A sensual look at Chile's founding mother

The Baltimore Sun

Ines of My Soul

Isabel Allende (Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden)

HarperCollins / 322 pages / $25.95.

"Behind every great man is a great woman" is an oft-repeated American axiom, and yet our founding mothers are remembered best for being wives of the founding fathers. Martha Washington inherited her husband's "Household and Kitchen Furniture, of every sort and kind, with the Liquors and Groceries which may be on hand at the time of my decease" - and is virtually unknown to Americans. Abigail Adams wrote extensive - yet largely forgotten - political correspondence. And Dolley Madison is remembered mostly for introducing ice cream to dessert-starved Americans, not for her forays into diplomacy.

In Chile, too, founding mothers were footnotes, a situation Chilean novelist Isabel Allende seeks to remedy with her sweeping new novel, Ines of My Soul.

While America lies on the verge of having its first female speaker of the House, Chile already has its first woman president. And to many, Michelle Bachelet is a trailblazer in the mold of Allende's heroine, Ines Suarez, the nation's founding mother.

(And of course Allende herself comes from the political dynasty of Chile; her uncle was the great Salvador Allende.)

Historical fiction is always dangerous territory, especially when little is actually known about the subject or even the terrain of the fiction. But Allende has made this her metier; all her recent novels, including 2005's Zorro, have taken on monumental characters of history about whom little is truly known.

So, too, with her latest subject, Ines Suarez, founding mother of Chile. The woman who accompanied the Spanish conquistadors on their conquest of (what is now) Chile in the 16th century is an extraordinary character in the artistic hands of Allende. The combination of extensive research ("the research for this novel took four years of avid reading," the author says in the book's Bibliographical Note) and Allende's famously fertile imagination enlivens the tale of the feisty Spanish seamstress who followed her husband to the New World in search of that most precious commodity: freedom.

Ines of My Soul is a complex and truly rich tale, filled with palpable history and the lushly intricate territories which Allende's characters sought to conquer. The young Ines grows up in modest circumstances in Spain and marries the handsome Juan de Malaga, knowing full well that he is a rogue and a womanizer and that her needlework and bakery skills will have to support them both.

When Juan sails for the Americas without warning (and without paying his debts), Ines finds her life even more constricted: She must live as if she were a widow, wearing mourning dress and a heavy veil, her life reduced to "prayer, work and solitude." But like Juan, Ines has been infected by the stories of wealth and adventure that return from the New World, and she secretly begins to save money for her own voyage in search of El Dorado.

Ines stays in the new colony of Peru for a time, where she discovers that Juan has been killed in battle. But then the claustrophobic life is too much for her. Ostensibly searching for her husband, Ines finds the freedom she so craves. She earns her keep not only by baking and sewing, but also by tending the sick and injured, a skill that brings her into contact with Spanish Gen. Pedro de Valdivia, field marshal to Francisco Pizarro, who becomes her lover.

Ines' story is also Valdivia's story - and becomes the story of the "founding" of Chile. Allende's novel is told from the vantage point of the last year of Ines' life. She tells of the events that led Valdivia to become a conquistador and to seek the riches of Chile and of Ines and Valdivia's passionate love for each other, a sensual battle that fuels their search for the El Dorado of their combined dreams.

The riches they seek are not, surprisingly, gold. Rather, they seek Chile's fine climate and a place where they can live with dignity in a nation in which Christian ideology and equality prevail. To get there, they must cross searing desert and frozen mountains, must watch as their companions die or are killed, must battle the native Indians loath to relinquish their land, must be at war with everything, including, at times, each other. Ines must come to terms with her past and present; Valdivia must come to terms with his desire for fame.

Written in the style of Benvenuto Cellini's celebrated Autobiography, Ines of My Soul is a compelling narrative, at turns lusty and wistful, with a sprinkling of braggadoccio. Allende's trademark sensuality and lush, descriptive prose give Ines a full voice, but unlike Cellini, Ines admits to fear, and lots of it, as she battles men, insects and animals in her fight to stay alive.

Allende's famous magical realism is in abeyance here, but her love for her homeland is palpable, her celebration of another woman's extraordinary achievements is both mesmerizing and bittersweet. Our American pioneer mothers certainly endured tremendous hardships, but in Allende's tale, Chile's founding mother is a sterling example of what willpower alone can accomplish. Ines Suarez was literally a trailblazer, and Allende's novel gives students of South American - and, indeed, American - history a rich meal to feast upon.

Judith M. Redding lives in Philadelphia and reviews fiction.

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