No first novel since Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has moved me more deeply than Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. For weeks after completing it, I wondered why: among the legion of international readers overwhelmed, I too was dizzied by the swirling romanticism, stoned on the superbly crafted interweaving of close family observation with political calamity—that is, the most educated of Latin American countries succumbing to the nearly inevitable recurrence of fascism. But why were there these waves of emotions every so often that crushed me? Why did I suddenly, frequently start welling up, even before the ending? In a word—Barrabás. Cynics have described the use of Clara the Clairvoyant’s dog as manipulative, but shrugging off the dog’s importance is fatal to readers’ receptiveness. Not the active center of this sprawling yet intimate epic of the Trueba family, Barrabás is its major spiritual symbol; he, more than celestial Clara, rises from the ashes of ruin.

The House of the Spirits has been compared favorably to Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which he turns a century’s worth of the ordinary into magic realism. Unlike Allende, however, García Márquez is an alchemist—a virtuoso who processes words into pieces of the hidden St. Joseph’s gold and makes them, despite the surrounding deluge of detail, “glow like embers in the darkness.” Without any intent, Allende’s novel reveals the one disappointment in One Hundred Years—an empathetic lack of reader-felt investment in its characters. García Márquez’s technique of transmutation is imperial predilection that prompts detachment, if not estrangement—a wondrous, flabbergasting achievement as a queerly cold-blooded “fervor for the written word as an interweaving of solemn respect and gossipy irreverence.” Allende writes emotionally encompassing prose that entrances. We’re not in danger of sinking in a near-bottomless pit of itemization, we’re never vexed by the hocus pocus García Márquez sometimes infuriates with—like Remedios the Beauty’s ascent into the skies without a follow-up (readers want a news flash about Heaven) or his pair of doomed lovers fornicating in muriatic acid. And we don’t lose our patience as some of us come close to doing with García Márquez’s exasperating repetition of genealogical nomenclature. (When discussing the novel with others, I’m amazed how many resorted to the same method—jotting down the various Jose Arcadios with identifying markers in order to follow who is being written about.) With Allende, we reel in a high with no ill-effects: she’s not only penning a quixotic diary-romance of the realities of Chile’s tragedy—her slain uncle Salvador Allende is here, as well as Pablo Neruda, who, as the Chilean Ambassador to France, died during the early stages of the Pinochet coup—but she’s also taking us on an exhilarating journey to egalitarianism. Shortly into the first chapters of The House of the Spirits, we’re not merely hooked, we’re in the presence of a grace so enveloping that how could we be anything but in awe over how she enlarges the experience of a magical mystery tour by not only breaking our hearts but also at the same time filling us with joy. The feeling derived from reading her is similar to a comment Neruda made about his most widely read book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair: “By some miracle which I do not understand, this tormented book has opened the road to happiness for many, many people.” Her personal tragedies notwithstanding, Allende has openly pooh-poohed the notion that we have a right to felicity; this first novel, written out of the various confusions and insecurities emerging writers often experience, is a triumphant self-contradiction.

As we get deep into Allende’s autobiographically detailed novel and come upon Clara, her twin boys, daughter Blanca, granddaughter Alba, the “Mora Sisters, the Rosicrucians, the Theosophists, the telepathists, the rainmakers, the peripatetics,” we’re reasonably sure they’d be at home in Macondo. If Allende’s book structure and dedication are deeper measure, she might have been influenced by Humberto Solás’s 1968 movie epic of Cuban independence, Lucia, a trilogy of political epochs told from the point of view of three women named the same. And perhaps she weighted her novel with factually-based realism out of Patricio Guzmán’s documentary The Battle of Chile. Both of these films expose their explicit political themes in different ways: Lucia tries, with one part romanticized hysteria, one part pensiveness, one part demagogic sexism, to applaud Communism, Castro-style, but what it ends up as is a clarion call for democratic liberation; despite the virtues of Communism as mandatory exclamation points, Lucia unconsciously subverts the folly of a bankrupt system by bringing to the surface emotions and sex that betray the very intentions aimed for. And though The Battle of Chile seems to have the imprimatur of the dead first Marxist-Socialist president of Chile, by the time it’s over, we’re fairly sure that any attempt-experiment to enforce Marxism through constitutional law is an unenforceable contradiction. Allende’s novel is an artful polemic, too: skirting the issues of failure and blame, she allows her uncle, who was in Chilean politics for roughly 40 years, to escape excoriation by suggesting his inept administration was maligned not only by the Conservatives and the military, with assistance from Nixon and Kissinger (we had ships off the coast of Chile during the coup d’état), but also by the huge influx of naïve socialist reformers who didn’t know how to navigate and manipulate the otherwise paralyzing labyrinth of bureaucracy. Foremost, as with Lucia, Allende frames her women as victims of the enduring cultural legacy—building a politically-based social structure out of sexist pride and sexual prowess that has distinctive longevity in Latin countries.

