A picaresque ramble through a land of magic

EVA LUNA By Isabel Allende

New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp. $18.95

WITH the publication of ``The House of Spirits,'' the exiled Chilean writer Isabel Allende became one of the most widely read novelists of contemporary Latin American fiction, often compared to the master of the genre, Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez. Her second novel, ``Of Love and Shadows,'' once again became an acclaimed work, and now ``Eva Luna,'' her third, already a best seller in Spanish, has been ably translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden.

``Eva Luna'' contains many of the magical and surreal elements present in her earlier work; yet in this novel, Allende constructs a narrative rooted in the picaresque tradition of the 16th-century Spanish novel.

Eva Luna is the protagonist as well as the first-person narrator. She tells of her own conception and her mother's mysterious origins in a Roman Catholic mission in the South American jungle. With vivid imagery, Eva Luna transports the reader to an almost mythic continent where magical happenings are everyday events.

The reader is led through the many houses where Eva Luna worked as a servant, especially the first one, the home of Mr. Jones, an eccentric European scientist who works on the embalming of bodies together with Eva Luna's mother, Consuela.

From this house, where the dead are as real as the living protagonists, Eva Luna continues in an incessant pilgrimage from house to house as the servant girl of eccentric masters as well as benevolent ones. She learns the ways of the world through the vision of a celebrated transsexual cabaret artist, and about love and power through an encounter with Rolf Carl'ea, a young German who has fled postwar Germany.

The political background, the world of dictators and guerrillas, is presented in the novel as well as the historical complexity of South America, a continent torn by dictators who never seem to die. ``In many places people did not learn of the overthrow of the dictator because among other things they had not known that the general was in power all these years.'' Yet, ``Eva Luna'' is a novel that goes beyond political ideology and concentrates on the adventures of the powerful protagonist who grows up among antique furniture and ancient books in Latin and who, through the power of the word, invents her own reality governed by magic and fate.

Yet this book does not have the historical dimension found in Allende's previous works. Even the dictators are portrayed with a benevolent sense of humor; they wear gardenias in their ear, and one dies in his nightshirt, wearing kid gloves.

With sardonic humor, ``Eva Luna'' tells the story of an unnamed South American land where people manufacture the substance of their own dreams and ``reality is not what we see on the surface, it has a magical dimension as well....''

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