Thursday, July 02, 2009

Her Invented Country, My Invented Country

I am reading, no, savoring, Isabel Allende's memoir, My Invented Country. I am taking my time with this book, picking up small portions delicately, raising them to my eyes and mind with slow anticipation, chewing and digesting them lingeringly.

Once, I considered myself an avid scholar of the magical realism genre. That was back in my scholar days---the late 80s and early 90s. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was king. I found Allende's House of the Spirits a pale imitation of his work.

Why was magical realism so appealing to me? Nobody ever asked.

However, Allende, in her memoir, has finally answered the question for me: I am a ghost of Chile, wandering the practical world with an imaginative mind fixated in superstition and surprise divined from stockpiles of observation.

Chileans, Allende asserts, offset their superstition, sobriety and natural intolerance with a love of regulation, "I believe this obsession of ours with legality is a kind of safeguard against the aggression we carry inside; without the nightstick of law we would go after one another tooth and claw."

She says the Chilean bureaucracy is a crazy tangle of reel after reel of red tape, "Recently, a busload of us tourists crossing the border between Chile and Argentina had to wait an hour and a half while our documents were checked. getting through the Berlin Wall was easier. Kafka was Chilean."

Chilean, you see, is more than citizenship; it is a frame of mind.

Her memoir is an unraveling of this Chilean frame of mind---a sociological exploration of how such democratically minded people ("We love to vote," Allende writes, "If a dozen kids get together in the schoolyard to play soccer, the first thing they do is write a set of rules and vote for a president, a board of directors, and a treasurer.") who live so precariously amid natural disasters and poverty remain so optimistically and superstitiously hopeful.

She writes, "At heart we know very well that life isn't easy. Ours is a land of earthquakes, why wouldn't we be fatalists? Given the circumstances, we have no choice but to be also a little stoic---though there's no reason to be too dignified about it; we are free to complain all we want."

Chileans, it seems, practically accept the strange and catastrophic, which explains magical realism in so many respects. In a life of such vulnerability to things beyond your control, the best method for explaining reaction is to seek a causal action in yourself.

It explains the reason why Allende's family embraced the Chilean spartan and stoic belief that discomfort is good for one's health. Her grandfather advocated cold showers, lumpy beds and bad shoes and food to ward off tragedies such as cancer.

Bring the bad on yourself, it seems to suggest, and divine intervention will not be compelled to force you to suffer.

I know this mentality well.

One time I heard a performer making a joke about the Latina nerves, "The women in my family have more nerves than women of other races, and they are more active nerves, too. As a result, it seems their nerves are constantly in question or on the verge of collapse."

I know this mentality well, too.

I'm not just enjoying Allende's memoir---which displays a greater gift for narrative, even, above and beyond her fiction, which I have since come to appreciate---I am eternally grateful that she pointed me to my country of soul origin.

She carried her Chilean mindset with her into her new life in the US, and I have apparently carried mine with me into this life. I was never sure about reincarnation or ghosts, but reading this book has convinced me. It is the best explanation.

Allende's house in California was built distressed, she shares, with high open ceilings to provide space for all the ghosts. This makes sense to me. Around me everyone works so hard to keep the old, the ghosts, the past shut out, arming themselves with phrases such as "let it go" and "let sleeping dogs lie."

I, on the other hand, strongly and firmly am convinced that sleeping dogs will eventually wake up, and ghosts will haunt you no matter what, so may as well be ready for when that dog wakes and create space for those ghosts. I believe it is better to work around the spiders and let them go about their business as I go about mine. In Chile, this would make sense. In the US, not so much. It has always given me the sense of being foreign; moving frequently as a child only exacerbated that sense.