If you either read the novel and weren’t swept up in Allende’s spell or didn’t read it, you’ll probably dislike Bille August’s adaptation of The House of the Spirits, perhaps intensely: he’s neither magician nor sensualist and one and preferably both are needed. If, however, you’re among those overtaken by the novel, then the movie will be, at best, a refresher course; watching it, even with its changes, the original story comes flooding back. That is both praise and caution: Bille August and his all too extraordinary cast have given us a labor of love, and no lover of the book could deem it less charitably; the concern is that the big Anglo names, who worked for next-to-nothing salaries in order to help secure the $40 million dollar financing, will displace Allende’s humanist entreaty and become, more or less, guest victimas—a Juicio en Santiago. There is a risky element of the trickster as we watch August roll out Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Glenn Close, and, most overtly miscast, Meryl Streep. Some of us even felt fear: that the cast would generate derision, and in pre-release screenings howls from detractors erupted, especially with Irons’ flattened, tongue-twisting accent and Streep being at minimum two decades too old to play a young Clara. It does take some time to accept them. While the novel has six women who are the hub of spiritual and egalitarian emanations, as if touched by Gabriela Mistral, the movie, because of time constraints, rather daringly puts curmudgeon patriarch Esteban Trueba at the center, with Blanca, his and Clara’s daughter, the narrator. In biological and political terms, Esteban is the nucleus of the story: all that happens he’s either directly or covertly involved. He’s a walking, talking dinosaur of sexism, of archaic conservative persuasion, and as much as a reader wants to hate him, his firecracker responses are Scroogy funny and even when he’s at his ugliest—raping a girl not totally as a means of power or violence but out of sexual release; attempting to kill his daughter’s lover; denying his bastard Indian son; sleeping with the junta—there’s a suspicion held all along in the reader that he’s going to evolve into someone honorable. To play and retain the ruinous stubbornness of Esteban, Jeremy Irons strips himself of his own British voice and gives us something like a hoarse Sam Elliott rattling off a patrician form of garble. Not very long into the picture and up to the point of aging as an old man, when looking somewhat like Burt Lancaster walking like Borges, Irons is surprisingly butch in his snobbish portliness—like a tanned, old-world Edward Albee. (On horse and wearing riding hats and boots, he brings to mind Sam Neill as Albee.) This mutability doesn’t hurt him; in fact he may be one of the rarest of British actors who is best not being British, though what makes this apparently true is unfair: his physicality can make one’s flesh crawl, as it did for me watching his snot-filled virility in Damage, or in Harold Pinter’s unyielding Betrayal. Working away from his country’s sickly, drab demeanor, Irons springs to entertaining life: inexplicably it’s his prissified masculinity that makes him so unimaginably right for the twin psychos in Dead Ringer and equally super-fitting for the chilled-out, postured indifference of necrophilic Claus von Bülow in Barbet Schroder’s ghoulish Reversal of Fortune. (And he’s tasty trash as conniving pope in The Borgias.) Hating his stuffy Esteban is as much “solemn” fun as it is in the novel, but in that August cuts out the symbolic Barrabás, viewers are short-changed of the concluding uplift of spirituality—a finale which, Allende revealed on a Discovery Channel documentary about sleep, came to her in a vivid dream. Nevertheless, Irons delivers to Esteban a moving redemption.

