Review: Paula, by Isabel Allende

I don’t know how or why I write; my books are not born in my mind, they gestate in my womb and are capricious creatures with their own lives, always ready to subvert me. I do not determine the subject, the subject chooses me, my work consists simply of providing enough time, solitude and discipline for the book to write itself.

I  found Paula in the lost & found drawer at the motel I was working at and took it without any shame, because I knew it was going to change my perspective. It wasn’t the first book written by Isabel Allende that I had read. I have absolutely devoured The House Of The Spirits a few years ago.

Paula is Allende’s autobiography, written in 1995 and a touching conffesion of pain and loss, of love and finding the power to go on. It starts as a letter to her comatose daughter, just like her first book started as a letter to her dying grandfather. It is written in a touching manner and, even though events are presented chronologically, Allende alternates between the past and the present, inserting in the story of her life updates about her daughter’s condition, most of them coming to the surface in uncontrolled waves of pain and panic.

Struggle inside, chaos outside

In the book, Allende describes herself as a person who struggles with herself, a fighter who never gives up. A a child and teenager, she has lived an unstable life, starting with her parents’ divorce and her mother remarrying a diplomat,  school years in the Occidental, Arab world and her struggle to fit in as a teenager. Throughout her life, literature has played a great role, from  the stories read in her grandparents’ house at night, to meeting and interviewing the great poet Pablo Neruda when she was a journalist. It seems like she was just playing with words, as a journalist fighting for the feminist ideas, and even writing small plays – barely scratching the surface of what would be her destiny.

Her personal life is by far less interesting than her life as a feminist, journalist, hippie  with a painted car in a politically instable Chile. She married her long-time boyfriend, had three children with him and worked to support her family until her husband finished studies and became an architect. Still, her inner being feels that things are not in the right place yet and she struggles to be happy with what she has and, at the same time, to be better.

The political circumstances in Chile and the coup that lead to Salvador Allende’s death – who is the author’s uncle – have played an important role in Isabel Allende’s life. In times of curfews and torture, she helped people emigrate, she hid fugitives risking not only her peace and life, but those of her children and husband too. She realizes that she was being reckless and taking huge risks, but at the time she was unconscious and unaware of what might happen if she had been caught. By emigrating to Venezuela, she had uprooted herself and her family, exposing them to a series of consequences that eventually lead to her divorce. Having an affair and running to Spain with her lover who played the clarinet was one of the struggles that she had and, the sincere way she described it showed how deeply she felt unfulfilled. She wasn’t a happy woman, merely one that conformed to the norms and tried to please her forgiving husband.

Letters that turn into novels

Her letter to her dying grandfather has become her first novel – The House Of The Spirits -, a sort of frenzy based on real people and events who, once put on paper, caught a life of their own. She kept working during the day and writing at night. Her success took her by surprise and she genuinely confesses that, during an important interview with a critic, she didn’t even know how to explain the cyclic structure of her novel because, in her mind, she associated cyclic with the moon and the menstruation and structure with buildings.

Years later, when her daughter, Paula, fell into a coma caused by porphyria, she would begin another letter. For a year, Isabel will take care of her dying daughter and write her this letter with the intent of helping her daughter know her better. The striking and painful similarity is not that both letters turned into novels, but that neither of the two people to whom she addressed the letters got to read them.

Building bridges

By writing Paula, Isabel Allende has bared her soul and her life to the entire world. Wether or not reality turns into fiction in the book is not important. Essential is how she got to show us the person behind the writer and, by doing that, she has built a bridge between fiction and reality, between magic realism and the total lack of magic of the reality. In the book, she states that: A novel is a long, drawn-out project in which endurance and discipline count most. It is like embroidering a complex needlepoint with many-colored floss; it is worked on the wrong side, patiently, stitch by stitch, taking care to see that the knots are not visible and following a vague design that can be appreciated only at the end when the last thread is in place and the tapestry is turned to the right side to judge the completed effect. With a little luck, the charm of the whole masks the defects and flaws in the execution. In a short story, on the other hand, everything is readily perceived; nothing can be left out, nothing can be added. There is a precise amount of space and limited time, and if the narrative is reworked too much, it loses that gust of freshness that lifts the reader. Writing a short story is like shooting an arrow : it requires the instinct, practice and precision of a good archer – strength to pull the bow, an eye for distance and velocity, and good luck – to hit the bull’s eye. A novel is achieved with hard work, a short story with inspiration. For me the genre is as difficult as poetry, and I don’t think I will attempt it again, unless, like the Stories of Eva Luna, fictions rain on me from the heavens.

Whoever reads Paula will never think of discipline, but of passion, pain, love, giving up, commitment, loyalty and loss. Isabel Allende lost her daughter, but she did not lose her creative force or her wish to live. Nor has she lost her irony, her sense of humor and her special style: simple, clear, characterized by an extraordinary force of evoking. By using her simple phrase and her cursive way of telling stories, Allende has placed the action in an eternal time – illo tempore – she made it so real that one could think that could have happened to anyone.

For me, Isabel Allende has showed in Paula how fiction makes its way into our lives. Not in the clinical, sick way, nor in the dreamy, movie-like way, but by giving us a way to express ourselves and to showcase our creative force.



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