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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

40. My Reading Life (4) : Isabel Allende - My Invented Country

Isabel Allende is Chilean by birth, but lives in the USA where she works as a writer and journalist. Like me, she was born ‘in the years of smoke and carnage of the Second World War. Her uncle was the Chilean communist, Salvador Allende whose three year rule in Chile ended in a bloody military coup, which placed the dictator Pinochet in control, and ushered in two decades of barbarity. Isobel went into exile, first in Venezuela and later in the USA.
Allende’s ‘invented country’ is Chile – the land of her birth, the land in which she grew up, and from which she escaped. I enjoyed her memoir. I learned much about Chile.
In her introduction, she observes:
In Chile ... only dangerously disturbed patients visited a psychologist ... In my family no one ever resorted to therapy, because the idea of confiding intimate matters to a stranger – and a stranger we were paying to listen – was absurd. That’s what priests and aunts were for.
Allende’s writing is full of deft touches like that: That’s what priests and aunts were for. Allende does it often, gives me – as her reader – that shock of recognition. She finds ways to say just what she means. I want to say – yes, of course, that IS just the way it was: Aunts and priests were the ones we turned to when our soul ached.

My Invented Country is a work of nostalgia, that ‘bitter-sweet longing for things, persons or situations of the past. The condition of being homesick..’ as the dictionary defines it. Nostalgia is a melancholy, and slightly saccharine, sentiment, like tenderness.
But the exploration of the past requires care; as Allende observes: Minotaurs lie in wait in the labyrinths of memory.
Much that Allende writes resonates with me. She and I are of about the same age. She writes (and it could be for both of us – indeed for those many of us who were born in the forties):
At my age ... you begin to remember things that have been erased from your mind for half a century. She goes on: I haven’t thought about my childhood and adolescence for decades.
This observation is not true for me; of late I have had strong cause to revisit my childhood, and to rework every story, every memory.

She writes of a writer who felt like a stranger in her family and her hometown.... nearly all writers have experienced that feeling. It’s a feeling common among writers:
Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one’s own circumstances and to clarify the conditions of existence...
During my middle years, the years of my ‘mid life crisis’, in my late 30s, I spent three and a half years in therapy. By then I’d given up on priests well and truly, and had no aunts I felt close enough to. My marriage was broken, and I was in a mess. It was not a new feeling. I’d begun keeping a daily journal in 1976. I think that starting that journal marked the moment of awakening for me; I knew that not all was well in my life. It took another 5 years before the centre ceased to hold, till things fell apart and anarchy was loosed upon my world.
By the end of those three and a half years I’d come some way along the path to sanity. My sense of separateness was in large part a result of having been an only child, reared by a loving though somewhat neurotic mother and a kind but emasculated father. I was spoiled, over-protected, and to some extent shunned by my aunts and uncles for these reasons. They were ‘righting the balance’, I thought; showing me that I was all that special; certainly not as special as my mother wanted to believe.
I have no idea if that account of things is true. As Allende writes, at one point:
What does it matter if these events happened or I imagined them? Life is, after all, a dream.In the dream I had of my life, that’s how things were. At the hour of remembering, no one wants verification of facts, the legend is enough.
[I’m not so sure about that. Over the past nine months I have hungered after facts – desperately yearned for some clarification about what my mother was like, who my father was, when my mother made contact with my adoptive parents during the months or years she lived in Coburg, in Bruce Street, only a mile up Reynards street from my home at 82. I’m short on facts and short on legends, so I have had to create my own.]
I love the way Allende writes about writing: Every book is a message in a bottle tossed into the sea with the hope it will reach a different shore. I think blogs are the same; and songs; and poems.

She observes:
I often ask myself exactly what nostalgia is. In my case, it’s not so much wanting to live in Chile as it is the desire to recapture the certainty I feel there. That’s my home ground.
I became an exile before I came to know my home soil. Yet what I feel for Gwendoline is something akin to nostalgia. It is a deep yearning to somehow recover those first three months of my life, those months I spent with the woman who bore me and gave me life.
Nostalgia is a slow dance in a large circle. Memories don’t organise themselves chronologically, they’re like smoke, changing, ephemeral, and if they’re not written down they fade into oblivion... There are moments in all human lives in which our fate is changed or twisted and forced to follow a different course.

And so Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country explores the many moments in her life when her fate was changed; it explores the nostalgia that lies at the heart of every memoir, that longing to return.
... the mental processes of imagining and that of remembering are so much alike that they are nearly indistinguishable. Who can define reality? Isn’t everything subjective? If you and I witness the same event, we will recall it and recount it differently. Comparing the versions of our childhood that my brothers tell, it’s as if each of us had been on a different planet.
Allende describes how each ten years or so she takes a look back and can see the map of my journey – well that’s if it can be called a map, it looks more like a plateful of noodles.
I read this plateful of noodles with much joy. Her reflections on change, the way that ‘knitting has passed into history’; her observations about what we done as we write memoir; her recognition that he stories she tells are, at their heart, fabrications – these things bring me much delight as I read.
At the end of her book she makes the essentially jerry-built nature of our life storying abundantly clear. She writes:
In the slow practice of writing, I have fought with my demons and obsessions, I have explored the corners of memory, i have dredged up stories and people from oblivion, I have stolen other people’s lives, and from all this raw material I have constructed a land that I call my country. That is where I come from.
As my life rolls inexorably on towards our common final test – the one everyone passes – Isabel Allende’s book has brought me some comfort, and has reassured me that the quest is worth pursuing .
Her final paragraph is a wonderful and fitting climax to the book:
Don’t believe everything I say: I tend to exaggerate... I can’t be objective... In any case, what’s most important doesn’t appear in my biography or my books, it happens in a nearly imperceptible way in the secret chambers of the heart. I am a writer because I was born with a good ear for stories ... The profession of literature has defined me. Word by word I have created the person I am and the invented country in which I live.
I’d like to be able to write like her. And I hope, one day, that I’ll complete work on my own invented country. And even if no body else reads it, at least I will have written it. And that, in itself, is sufficient.

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