Sunday, January 21, 2007


Isabel AllendeIsabel Allende's Eva Luna is perhaps not a terrible book; but nor is it a very good one.

It particularly goes off the rails towards the end as the various narrative strands--the story of eponymous Eva's success as a writer; the long-awaited consummation of her romance with film-maker Rolf Carlé; and her abandonment of previous love interests guerrilla Huberto Naranjo and General Tomoleo Rodríguez--come to an end more or less abruptly and unconvincingly. In this light, Allende's decision to give us two possible conclusions, in one of which Eva and Rolf's love eventually dissipates whereas in the other they live happily ever after, is less a sign of metafictional play than a signal that the book itself has ground to an unceremonious halt.

All this in a book that sets out to celebrate the power of the word, and of story-telling in particular, yet in which (as our narrator tells us) "when all was said and done, everything came down to the elemental fact that I had found my man" (285). All the gestures towards politics, whether feminist or socialist, half-hearted at the best of times, are sacrificed for the sake of a romantic dénouement that even Eva Luna herself finds vaguely unsatisfying.

This sense of dissatisfaction permeates the novel, not least when it comes to the various stories within stories that it presents. Eva Luna gains an audience among her friends by reworking the stories provided her by mass culture: "They'd ask me to tell them what would happen next in the soap opera of the day, and I'd improvise a dramatic conclusion that never coincided with the way things turned out on the radio, but they didn't mind" (121). Yet it emerges that the book we are reading is itself the basis of Eva Luna's own soap opera, one which goes by the title of Bolero; perhaps she's challenging us to come up with a more fitting end to her characters' serial adventures and (mis)fortunes.

If Eva Luna is some kind of doppelganger for Allende herself, it's notable that she is a writer unashamedly oriented towards the market. Throughout, she offers her stories in exchange for some kind of benefit; and as she suggests in the self-reflexive terms of the only story told within the novel itself, "she traveled all over touting her merchandise, adventure stories, mysteries, tales of horror or vice, all at a reasonable price" (262). She makes no grand claims for her fiction, only that in the face of an unknowable and chaotic reality she tries "to put a bit of order to so much chaos, to makes existence more tolerable. When I write, I picture life the way I'd like it to be" (280).

Is it too severe to characterize such sentimental escapism as "bad" literature? Perhaps, though it's notable how deficient it is when Allende (or Eva) comes to account for violence or any other unpleasantness: describing a torture scene, for instance, our narrator tells us "The officer lifted his hand, brought his arm back, and punched me. I don't remember anything else. I awoke in the same room, tied to the chair, alone, they'd taken my dress off. [. . .] I tried to move, but my entire body hurt, above all the cigarette burns on my legs" (183). No wonder Luna's response to another character's bloody suicide has been to clean things up and tell her corpse a story as though (almost) nothing had happened.

And it's an irony if Allende's readership comes to her work looking either for creative imagination or for some kind of political commitment, when all they get are these gestures.

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