Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende; drawing by David Levine

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….”

Delmira is not going to tell us any more, although she does say she was disappointed in her own encounter with magical realism on the page. A friend tells her to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and she does. “Imagine my disappointment on flipping through its pages, telling myself that I didn’t leave Agustini just to find other towns that resembled it.” This is a small act of homage, of course, but also perhaps an apology in the style I have suggested we find in Allende. In literary terms too, it’s hard to go back to 1967, the year of the publication of García Márquez’s hugely successful novel. Delmira says she was at first “fascinated by the down-to-earthness of Europe, while the Europeans of my generation, I saw, were in turn being massively seduced by our apparent lack of logic.” The sarcasm is understandable; there is no reason why all Latin Americans should be adepts of magical realism and no reason why they, or anyone, should be subject to a single logic or its lack. But there is an uncertainty in the writer too, as if she can’t abandon the supposedly quaint lore of old Mexico, and can’t settle for it either.

Delmira has the mandatory folkloric grandmother full of stories, but hers is lean and mean and probably not much more than forty years old. She seems nevertheless, in 1961, to have childhood memories of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, but perhaps she is remembering the Cristero revolts of the 1920s, or perhaps that’s just the way time stretches in Agustini. Boullosa gives Delmira a fever so that we can give the strange events in Agustini an unmagical explanation if we like—“I could no longer say for certain if the odd goings-on that had plagued our Sundays were factual”—but this feels like an outright betrayal of the genre, sheer sheepishness, and Boullosa’s later moves in this direction are more successful. When a witch resurrects a whole lot of already cooked lizards, and herself vanishes into smoke, Delmira says, “I actually witnessed all these events, but the minute they were over I had difficulty trusting what my senses had perceived.”

This brings us back to the very questions magical realism raises at its best. In reading fiction we don’t need to trust our senses, only the invention of the writer, and the representation of the amusing, frightening, plausible, implausible actions on display. But historical reality is full of unlikely events that require us to trust our senses rather than our ideas of probability, and which may also make us, quite desperately, wish we could mistrust our senses more.

The narrator of Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire—all four of these novels are narrated in the first person—mistrusts everything, and with good reason. He is an adventurer engaged in smuggling out and selling off various articles to be found in Russia and the old Iron Curtain zone, “cut-rate antiquities” from Cracow, the loot of “liquidation sales” in Berlin, night-vision glasses from a bankrupt Red Army. “I had passed through the smoking ruins of the Eastern Empire,” he writes, “from Varsovia to Cracovia, from Buda to Pest,” “my sole activity: crossing the membranes of states (borders), taking advantage of the different values between one cell (nation) and another.”

His most recent commission is to acquire and illegally export a rare Crimean butterfly, and rather to his own surprise he has decided to try to catch a specimen rather than just steal one from a museum. But then he gets swept up in a noncommercial venture of his own, a piece of reverse smuggling, helping to get a Russian call girl out of Istanbul and back into her native land. The venture is a success in immediate practical terms, but now the woman has vanished, leaving our hero, J., alone in Odessa. He travels to Yalta, finds a hotel in the resort town of Livadia, and it is there that he receives a series of letters from V., the woman he has rescued. We never see the letters, although the whole novel is a meditation on them, a stately, lyrical, highly literary work which is genuinely haunting if a little overwrought, and not recommended if you’re looking for action, or even relatively direct narration. Prieto is a Cuban who has lived in Russia. This is his second novel.

To be precise, we do see the letters (“Seven sheets of rice paper illuminated by afternoon light. The page in my outstretched hand was full of fine writing, the blue lines recalling the azure field that represents the sky in heraldry”), we just don’t get to read them. We hear a lot about J. preparing his reply (“I felt truly inspired, like I could fill sheets till dawn”), but it takes a while before we realize that the book is his reply, a long letter about letters—“this draft,” he finally calls it, “this enormous draft.”