Allende talks about being a foreigner and moving often, too:
From the moment we left Chile and began to travel from country to country I became the new girl in the neighborhood, the foreigner at school, the strange one who dressed differently and didn't even know how to talk like everyone else. I couldn't picture the time that I would return to familiar territory in Santiago, but when finally that happened, several years later, I didn't fit in there either, because I'd been away too long. Being a foreigner, as I have been almost forever, means that I have to make a much greater effort than the natives, which has kept me on my toes and forced me to become flexible and adapt to different surroundings. This condition has some advantages for someone who earns her living by observing; nothing seems natural to me, almost everything surprises me.
She finds native status intriguing and attractive and explains this is one of the chief things that pulled her to her husband
He never has any doubt about himself or his circumstances. He has always lived in the same country, he knows how to order from a catalogue, vote by mail, open a bottle of aspirin, and where to call when the kitchen floods. I envy his certainty. he feels totally at home in his body, in his language, in his life. There's a certain freshness and innocence in people who have always lived in one place and can count on witnesses to their passage through the world. In contrast, those of us who have moved on many times develop tough skin out of necessity. Since we lack roots or corroboration of who we are, we must put our trust in memory to give continuity to our lives...but memory is always cloudy, we can't trust it.
Like Allende, I married a native, and a few years ago, after some time in another foreign place, we returned to his place of origin. I, who have no ties to my past, each ribbon severed eventually with each subsequent move---it is too hard to maintain a past life while building a new one, not too mention the space for you closes and everyone is so married to the concept of moving on---remain intrigued that my husband's old piano teacher lives in our neighborhood, we run into his former teachers at restaurants, and a past classmate is his mother's eye doctor. His parents are still married, and until recently, lived in the exact same house my husband grew up in.

I realized our differences on a visit back to his home early in our marriage; he still carried house keys and felt no hesitation about using them to enter his childhood home with no notice. In contrast, I knock on the front door of my parents' homes, places they moved to after I was an adult, and waited permission to enter.

I envy these roots, and do not understand why my husband works so hard to shake and avoid them.

As a result, I can identify with Allende when she says she has absolutely no sense of certainty. I know what she means when she says, "A friend of mine says that we---we Chileans---may be poor, but that we have delicate feet. She's referring, of course, to our unjustified sensitivity, always just beneath the skin, to our solemn pride, to our tendency to become idiotically sober given the slightest opportunity."

When she describes Chile as, ". . .the way a country road might look as night falls, when the long shadows of the poplars trick our vision and the landscape is no more substantial than a dream," I know this place, and have been there.

Allende describes my invented country when she writes about her own.

It's a brilliant tale.

4 comments:

Magpie said...

I like the way your mind works, Julie.

Beck said...

Beautiful post.
I'm not a big fan of the magical realists, and I wonder why NOT - they certainly sound like they have a similar mind-set to my own, but I think that I might seek out calmer voices than my own. Maybe. I'm not sure.
Have you ever read Robertson Davies? He has been described as Canada's magical realist, which I find amusing.

Julie Pippert said...

Thanks, Maggie. :)

Beck, thank you! I alternated between scathing criticism and awed wonder of the magical realists. For me, it's validation. I often find other voices grating and denial annoying.

A Canadian magical realist is an intriguing enough thought that I will go check out this Robertson Davies. :)

Yolanda (the callipygian chronicle) said...

Yet another sign that we share some deep, cosmic connection, Julie. Latino/a fiction has been an obsessive love of mine since high school. My introduction to magical-realism was completely life changing. It redefined everything I thought a novel was, and replaced it with this narrative that felt so much like my own past-is-present-is-future brain.

Although I have met Ms. Allende (at a book signing for The Infinite Plan), I must admit to never having made it through most of her books (and I have tried several times). Somehow, I just get disappointed at one point or another, and for some reason cannot push through. I think it is my own prejudice, an impatience I have the author ever since we were assigned to read House of the Spirits a mere days after finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The exceptions, however, are Paola (a memoir, about the death of her daughter) and The Stories Eva Luna. However, this new memoir you describe here, just might have to go on my To Read list.

(BTW, if you are ever searching for another latina author to add to your list, I'm a big fan of Rosario Ferre.)