The Literal and the Literary: A Note on the Historical References in Isabel Allende's La casa de los espíritus

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,752 words

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[(essay date summer 2003) In the essay that follows, Frame demonstrates how Allende blends fictional elements and mythical hearsay along with historically documented evidence of the 1973 Chilean military coup in the chapter "El terror" from La casa de los espíritus.]

"Porque las estirpes condenadas a cien años de soledad no tenían una segunda oportunidad sobre la tierra."--Garcia Márquez, Cien años de soledad (448)

Ever since La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits) was published in 1982 it has been impossible to escape the critical comparison of Allende's first novel with "that other" well-known Latin-American piece of literature. La casa de los espíritus has been a novel critics love to question, whether what they question is its thematic and structural originality, its borrowed generational procession of characters, its copied use of pergaminos as a narrative basis or its inexperienced portrayal of Magical Realism. Critics1 have asked so many similar questions about the novel that the answers are no longer polemical, and the worn-out critical approaches to the novel have become formulaic, predictable, and less than objective. There are reasons for this. In the first place, a great number of critics have used Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) merely to reiterate a series of platitudes obvious to anyone even vaguely familiar with the two novels. Secondly, the little critical latitude given to the later novel is perpetuated by critics who either defend "the masterpiece" by attacking Allende's novel as "outright plagiarism" (Gould Levine 15) or "un ejercicio de pastiche realizado en el colegio" 'an exercise in pastiche done at school' (Cánovas, "Los espiritus" 120), or champion the "popular romance" (Price 57) as a "story of women's emergence in contemporary Latin American society" (Bassnett 252). Based on this, it is hardly surprising that a consensus exists among nearly all critics that La casa de los espíritus contains pale reflections of Cien años de soledad. Stripped of much of its individuality as a piece of literature and relegated to the niche set aside for women writers, La casa de los espíritus has sometimes been critically condemned as all but a facsimile of García Màrquez's seminal Latin American novel.

This is not to say that critics have discarded the novel as lacking interest. On the contrary, the novel has been a contentious one for a number of years, especially with regard to its use or depiction of history. On the one hand there are those who believe Allende had a vested interest in portraying her fictionalized version of history with a Latin American left-wing mixture of "romantic idealism and revolutionary zeal" (Hart 68) as "a cursory whitewash of Allende" (68). The fallacy of this argument is that such critics presuppose a political agenda on the part of the author, which may or may not be true, and suggest that the author sought to produce a work of political science at least, and a "metaphorical history of Latin America" (Hart 66) at most. On the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100088059