We learn that J.’s native language is Spanish, that he is Cuban, that his mother lives in Havana. He is an “apprentice writer,” he says, and we can tell he is a great reader. The Tale of Genji, and works by Conrad, Chekhov, Poe, Dostoevsky, Ovid, Raymond Chandler, Pushkin, Aldous Huxley, and Oscar Wilde are all mentioned as if they were old friends. And then he’s done his homework for his projected epistle, and read pretty much all the famous letter collections. He gets them from a bookseller in Saint Petersburg called Vladimir Vladimirovich, in whose shop he also finds a precious work of reference called Diurnal and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, by V.V. Sirin, just the thing he needs for his chase of the rare Crimean creature. We never learn Vladimir Vladimirovich’s last name. The bookseller can’t be the Nabokov we know—for reasons of time and place and occupation and death and because he’s a fictional character—but the echoing name is carefully placed, and Nabokov’s shade is everywhere in this novel. Readers of The Gift will remember that the hero’s father is the author of a work called Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire, and Sirin was Nabokov’s pen name in exile. Nabokov is also mentioned by name as the author of Lolita and the person who gave his collection of butterflies to a museum in Lausanne.

There are other ghosts in the novel, simply called Livadia in Spanish. The Tsars Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II all spent time in their palace in Livadia, which is also where the Yalta agreements were signed, so that the memories of at least two nowdefunct Russian empires congregate in the town, and J. pursues his thoughts of love and letters on the edge of a momentous past. It is in this sense that Prieto can be thought of as transposing the music of magical realism, having his character reach into history to find only disguise and speculation. J. himself tells us that you have to look “perfectly ordinary” when you go through customs anywhere, and then adds this beautiful little gloss: “not perfectly innocent, which was always suspicious, but perfectly ordinary.”

What is left of a lost love or a lost empire? Or in this case, what is left of a wish to love? At one stage J. thinks he should give up on his long project and write a “little farewell note to V., something short, to the point, not to say that I had loved her but that I had wanted to.” And the novel closes, or rather fails to close, in a brilliant flurry of deception which owes a great deal to the ending of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its manuscripts finally deciphered and delivered to the whirlwind. This text is not, after all, that of J.’s enormous draft, because he has burned it:

…After reading her letters, I threw them all into the fire. I read this draft too, from beginning to end, and all my notes, the quotes from other people’s letters—and then threw them all into the fire. Some of them rose up, borne along on the hot air, flames licking their edges, red as butterflies. Yes, butterflies—why not?

J. then quotes a letter Henriette Vogel wrote to Heinrich von Kleist not long before their double suicide (“my dear constellation, my delicate caress, my stronghold, my fortune, my death”), and the novel ends, “That is how I would begin my letter to V., free and full of feeling, and without a shadow of a doubt: My dearest Varia.” At least we now know her name, but what exactly have we been reading? J. is not going to commit suicide; this was not a grand romance. But at one point in the process of getting Varia back into Russia J. thinks of his action as “the ultimate challenge, the coup de grâce to my years of heavy smuggling. It would be the finishing touch, the high point of my career, to transport a soul….” J.’s narrative is a memorial to his love of subterfuge and his baffled ambition: to go on smuggling but in a higher cause, surrounded by darkened empires, Nabokov’s butterflies, and the ecstatic language of a woman who adored death and her lover in equal portions.

One of the favorite techniques of magical realism is hyperbole: heavy rains turn into biblical rains, a couple of weeks become forty days and nights. Fernando Vallejo’s startling move, in Our Lady of the Assassins, is to take a reality which already seems beyond hyperbole—the drug-related violence and lawlessness of the Co-lombian city of Medellín—and exaggerate it. The thing doesn’t seem to be possible, although I think there is a successful example in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, where the broad excesses of totalitarianism are parodied in the highly detailed excesses of the novel. A very good Spanish-language film of the same name based on Vallejo’s novel (directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Germán Jaramillo) appeared last year, a work which perfectly catches the bleakness of Vallejo’s story, and photographs the scenery, so to speak, of the novel’s personal and political desolation, but doesn’t (and perhaps couldn’t) get anything of the verve of the book, the sheer Swiftian relish with which the narrator details the terminal awfulness of his world.

The narrator, also named Fernando, is a writer who has returned, after many years in Europe, to his native town in Colombia, now known, he says, as “the capital of hate.” He meets and takes up with a young hit man called Alexis. “Here,” his older friend José Antonio says, “I’m making you a present of this beauty. He’s already got ten or more victims to his name.” Alexis laughs, and Fernando says, “Of course I didn’t believe him, or rather I did.” Alexis is one of the assassins of the title, little more than boys, who roam the streets killing for no reason at all because their old reason, the drug baron Pablo (Escobar), has gone.

