When we read of a “colossal grandmother” and a little girl with green hair, we probably think we know where we are. When we further encounter the abundant flora of southern Chile, an orphan, a rambling mansion, a handful of wise Indian women, and an irresistible tropical passion, we can hardly doubt our location. This is the world of magical realism, where reality is all profusion, and fantasy is just another name for local color.
In this particular case, which is Isabel Allende’s new novel, we are both right and wrong in our assumption. With House of the Spirits (1982) Allende began her career as an elegant and charming magical realist, and has worked much in this vein since, especially in Eva Luna (1987) and The Stories of Eva Luna (1990). But there was always an element of historical romance in these books, and this element has now taken over. There is very little magic in Portrait in Sepia, although characters from House of the Spirits reappear here, including the girl with green hair, and there are only modest doses of realism. There is plenty of melodrama, and a proficient and easy flow of narrative.
The narrator and main character is Aurora del Valle, the illegitimate child of an American beauty and a Chilean rake. She was born in San Francisco in 1880, and the opening paragraph of the novel sets the tone:
While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying back and forth.
This is all more than a little ready-made, but certainly grand and sweeping enough. Of course the mother is going to die in childbirth, that’s what her valiant heart means, and of course the savage life of the Chinese quarter is a key element in Aurora’s lifelong nightmare, fully understood only in the final pages. I don’t know why Chinese food would be exotic in Chinatown, but I know why the aroma of the food is unforgettable. In this kind of fiction all aromas are unforgettable.
Aurora is adopted by her colossal grandmother, the rich and extravagant Paulina del Valle, and at the age of five is whisked off to Chile, where she grows up, becomes a gifted photographer, gets married, leaves her husband (unfortunately his irresistible tropical passion is for someone else, his sister-in-law), finds true love, or at least kindness and friendship and lots of sex, with a doctor friend, and solves the riddle of the dream that has been haunting her. There is a civil war in Chile, and much associated turbulence. Aurora evokes a remote hacienda where newspapers are so out-of-date when they arrive that they bring “no news, only history,” and she has a tender but quite unromantic passage about the girls who served the upper-class families in the old days:
These nannies were adolescent girls recruited in the country and destined to serve for the rest of their lives unless they married or got pregnant, neither of which was very probable. Those self-sacrificing youngsters grew up, withered, and died in someone else’s house; they slept in grimy, windowless rooms and ate food left from the main table. They adored the children it was their lot to look after, especially the boys, and when the girls in the family married, they took their nannies with them as part of their dowry, to serve a second generation of babies.
These girls have valiant hearts too, but only the narrator notices, and even she lets their lives slip away in a sentence, their epitaph a punctuation mark, the comma that separates growing up from withering.
Aurora has some sharp comments on what remains old-fashioned in the midst of incoming modernity: “While in the rest of the world monarchies were being toppled, new states born, continents colonized, and marvels invented, in Chile the parliament was discussing the rights of adulterers to be buried in consecrated cemeteries.” But then there is the countryside,
a paradise of larch, laurel, cinnamon, maniu, myrtle, and the millenary araucarias…. Light filtered through the immense cupola of the trees in bright oblique rays, but there were glacial zones where pumas lay in wait, spying on me with eyes like flames.
Above all Aurora has her photography, which she associates unequivocally with truth and beauty. Her master teaches her that “photography and painting are not competing arts but basically different: the painter interprets reality, and the camera captures it. In the former everything is fiction, while the second is the sum of the real plus the sensibility of the photographer.” If Aurora thinks things can’t be as simple as that, she certainly doesn’t say so. Indeed she hopes her photographs will “touch the core, the very soul, of reality.” But then she is writing a memoir, and perhaps the act of writing is meant to frame and question the pretensions of her other art.
She would like to have photographed her life, Aurora says, and in part she has, since her images of her family and her country are an aspect of who she is. But she needs to write too. Her last words are:
I write to elucidate the ancient secrets of my childhood, to define my identity, to create my own legend. In the end, the only thing we have in abundance is the memory we have woven. Each of us chooses the tone for telling his or her own story; I would like to choose the durable clarity of a platinum print, but nothing in my destiny possesses that luminosity. I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties; the tone for telling my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia.
This is partly an apology from Allende herself, I think, and very gracefully done. Portrait in Sepia has the range but not the fierce action, the sheer energy, of its predecessor, Daughter of Fortune (1999), which told the story of Aurora’s other grandmother, another orphan, the dramatically independent Eliza Sommers, born, or at least abandoned, in Valparaiso, and who traveled to San Francisco in search of one love and found another. Her last words in that novel are “I am free now.”
