Reckoning With History

Chile has produced some of the most prominent voices in literature. Chilean writers have written some of the most recognized titles in the world of literature for which they have earned several accolades across the globe. Chile has even produced two Nobel Prize in Literature winners: Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. Mistral’s 1945 win went down in history as she also earned the distinction of being the first Latin American writer to win the prestigious literary award. While both Nobel laureates were renowned for their poetry, Chile has produced some of the most recognized prose writers such as Roberto Bolaño, José Donoso, and Luis Sepúlveda. It comes as no surprise that Bolaño started as a poet before shifting to prose and fiction writing.

Another Chilean writer who has gained global popularity over the years is Isabel Allende. Her debut novel, La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits, 1982), was an immediate sensational success, a masterpiece that marked the ascent of a new literary voice. Her integration of subtle elements of magical realism into lush Chilean and Latin American historical contexts was prevalent in her works. This has secured her status as a global literary star. For her works, Allende has been the recipient of several literary awards such as Premio Nacional de Literatura (Chilean National Prize in Literature) in 2010. She was also the recipient of the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by US President Barack Obama. In 2016, the PEN Center USA recognized her achievements by awarding her a lifetime achievement award. With the impact of her works and the long list of her achievements, it comes as no surprise that Allende is considered a literary legend.

The passage of time and the unending flow of recognitions have not blunted Allende’s writing prowess nor did they cause her to slow down. Rather, they further fueled her creative mind and in 2022, she made a literary comeback with Violeta. The eponymous Violeta was born one stormy Friday in 1920 to Maria Gracia and Arsenio Del Valle. Named after her illustrious great-grandmother “who had embroidered the shield of the first flag after independence”, Violeta was the last child of the Del Valles, a well-to-do family living in the country’s capital; the country was never mentioned but the allusions and descriptions clearly pointed to Allende’s homeland, Chile. Violeta was the first and only daughter of a household that reverberated with the boundless energy of five boisterous sons.

“She loved her sons, in theory, but in practice she preferred to keep them at a comfortable distance. The exuberant band of boys was as disruptive as a battle in her peaceful feminine realm. She’d once admitted during confession that she felt doomed to bear only sons, like a curse from the Devil. In penitence she was ordered to recite a rosary every day for two years straight and to make a sizable donation to the church renovation fund. Her husband forbade her from returning to confession.”

~ Isabel Allende, Violeta

Violeta’s story was bookended by two pandemics. In the opening sequence of the novel, we read of the arrival of the Spanish influenza, the flu for short, on the shores of Chile. The images captured by Allende mirrored the same images that we saw at the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, from the closure of schools, shops, and parks to the stay-at-home orders. The movement of everything and everyone, except for basic commodities and front liners, was limited. Even though there was a gap of almost a century between the two pandemics, the images of panic and the rush to curb the spread of the Spanish influenza were reminiscent of the images that surfaced during the earlier days of the COVID19 pandemic. Fortunately for the Del Valles, the patriarch’s foresight has ensured that their survivability rate was higher than the typical Chilean. His business acumen and wily, at times questionable, practices made him gain allies in different quarters of society. Every member of the household survived the pandemic unscathed.

Arsenio’s foresight, however, did not predict the arrival and impact of another global phenomenon: the Great Depression. Starting with the collapse of the United States stock market in September 1929, the global financial crisis eventually trickled into Chile. Several companies declared bankruptcy, hence, resulting in the upward trajectory of the unemployment rate. Arsenio’s business was not safe from the crisis. Creditors started running after him, his business, and his properties. The family would lose the Camellia House, where Arsenio and his children were born, but these were only preludes to the tragedy that would befall the family. As the old proverb goes, “the higher you climb, the harder you fall.” In the aftermath, Violeta, her oldest brother Jose Antonio, their mother, their aunts, and their trusted helps retreated to Chilean Patagonia. The rest of the Del Valle brothers opted to stay in Santiago.