Alexis shoots a fellow who makes a noise in a neighboring apartment, a taxi driver who won’t turn his radio off; he treats random killing as something like stopping off for coffee or buying a new CD. Alexis is himself killed before long, and Fernando takes up with another young killer—the murderer of Alexis, as it happens, although this bit of ironical plotting is not of major significance. What matters here is the panorama of interminable violence, ironically celebrated by Fernando as a world which is both free of pain and getting exactly what it deserves:

…Alive today and dead tomorrow, which is the law of the world, albeit that they were murdered: murdered young murderers [jovenes asesinos asesinados], freed of the ignominies of old age by flagrant dagger or compassionate bullet.

Fernando hates everyone and everything, except his young men, and the myriad churches of Medellín, which he visits one after another. The worse things get, the more Fernando likes them. Reality keeps parodying itself, constantly outbidding his sardonic expectations, and he pours his scorn in every direction, on criminals, the law, the president of Colombia, the poor, the rich, indeed all of the endlessly unlikable citizens of Medellín: “My fellow citizens suffer from congenital, chronic vileness. This is an unscrupulous, envious, rancorous, deceitful, treacherous, thieving race: human vermin in its lowest form.”

Doesn’t this man sound like a bore; how long could we stand such a diatribe? In the film boredom is staved off by the weary, understated charm of Germán Jaramillo in the part of Fernando. In the book the restless and very funny writing means the question of boredom never even comes up, in spite of phrases like the ones I’ve just quoted, and this is the moment to praise Paul Hammond’s translation. The translations of the other novels under review are better than competent, but this one has a flair and a pace rarely found outside of works written in the language in question.

“Aside from the books I’ve written I have no criminal record,” Fernando says, and he is never short of a wisecrack or an epigram. He has great fun with the word “alleged” (presunto), as in the media phrase the “alleged killer.” He evokes an alleged priest, an alleged pedestrian, some alleged Christians, and feigns indignation when he is himself, because of Alexis’s activities, alleged to be a hit man. “Me an alleged ‘hitman’? The scoundrels. I’m an alleged grammarian!” When Alexis kills three soldiers who looked as if they might want to ask some questions, Fernando crisply says, “Dead men do no searches.” “Death always travels faster than information,” he writes, but then death may be just a little too fast. “There’s nothing more ephemeral than yesterday’s dead man…. The fleeting nature of life doesn’t worry me; what worries me is the fleeting nature of death: the great haste they’re in around here to forget.”

These last sentences suggest something of the pathos that lurks in Fernando’s anger. He is not morally superior to his fellow citizens, and he is not afraid of violence or death (“here everybody’s been held up or killed at least once,” he says). But he is after big metaphysical game, none the less sizable because of the mocking tone in which the hunt is couched. If there are echoes of Swift in the satire of Our Lady of the Assassins, there are echoes of Camus in the questions Fernando raises about the fallen world. “We are nothing,” he says. “We’re God’s nightmare, and he’s off his rocker.” Fernando’s condemnation of his world is his case against God, creator of our fleeting life and our even more fleeting death.

God’s madness may be the least of it. In the later parts of the book Fernando sees God not as mad but as evil. “God is the Devil. The two are one, the thesis and its antithesis. It’s certain God exists. I encounter signs of his wickedness everywhere.” And when Fernando’s second young man is also killed, when the never-ending chain of assassination seems set to go on forever, Fernando pauses over the corpse, as if he could will it not back into life but into some kind of memory or permanence, some kind of denial of God’s distaste for his creation. Fernando can’t keep the jeering irony out of his voice even here (“my one and only”), but there is no mistaking the urgency or extremity of his insight. The whole world would have to be remade for human life to be livable:

There he was, Wilmar, my baby boy, my one and only. I drew close and he had his eyes open. I couldn’t close them however hard I tried: they kept opening as if staring, without seeing, into eternity. I peeped into those green eyes for an instant and saw reflected in them, there in their empty depths, the immense, incommensurable, overweening evil of God.

This Issue

March 14, 2002