Magical realism is probably too shopworn now to be of much use to us as a critical term, and most if not all of the distinguishing marks of the genre can be found in other genres too. But the marks themselves are worth pausing over. If magical realism, whether in Latin America or India or elsewhere, often escapes into mere whimsy, or the easy packaging of the exotic—“too many mangoes” was one brief summary of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things—it also entertains a curious ongoing relation with the historical record. In García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude there are flying carpets and a priest who levitates a few inches off the ground every time he drinks a cup of chocolate. But there are also civil wars and firing squads, and a massacre of protesting workers. The narrator and the characters in the novel regard the carpets and the levitation as quite ordinary, indeed banal, and they are only marginally more stirred by civil wars and firing squads. But apart from one little boy, now grown old, whom no one believes, our narrator is the only person to remember the massacred workers; history and society have entirely erased them otherwise. Magic may be whimsy, but it is also an art of disappearance. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children contains both the historical Mrs. Gandhi and a set of telepathic infants who can read each other’s minds across all India. Their gifts won’t allow them into Pakistan, though. Neither Oriental mystery nor the fabulous freedom of fiction is going to get around Partition.
A narrative persona who affects to believe what his or her characters believe, and who is as unsurprised as they are by what looks like a miracle to us; a sense that what is fantastic for one culture is humdrum for another, like the astonishing ice which appears at the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude; a suspicion that history itself, in many parts of the world, is more fantastic than anyone thinks, although if this is so we shall have to revise the very notion of the fantastic; a growing understanding that storytelling, benign and amusing when it is in your grandmother’s care, can be virulent and lethal when taken over by governments and history books (in Rushdie’s Shame it is a moot point whether certain historical countries have been “insufficiently imagined,” like India in Midnight’s Children, or all too excessively imagined, so that various angry dreams have come to replace what used to be reality)—these are among the more interesting features of magical realism, and they are the point of the paradox the term once sought to name. Realism of a kind, but not the kind we know. A fidelity to the magics of the world, whether charming or nefarious.
In this light Carmen Boullosa’s Leaving Tabasco looks like a throwback to a slightly more innocent moment in literary history, while José Manuel Prieto’s Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire transposes this magical music into a rather different key. Fernando Vallejo’s Our Lady of the Assassins, by contrast, is a brilliant and violent mutation, where the only magic is the ease of murder, and realism becomes a mask for deadpan satire.
Leaving Tabasco, Boullosa’s ninth novel, tells the story of the coming of age of Delmira Ulloa who, like Aurora del Valle, recaptures her early life from a certain distance. Delmira is living in Germany now, looking back across the years to the now exotic (and semi-imaginary) Mexican village of Agustini, where birds suddenly fail to fly and are eaten by cats and dogs, where unripe coffee beans and cacao buds abruptly fall from their plants, where toads leap against house windows, where an elderly servant awakes with the stigmata of Christ. This is apart from heat, steady rain, an earthquake, an erupting volcano, and a violent electric storm, which might be taken as more ordinary features of Mexican life, although they do seem exceptionally concentrated in Agustini. The Spanish title of the novel, first published in 1999, is Treinta Años (Thirty Years), and Delmira is amazed at how time has flown. “Thirty years, Delmira,” she says to herself at the beginning of the story, “thirty years had come and gone for you.” And at the end she echoes, “Thirty years, Delmira, thirty years consigned to silence.”
But which thirty years are these? Delmira is quite clear. She is eight years old when her story begins in 1961, and fifteen years old when she leaves Tabasco in 1967. She discovers her mother’s love affair with the local priest, has her first period, becomes fashion-conscious, learns to love books and classical music, searches in a rather halfhearted way for her absent father (and later finds him), and gets involved in a political demonstration. It is to avoid the consequent repression that she is shipped out of Tabasco, and her thirty years of silence speak in their own way about what happened and what Delmira lost. “That, after all,” she says, “was my real life, the only one I could ever truly be faithful to…. Life continues on. But not for me. Here ends the life I lived as a girl….” Is she saying politics stole her childhood? Or that all childhoods are stolen sooner or later? That childhood is the only real life we have? That rural magic won’t withstand Mexican politics, in the same way that telepathy can’t get around Partition? There is a strong suggestion of this last possibility when Delmira says that “no albino crocodile used its tail” to block the passage of the policemen who are arresting her. “Neither did any witch fly over me or toads leap out into our path…. The pictures of saints didn’t dance….”