Isabel Allende: memoir as autobiography


"Paula" by Isabel Allende. 330 pages. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. $24

In "Paula," one of Isabel Allende's great themes - dynasty - is turned painfully on its head. The book is a memoir written against despair as Ms. Allende watches her 28-year-old daughter succumb to a rare disease, porphyria, and die.

From a Madrid hospital to home in California, Ms. Allende records her anguish as her daughter's life is extinguished while her own flickers on. But Paula is not subject, but muse, of what turns out to be Allende's autobiography. The author breaks up her affecting journal of her daughter's decline with detailed accounts of her own past.

It seems strange that she has done this. Ms. Allende offers an explanation linked to her seminal first novel, "The House of the Spirits." That book, a family history, was conceived as a letter of farewell to her ailing grandfather. This work, a personal history, also framed as a letter, begins with a different purpose: to rouse her daughter back to health.

Ms. Allende's life-story is indeed rousing. "Paula" traces her exuberant progress from her early life in Chile, to exile in Venezuela, to literary renown and a great love in Northern California. From a writer's perspective, Ms. Allende was blessed with a colorful family on a collision course with history. Her uncle, Salvador Allende, was the socialist president who, in 1973, lost his rule and his life to the Chilean military.

But "Paula" offers less than fans of Ms. Allende's fiction will expect. While it does not lack interesting insights or images, one must rummage around to find them. The extravagant sensibility of her novels, which helped establish the genre of magical realism in Latin American fiction, emerges as self-indulgence in this non-fictional work.

Surprisingly, the writing is often colorless. Confined more or less to the facts, Ms. Allende seems uninspired. She is most engaging when focusing on the personal. She compares her first kiss, for example, to "biting a frog that smelled of chewing gum, beer, and tobacco."

But she is disappointing when she turns to the political. Her portrait of her uncle is prosaic (she states she cannot do justice to his complex character). Her account of his three-year rule and the coup in which he died is rushed and dissatisfying.

While her sorrow at the repression that followed is evident, she provides only the bare bones of what is known to have happened. Remarkably, though, this story depends little on its telling. Her brief account of Chile's suffering stands out among her reminiscences, a tragedy in a sea of anecdotes.

Awash in Ms. Allende's memories, it is easy to lose sight of the younger woman behind her book. "Paula" never spans the chasm between healthy mother and dying daughter. The result is an overwhelming disjointedness.

Ms. Allende's fiction gained its poignancy from evoking the imminence of death and from elaborating the idea of the dead among the living. But in this memoir, death does not work. Confined and comatose, the real-world Paula is immobilized - not a spirit, but a very sick person. Her mother, the writer, does not know what to do with her.

Lesley Mackay, a staff writer at the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth at Johns Hopkins, has also written about human rights in Bolivia. She taught literature classes at both the Malysian Institute of Technology and at Indiana University.

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