Isabel Allende again

Isabel Allende, Violeta. Bloomsbury, 2023. First published in Spanish 2022. Translated by Frances Riddle.

I just looked back at the last time I posted on this Chilean-American novelist: I wrote briefly about her previous novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, back in March 2020. National lockdown in England had just started, so much of the post was about the effects of this.

My reservations about that novel were similar to those I felt with this one – although it’s a more engaging read. They both suffer from an excess of heavily imposed socio-political commentary. This would arise more naturally if the reader was able to deduce what’s going on without being lectured.

It’s another powerful family saga, once again spanning decades of the lives of a Chilean family. There’s a rather unconvincing narrative device: centenarian Violeta is supposedly telling her life story to her beloved grandson. For me, the narrative would have been less clunky if it was just a conventional account.

Some readers might find one of this novel’s central features – the misogynistic, macho culture of Chile in which domestic abuse of women was rife – hard to stomach. But it’s a brave and unflinching aspect of this woman’s story. She learns to face up to the reality of her philandering partner’s cruel treatment of her, and to find the energy and courage to face him down.

That last novel was set during and after the Spanish Civil War, and told of the flight of defeated Republicans to safe haven in Chile. Violeta tells the story of a family’s turbulent life through Chile’s financial crisis following WW1 and the flu epidemic, and that country’s fluctuating political history as it passes from democracy to military dictatorship then back to a kind of democracy again. Violeta’s family is ruined financially, goes into self-imposed exile in the far south (exile is not surprisingly a key theme for Allende), and her struggles to restore their fortunes. Along the way she learns to open her eyes to the realities of the political, social and economic systems in Chile.

The characters are more rounded and convincing this time, and I found reading their story a pleasant way to pass two long train journeys.

Isabel Allende and a country walk

I’d intended writing today about Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea. Mrs TD enjoyed it and passed it on to me. I was less enthusiastic.

The early section that’s set in the brutality of the Spanish Civil War is graphically done, but I’ve read similar stuff before, much of it better. Then we follow the central couple, who’ve survived defeat of the Republican side for which they were fighting, and entered on a marriage of convenience to facilitate their exile to Chile in an emigrant ship, the Winnipeg, a sort of socialist Windrush organised by the Chilean diplomat-poet, Pablo Neruda.

The novel goes on too long for my taste – five or six more decades of the couple’s lives. They have affairs, grow closer. I found the research that Allende had obviously done too obtrusive. All that socio-political history gives the narrative a stilted feel, and the tone is occasionally preachy.

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So instead I’ll write about what else is going on. As we enter the first week of more-or-less isolation, (the British govt can always be relied on to be decisive and clear) the reality of being confined to the house is kicking in. We are allowed out once a day to exercise, or to shop for essentials, provided we maintain a social distance of at least two metres. It’s amazing how many people seem still not to realise how crucial this is.

Fortunately we have a PM with the resolute, dependable character to steer a frightened nation through this crisis. Yeah, that’s irony again. As the numbers of cases and deaths start to rise exponentially here in the UK, scarily like the curves seen in Italy and Spain a couple of weeks ago, it looks certain that the situation will get much worse.

Land rover reclaimed by natureStill, the spring sunshine has finally arrived after what seems six months of rain. I went on a solo walk this morning in the remote country lanes by my house. Saw just a handful of people, so no problems maintaining that distance.

About half a mile up the road is this strange sight: an ancient Land Rover that’s slowly been reclaimed by nature.

River fordA little further along, the river Kenwyn at the valley bottom flows over the road in a ford. The light dappling through the trees, where the buds are just starting to burst, was lovely.

Along the way I passed the church where my sister-in-law was married. It has a fine lych-gate – that rather macabre structure where, years ago, a funeral cortege would pause. The church is dedicated to St Keyne.

Kenwyn church

She was a fifth-century holy woman, daughter of a Welsh king, who was said to have travelled extensively through South Wales before crossing into Cornwall, where she became a hermit. The only surviving account of her life is in John of Tynemouth’s 14C Sanctilogium, and it’s far from reliable. Like much hagiography. It’s designed to edify, not provide accurate history. The village of St Keyne, in the east of Cornwall near Liskeard, is named after her.

A mile or so down the road the valley opens up – it’s hilly everywhere in this county – and the Rural landscape landscape seemed to be basking in the rare warmth and sunshine. I tried to record a bullfinch that was singing its heart out in a tree beside the road, but by the time I’d got my phone out and found the voice recorder, he’d developed stage fright and fallen silent.

Further along the road  I came upon a man standing staring into the trees. I greeted him. ‘He’s keeping the social distance of two metres,’ he said. ‘A squirrel. We’re having a stand-off.’

I told him they’re not my favourite rodent: a family that lives in a  tree by my house ate every one of the crocuses we only planted in the early autumn. They waited until they flowered, for some reason; maybe then they taste better.

PrimrosesThere were spring flowers everywhere, including some delicate violets, and this lovely cluster of primroses.

So the times might be rough, but nature has a way of lifting the spirits. If anything good can come out of this CV-19 crisis, it might be the ways that nature is re-asserting itself as pollution and human plunder almost ceases. Cormorants and fish swimming in the limpid canals of Venice; animals not being run over on formerly busy roads that are now like rivers of tarmac.