I’ve enjoyed several books by Isabel Allende. I wouldn’t say she’s a firm favorite of mine, but her books are consistently entertaining. Having been a fan of her fiction for several years, I’ve gotten curious about her life. Her first novel, The House of the Spirits, was based on her family, and if you’ve read that book, you’ll know that her life was fraught with drama. Allende’s father, Tomás, was the Chilean ambassador to Peru, and his cousin was Salvador Allende, the Chilean president who was ousted in a military coup in 1973. So she has been close to a piece of modern history I know very little about.
In My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, Allende reflects on her life and on what she calls “the country of my nostalgia.”
One of the most striking things about this book is its extreme subjectivity. Allende makes no effort to provide a well-researched modern history of Chile or a comprehensive memoir. There’s a vague sort of chronological structure, but it has more of a meandering style than a lot of memoirs do. A memory might lead Allende to make general observations about the class structure in Chile, which might then lead to a memory of her experiences as a Chilean exile in Venezuela, which might then take her to her present life in California before she returns to her adolescence in Santiago. This is how memory works, but I don’t know enough about Allende’s life or about Chilean history to feel comfortable with this kind of structure. If I’d been reading a print version, rather than listening to the audiobook, I might have been a little less lost because I could have seen the road ahead and known, for example, that there would be a chapter about Venezuela and that I didn’t need to stress about not knowing the details of how and why she was there.
One particularly interesting aspect of Allende’s subjectivity is the way it enables her to make sweeping assertions about Chileans, Americans, Venezuelans, women, the rich, the poor, and so on, without much in the way of support. The anecdotal becomes the universal. Normally, this would drive me crazy, and it sometimes did here. Allende does state that these are her memories, her observations, but she’s not as clear as she could be about where statements of fact end and personal reflections begin.
Still, her anecdotal observations are compelling! In one section, she talks about class consciousness in Chile, sharing stories of people filling up shopping carts in the grocery store with expensive goods so they’ll be viewed as wealthy, but then surreptitiously leaving the cart in the store without buying anything. And then there are the people who had wooden cell phones made so they carry them around and look important. I would love to know if these practices were as common as Allende made them sound, but the fact that people did these things at all is fascinating.
I would perhaps have preferred a bit more context and a little less universalizing, but overall I found the book, read by Blair Brown, worth listening to, as long as Allende’s comments are taken with a grain of salt. It’s memory and nostalgia, not a textbook history or travel guide.
Other Bloggers’ Views
A Striped Armchair: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll find yourself nodding your head a lot.”
Things Mean a Lot “I loved her voice—she sounds so candid and so passionate, and she’s occasionally very funny.”