Powerful Chilean saga blends fact and fiction

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende. Translated by Magda Bogin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 368 pp. $17.95. Isabel Allende, niece of the late Chilean President, Salvador Allende, became a sensation in Europe and Latin America a few years ago with the publication of her first novel, ``La Casa de los Esp'iritus,'' translated into English as ``The House of the Spirits.'' This Chilean journalist -- now living in exile in Venezuela -- has received acclaim from readers as well as critics, allowing a woman to enter the ranks of what has up to now been an exclusively male group, the ``boom'' writers of Latin American letters, men such as Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, the late Julio Cort'azar.

``The House of the Spirits'' is a family saga reminiscent of ``One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' by Garc'ia M'arquez, especially because of the presence of magic and eccentric characters in both books. Nevertheless, Isabel Allende's style is very much her own.

Her novel captivates and holds the reader throughout its 400 pages. It tells the story of the Trueba family, with its deep loves and hates, following them from the turn of the century to the violent days of the overthrow of the Salvador Allende government in 1973.

Of course, Isabel Allende is in a good position to describe the recent political history of Chile, and she is also very knowledgeable about the history of the country. In the novel, the pattern of the ages-old domination of the land is made clear. We read about the years that led up to the election of Salvador Allende as President in 1971 and the events surrounding his overthrow and murder in a military coup, and the onset of terror that continues today.

Thus, ``The House of the Spirits'' is a double text. On one level it is the story of the Trueba family and its progeny, both legitimate and bastard. On the other level, it is the political and social history of Chile.

Even though the saga is narrated by Esteban Trueba, the tormented patriarch, ``The House of the Spirits'' is full of marvelous and unforgettable women who add a special dimension to the book.

There is Clara del Valle, Esteban's wife, who chats with ghosts, levitates, and of course has clairvoyant powers. She is the central figure in a dynasty of women who are dedicated to aiding the dispossessed, women who are bearers of tenderness and nurture for all indigents who pass through their ornate and magical houses.

Clara's granddaughter, Alba, inherits the powers of her grandmother, and most particularly continues to carry on a female tradition of the family that consists of writing down important events in notebooks tied with colored ribbons. In the latter part of the book Alba is taken prisoner by Pinochet's police, imprisoned, and tortured. She invokes the name of her grandmother to help her, and Clara advises her to start noting down life so nothing will be forgotten. Using Clara's own notebooks that recorded 50 years of both real and imaginary events, Alba, like Clara, begins to recover the past and to save herself through writing.

``The House of the Spirits'' is a moving and powerful book. Part of the power comes from the fact that real events form the background for the fictional story. The unbridled fantasy of the protagonists and their enchanted spirits is played out against the story of the demented and tragic country once free, now possessed by the evil spirits of a military dictatorship. Magda Bogin's excellent translation captures the luminous prose of Isabel Allende and makes the reading of this novel an unforgettable experience. The Trueba family becomes our own; their country, their continent, their tragedies are ours. Their triumphs will also be ours.

Marjorie Agosin is a professor of Spanish at Wellesley College.

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