the military coup and the consequences thereafter. (At every generation, the bloodline of the European family mixing and becoming darker, earthier, closer to the people of the land.) For a literary walk through the history of a country, and for someone who barely tolerates non-fiction and history texts, Allende’s House of the Spirits was perfect.
I read the book all through our stay at a horse estancia just outside of Puerto Natales, while taking breaks atop the breathtaking viewpoints of the Torres del Paine trail, during our journey through the Chilean fjords by boat for four days. When I finished the book on our boat, I couldn’t stop sighing. Some books are like that. They make you lose every interest you might have in picking up the next. I wanted to sit and savor the characters in my head without the invasion of new plots, romances, places, people.
And I couldn’t stop thinking about Clara Trueba. The clairvoyant and whimsical Clara who literally floated through life, often unaware of history, the world of the present, the cares of the house. She occupied herself with communicating with the spirit world and with writing in her journal every night (while snacking on crackers). “Bearing witness to life,” is what she called it. And I both happily saw and also worried that her character resonated a bit too well with me, with my own aloofness, my bubble world of fiction, (my indulgence in snacks), and my tendency to at times focus more on bearing witness to life than engaging with it.