At the screening I attended, some audience members wondered out loud what dialect Meryl Streep would foist on us as Clara. The laughs Irons got from the clods quickly became letdown when she doesn’t provide one of her specialities. And there is a long moment or two of shock that she has the courage to play Clara as a young woman, whom Allende describes as “the most elegant, discreet and charming lady of (her) social circle,” when no matter what director August does to help her (and it isn’t much), the inescapable fact is, there’s no way for her to convince us that she can—and that’s what’s so damn distracting. She doesn’t help ingratiate herself to us, either: there’s an aura of depression, not the supernatural, hanging around her—she looks and acts exhausted, not too unlike Julie Andrews’s last half hour in Hawaii. And puzzlingly, she looks fat and too prematurely aged. A minor miracle, though, that we believe it when Streep’s Clara says good-bye to Esteban’s sister Férula, played by Glenn Close, or when she makes after-death visitations. She does a great collapse when Irons slaps her, and she wears her hair as illustrated on the cover of the 1986 Bantam book edition. As Clara’s parents, Vanessa Redgrave extends her magnanimity from Howards End, and Armin Mueller-Stahl sounds as if he’s being dubbed in real time. Hinting once more at Anne Revere, this time as an oddly Oriental version, Close, who was August’s first choice to play Clara some years back (with William Hurt as Esteban), has the unenviable duty to explicate to a priest what is accusation by Estaban in the novel—Férula’s closeted amorous feelings toward Clara. August cheats her out of her own tragedy—that Férula wills herself to death, that she’d die before she could ever admit to feelings she couldn’t handle. (Am I the only to have noticed that when Férula & Esteban’s mother dies, the size of the coffin wouldn’t be quite up to the task?)

Allende describes Blanca as having “Arabian eyes,” a “Moorish, languid air about her. She was tall and well endowed, of a rather helpless and tearful temperament that roused men’s ancestral instinct for protection.” Looking prettier than she ever has, Winona Ryder suggests neither Arabic nor tall and teary, and the toughness she brings to the role is duality: to compress the tragedies within the family tree, August has Blanca endure what her own daughter Alba does in the novel—the torture by the junta. (Allende has Blanca and her beloved Pedro escaping to Canada while Alba is left behind and repeatedly violated by Esteban’s bastard offspring.) This change unobjectionable in that the story lines of Blanca and Alba are much the same, but what’s less acceptable is Ryder’s narration. Her voice is ordinary, uninspired, lacking resonance, so out of pithy sync with the sweeping emotionality of Allende’s plangent language that both the author’s and our sensitivities get mugged.

Watching Bille August’s version, lovers of the novel will be pleased by the fidelity he holds to the basic narrative; compacting major scenes and sequences, he gets to the quick of each—he’s being very respectful. But he suffers the higher risk of omission: Barrabás’s absence nullifies Allende’s spiritualism. Being a sucker for dogs, when in the novel Barrabás is assassinated as political warning, I—and many other readers—quickly choked up. The shock and cruelty seemed like rivets pounded into the heart. When Esteban has the dog taxidermied as rug for Clara, at whose feet he died, there’s a gulf between intention and outcome: the rug is gesture to please Clara the eternal spiritualist, but she will have no part of it; she condemns the remains to the basement. Yet Barrabás rises from the cellar in two moments of such breathtaking love that I still get gooseflesh thinking about them: when Clara dies, her beloved granddaughter Alba is found after the funeral to be sleeping on Barrabás, and, after Esteban slowly acknowledges and regrets that his acquiescence to the military in order to “save” the country from Allende has been submission to fascism, he surreptitiously works to free both his daughter and her lover from the hands of Pinochet’s henchmen and, as if to cleanse, decides to reopen up his ranch and put on loving display Barrabás. “Let’s leave him here,” he says, “this is where he always should have been.” It got to me, and still gets to me. Though Allende politely claims to like and approve of the alterations for the movie, August only proved that a movie maker could make The House of the Spirits. Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is rather like a movie fantasist’s dream never to be dared (though perhaps now a subtle use of CGI could possibly surmount the “deluge” of legerdemain), House isn’t an inherently scary challenge; the story is factually based, it has currency, its parapsychology has admissive continuity. The next time around, probably as a deluxe miniseries, the book will hopefully be in the hands of an epicurean like Bertolucci or illusionist Guillermo del Toro (on the basis of Pan’s Labyrinth) guiding an ethnically appropriate cast and those marvelous facets of imagination like green hair, Nivea’s head, Clara’s twins and the Mora Sisters will return and above all else Barrabás will rise, not fall.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1999 RALPH BENNER  (REVISED 7/2017)  All Rights Reserved.