[(essay date Winter 1995) In the following essay, Diamond-Nigh examines Allende's treatment of Latin-American literary history in Eva Luna.]
In the beginning was the Word. And in the end. The opening lines of Isabel Allende's Eva Luna (1989) place us squarely in a world created and structured by the written word: "My name is Eva, which means `life,' according to a book of names my mother consulted." Indeed, the entire first chapter of that novel functions to displace our center of reference from the real world to the world of the Book where the life of the imagination is privileged. The epigraph to Allende's work comes from the paradigmatic Arabian Nights, in which Scheherezade's story-telling keeps her from a certain and undeserved death, setting up a primary theme of salvation through fabulation. Fabulation is here redemption of the collective, for Scheherezade's fables save not only herself but all women, thus putting an end, by nonviolent means, to the death sentence enacted upon the harem/population. The importance of this becomes more evident when we reflect upon the novel and the cultural context from which Isabel Allende writes.
The lack of connection between writing and political activism has been one of the major charges levelled at the self-reflexive literature characteristic of the Boom that immediately preceded Allende's work. Although her literature is not innovative in the formal way that high modern Boom literature was, she very clearly believes in the revolutionary possibilities of literature to create and remake life and the impossibility of an authentic literature that is not intimately connected with reality. In Eva Luna and in The House of the Spirits (1985) as well, she shows that writing has a sacred, transcendental quality, which is explored in the creation and resurrection myths and stories that appear in those novels. Eva describes her mother and the legacy she passes on:
Words are free, she used to say, and she appropriated them; they were all hers. She sowed in my mind the idea that reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and color it to make our journey through life less trying.
Allende 's language here reflects the commodification/impoverishment of reality in a world ruled by economic and political repression as a counterpoint to one lightened by the liberating potential of words. But if instead fiction is not integrated into reality, the opposite occurs, as with Zulema, Riad Halabí's wife: "My stories did not make her happy; they merely filled her head with romantic ideas, and led her to dream of impossible escapades and borrowed heroes, distancing her totally from reality." Eva tells the Minister of Defense that her ideas come from "things that are happening and things that happened before I was born. . . ." What she doesn't say is that Bolero, her telenovela, which he is questioning, is the story of her (made) life.
Clearly, then, because fiction...