Narrated from the point of view of Violeta herself, the story was addressed to Camilo, a mysterious character, at least at first. The time: September 2020. Violeta flashed back to her earlier years, transporting the readers to the years she spent in Patagonia. At first, she was a handful. Her misplaced bourgeoisie flair made her an unrelatable character that one can dismiss had she not been the voice that steered the story. But if you stay with her and a firmer image of Violeta will start taking shape. We read of her growth and maturity. As reality sinks in, she started shedding the arrogance of childhood, and in its stead is a young woman who has a keen awareness of herself. While we read of her growth, we also read of her forays into love, romance, and even lust.

But in true Allende fashion, Violeta does not reduce itself to a mere family saga or the portrait of a singular character. Running parallel to the growth and the story of Violeta were historical events that have defined and shaped not only Chile but also other Latin American nations. Chilean contemporary history is a rich tapestry upon which Allende has been juxtaposing her works; Violeta was no exception. It has become a staple of her works. The Spanish Influenza and the Great Depression were just appetizers to the events that would unfold as we follow along with the story of Violeta. It was through this shift to historical contexts, glimpsed through the unflinching gaze of Violeta, that the novel was at its most brilliant.

“Since it was already understood that the illness entered the body through the breath and not from a mosquito bite or stomach worms, as had been widely believed, the use of face coverings was ordered. But since there weren’t even sufficient masks for health workers, who fought on the front lines, there certainly weren’t enough to go around for the general population.”

~ Isabel Allende, Violeta

The middle section of the book was its strongest and it was in this section that Allende chronicled familiar events that led to the ascent of fascism. This part of the novel was rife with vivid images of the atrocities committed by the Augusto Pinochet regime, which wreaked havoc from 1973 to 1990. However, like the country and the places in the book, Pinochet was never named; he was simply referred to as the dictator. We read of how the regime stymied all forms of activism. Those who were perceived to be members of revolutionary movements were tortured in concentration camps or were killed and buried en masse in mass graves. The media and journalism were censored. The extent of atrocities perpetrated by the regime was beyond one’s imagination. Once the beacon of democracy in Latin America, Chile found itself trudging the same path as its neighbors.

If the atrocities could not get any worse, the regime also built Colonia Esperenza. It is a clandestine prison camp where medical experiments were performed on political prisoners, reminiscent of the tortures conducted in German concentration camps during the height of the Nazi invasion of Europe. The novel made references to the connections between Germany and Chile albeit it predated the rise of Adolf Hitler. Allende also mentioned Operation Condor (Operación Cóndor), a United States-backed operation that involved the military dictatorships in Latin America, including Augusto Pinochet. It involved the systematic kidnapping, torturing, raping, and murdering of individuals these regimes perceived as their political enemies. One infamous event connected to this operation was the Argentinian Genocide (or the Dirty War) which was subtly referred to in the story.

Beyond these historical contexts, the novel also underscored a seminal subject. Through the story of Josephine Taylor, Violeta’s former governess, and Teresa Rivas, Allende underlined the rise of the feminist movement in Chile. At the start of the story, we see a society that was highly patriarchal. Teresa, an activist, often received comments that women “should learn to behave like a decent woman.” We also read about the influences that the Catholic church had on the state. The Church was vocally against divorce. Catholic schools also refused the enrollment of children born out of wedlock. But as the story moved forward, we see a shift in attitude and a growing awareness of equality and women’s rights. Teresa lived long enough to witness women gaining the right to suffrage. The novel also grappled with lesbian relationships, sexual abuse, infidelity, and substance abuse. There was also a brief mention of the oppression of the Indians.

In her latest novel, Allende provided a set of characters that are as interesting as they are complex. In Julian we see a character who was adventurous and abhorred the idea of loyalty. Jose Antonio, on the other hand, was his antithesis. His business acumen he inherited from his father but he was not as ruthless as he was. Jose Antonio was also a hopeless romantic who was loyal to his first love and was willing to wait for her. Violeta was an equally enchanting character and was ably supported by riveting secondary characters such as her Aunt Pia, Torito, and of course, Josephine Taylor.

“I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on the long years of the dictatorship, Camilo; it’s an old and well-known story. It’s been nearly thirty years now since democracy was restored, and the worst of our past has come to light: the concentration camps, torture, murder, and repression that so many people suffered. None of that can be denied, though at the time, there was no concrete information, only rumors. Some people still try to justify it today, saying the measures were necessary to impose order and save the country from Communism.”

