27 June 2012

My Invented Country by Isabel Allende

     I read Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country: A Memoir with one of my “real life” book clubs. (For expediency’s sake I will call them The Church Book Club and The Library Book Club…this was for The Library Book Club) I picked it up with some trepidation since Allende was a name I had heard before with much praise for her writing skills and much warning about her inappropriate content.

     The book’s subtitle is A Memoir and it’s with good reason. I would summarize it as Ms. Allende’s opinion of Chile and everything else. She begins by explaining how much nostalgia is central to what she writes and how her plots and characters are born from a sense of nostalgia. Then she goes on to describe her early life in Chile and her eventual exile during the reign of Augusto Pinochet to Venezuela eventually ending with her marriage to her second husband, who she lives with now in California. In between the story of her life, the reader is treated (or has forced upon, depending on your personal convictions) Ms. Allende’s opinion of pretty much everything: Feminism, Language, Childhood, Marriage, Socialism, America. You name it, she has an opinion on it.

     Some of the ladies in my group were upset because they wanted to know more about Chile, but I didn’t find it upsetting. I think the nature of memoir is such that you get the facts according to one person. I’m not being a relativist here, but if you get two people in two different rooms who witnessed the same event, they may have the salient points, but the stories they tell will be vastly different. I found that she was rather honest at the beginning and the conclusion about how much this was life in Chile from her own perspective.

     I thought it was enjoyable how she mixed fact and fiction at random times during the book, so you weren’t even really sure how much of what she was saying was true. I wouldn’t have accepted this from an historian, but from someone writing her perspective on her own country and her own life, I actually found it sort of adventurous and interesting. What I didn’t particularly enjoy were her politics, particularly regarding feminism or her religious cynicism, found throughout the book. There was also a rather cheap shot at George Bush which to me is a bit of a tired joke. (Haw haw...our former President didn't do well speaking extemporaneously lolz rofl !!1!)

     I do have to give Ms. Allende credit for fairness in her comparing and contrasting of her old country, lost to her on September 11, 1973 with the coup of Salvador Allende and rise of Augusto Pinochet and her new country, America, gained on September 11, 2001, with the attack on the World Trade Center. She doesn’t just take the low hanging fruit of “stupid Americans” or “evil white males” that I think we tend to help perpetuate, but she’s honest about our flaws and about Chile’s flaws, from her point of view. And she is generous in her praise of both countries (she’s a little more biased in Chile’s favor, but I would be too were I born and raised there. I’m a little more biased in America’s favor, so I didn’t think it was a big deal). I also found the loss of country and gain of country, both on September 11th very moving.

     Also, I'd like to bring attention to the fact that Ms. Allende focuses a lot on her family and her community. This is actually something I really appreciate about South American and Mexican culture in general. There is an emphasis on the importance of family and community. And there is a sense of being grounded in something and coming from somewhere that I think we often take for granted. I found myself personally connecting with the unwritten rule that you never come to someone's house empty handed. My great-grandmother who emigrated from Mexico with her husband lived by the exact same rule. Ms. Allende's family in particular seems to be made up of some very eccentric and strange people, but in mainly harmless and endearing ways.

     I’m glad I read it. I found her writing style and humor very compelling. I think whether she wants to acknowledge it or not, God has given her a particular writing talent. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I cared more about her as a person, by which I mean, I have interacted with her other books. I felt the same way when reading Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. I thought Ms. Dillard was funny and creative and a very talented writer, but I just wasn’t convinced I cared about her life because I hadn’t formed a relationship with her by reading any of her previous works. I think before I recommend her though, I’d like to read one or two of her books.

   I’d specifically like to read The House of Spirits which started originally as a long letter to her grandfather while Ms. Allende was living in exile. She found out he was dying and began to write to him in a burst of nostalgia. The letter eventually became the novel. I tend to think it’s a little sad that he never actually got the letter, but it does make for an interesting story behind the story.


Carrie said...

It does sound like an interesting and intriguing read -- to hear about. I don't know what I'd necessarily enjoy reading this one for myself, but I did enjoy hearing your take on it.

BerlinerinPoet said...

Yeah, you won't hear any urging from me to read this one. Not while there are so many other better things.