~ Isabel Allende, Violeta

Violeta’s growth was the novel’s focus. However, as captured by the quote above, we see a woman who also distanced herself from the politics of her time. The lenses through which she narrated her story to Camilo were bereft of sentimentality but they also echoed political naivete, particularly at the start. Where politics and the regime were concerned, Violeta was passive, opting to observe the events unraveling from a safe and comfortable distance. While tumult reigned, she kept earning more money, typical of those who were able to live comfortably during the periods of dictatorship. Her rebellious son would call her out for it: “You live in a bubble, mom.” This makes her political growth more impactful as she, later on, recognized how her insouciance has turned her into an enabler of fascism.

Allende’s latest novel was not without its faults. However, in Violeta, Allende reminded her readers of the wonders of getting lost in the beauty of her prose, of the strengths of storytelling, and of her perspicacious ability to transport the readers to a different era. In Violeta, Allende created a memorable literary character, one who has seen it all. While she was not entirely perfect, her journey of enlightenment was a pleasure to witness. And what was an Allende novel without its rich historical tapestry? Allende wove vivid details of Latin American history into the story of Violeta, making it an evocative backdrop for the character’s growth. In the repetition of historical events, may it be a pandemic or a foreign government intervening in the affairs of another sovereignty, or a fascist government wreaking havoc, the novel was subtly reminding the readers of how the past keeps repeating itself.

History-aside, one of the book’s most riveting facets was its exploration of the rise of the feminist movement. There were quarters where the book could have been strengthened, such as the character’s economic and racial awareness. But overall, in Violeta, Allende has again proven her status as an elite of the literary world.

“I said goodbye, kissed her, and asked her forgiveness for the sins of withholding and neglect. I thanked her for having existed, promised her that she would live on in my heart, and in her son’s, begged her not to leave me, to visit me in dreams, to send me signs and clues, to return incarnated in every beautiful young woman I saw on the street, and to appear to me in spirit during the darkest hours of the night and in the days of the midday Sun.”

~ Isabel Allende, Violeta
Ratings

79%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 
25%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

I loved Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. It was easily one of my all-time favorite reads and one that has motivated me to explore more of the Chilean writer’s prose. My second encounter with her was A Long Petal of the Sea. Again, I loved the historical contexts but I found the story a little not up to par with her debut novel. Nonetheless, it has not stopped me from wanting to read her latest novel, Violeta. I was not a fan of Violeta at the start. There were tinges of arrogance that distanced me from her, that made her an unrelatable character. But I pushed on and that was when a different portrait of Violeta started taking shape. While her growth was the book’s central point, I was more drawn by the historical details, one that I always appreciate in Allende’s works. By being bookended by two global pandemics, the story was made all the more interesting as the past mirrored the present and vice versa, reiterating the idea that the past repeats itself. I think this was my first time reading about Operation Condor and I was intrigued. But what I truly loved was how Allende depicted the rise of the feminist movement. How I wish this part was longer.

Book Specs

Author: Isabel Allende
Translator (from Spanish): Frances Riddle
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 319
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Violeta comes into the world on a stormy day in 1920, the first girl in a family with five boisterous sons. From the start, her life is marked by extraordinary events, for the ripples of the Great War are still being felt, even as the Spanish flu arrives on the shores of her South American homeland almost at the moment of her birth.

Because of her father’s prescience, the family will come through that crisis unscathed, only to face a new one as the Great Depression transforms the genteel city life she has known. Her family loses everything and is forced to retreat to a wild and beautiful but remote part of the country. There, she will come of age, and her first suitor will come calling.

Violeta tells her story in the form of a letter to someone she loves above all others, recounting times of devastating heartbreak and passionate affairs, poverty and wealth, terrible loss, and immense joy. Her life is shaped by some of the most important events of history: the fight for women’s rights, the rise and fall of tyrants, and ultimately not one but two pandemics.

Through the eyes of a woman whose unforgettable passion, determination, and sense of humor carry her through a lifetime of upheaval, Isabel Allende once more brings us an epic that is both fiercely inspiring and deeply emotional.

About the Author

To learn more about Isabel Allende, please click here.