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 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 Isabel, 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, Isabel’s novel reveals the one disappointment in One Hundred Years—a 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.” Isabel romanticizes the supernatural without our feeling vexed by the hocus pocus García Márquez conjures—like Remedios the Beauty’s ascent into the skies without a follow-up (readers wish for a news flash about Heaven) or his pair of doomed lovers fornicating in muriatic acid. And we non-Latins don’t lose our patience with her itemization as we come close to doing with García Márquez’s repetitious genealogical nomenclature. (When discussing the novel with others, I’m amazed how many resorted to the same fix—jotting down all the Josés with identifying markers in order to follow who he’s writing about.) With Isabel, we reel in a high with few ill-effects: she’s not only penning a romantic saga within the boundries of Chile’s tragedy—her slain uncle Salvador Allende is here, as is Pablo Neruda, who, as the Chilean Ambassador to France, died during the early stages of the Pinochet coup—she’s also taking us on a circuitous journey to egalitarianism. Shortly into The House of the Spirits, we’re hooked by a 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 equal 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.”

As we move into the autobiographically detailed novel and come upon Clara, her twin boys, the “Mora Sisters, the Rosicrucians, the Theosophists, the telepathists, the rainmakers, the peripatetics,” we might think they’d be at home in the chronic forgetfulness of Macondo. The book’s substance a deeper measure, Isabel wouldn’t. Her chronology, one could argue persuasively, might have been inspired from Humberto Solás’s 1968 rhapsody of Cuban independence, Lucia, a trilogy of generational political epochs told from the point of view of three women named the same. One part delirium, one part pensiveness and one part demagogic sexism, the movie’s mandatory exclamation points as alleged virtues of Castro unwittingly subvert its follies by bringing to the surface long-suffered existential situations that become clarion calls for liberation. This reversal of fate doesn’t make Lucia bad history; quite the opposite, its inherent plea for freedom from chauvinism likely infused Isabel with a stronger urgency to warn that women as victims of the ever persistent legacy of enabling through silence, fear and delay of justice are perpetuating social and political dictates built on insistent fascism and sexist pride and prowess. Also possible Isabel weighted her novel with a degree of realism out of Patricio Guzmán’s 1975 documentary The Battle of Chile. Though it seems to have the imprimatur of the country’s first Marxist president, by the time it’s concluded, we’re fairly sure that any attempt-experiment to enforce Marxism by altering constitutional law as convenient expedience would be, at the least, incendiary. Here’s where Isabel isn’t the artful objectivist when events spiraled out of control: skirting the issues of outright failure and blame, she allows her uncle, in Chilean politics for roughly 40 years, to escape excoriation because his presidency was doomed from the start not only by his non-majority election which had to be ratified by a divided Congress—this fact silent in the movie—but also by his dependence on a huge influx of naïve administrators who didn’t have the skills to circumvent the labyrinth of entrenched bureaucracy that stalled delivery of services and industrial essentials he hurriedly nationalized. The military coup d’état was supported by staunch anti-commie conservatives, with approval from Nixon (and Kissinger) who, with the spectres of Castro and Vietnam, ordered U.S. ships to the Chilean coast just in case. The “official” cause of Allende’s death was suicide, inflicted by gun shot, during the early hours of the takeover. Two weeks later, Neruda “officially” died of prostate cancer.

If you’ve read The House of the Spirits and weren’t swept into Isabel’s spell, or didn’t read it, or got your fill of Pinochet after Costa-Gavras’s Missing and the various movie caveats centering on Argentina’s abuses, you’ll probably not be up for director Bille August’s crusade. Pointedly he’s neither magician nor sensualist and both are essential. If you’re among those overtaken by the novel, then the movie, which he also adapts, will be at least a refresher course; even with cuts and changes, the original story comes flooding back. That’s limited praise as well as caution: August and his all too extraordinary cast have given us a labor of love and few lovers of the book would deem it less charitably; the beef is that the big white bread names, who worked for next-to-nothing salaries to help secure the $40 million dollar financing, displace Isabel’s humanist entreaty and become, more or less, guest victimas—a Juicio en Santiago. There are risky elements of the gambit 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 regarding Irons’ flattened accent and Streep being at minimum two decades too old to play a young Clara. While the novel has six women who are at the hub of spiritual and egalitarian emanations, as if touched by Gabriela Mistral, the movie, because of its time constraints, rather daringly puts curmudgeon patriarch Esteban Trueba upfront, with Blanca, his and Clara’s daughter, the narrator. In biological and political terms, Esteban is obviously the nucleus of the story: he’s either directly or covertly central in much of what happens. He’s a walking, talking dinosaur of sexism, of 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 violent power but out of sexual release; attempting to kill his daughter’s lover; denying his bastard Indian son; sleeping with the junta—there’s an unsurprising likelihood that he’ll evolve. To play and retain the ruinous stubbornness of Esteban, Irons strips himself of his own British voice and gives us something like a hoarse Sam Elliott rattling off a patrician form of unearned outrage. Not very long into the picture and up to the point of aging as an old man, looking somewhat like Borges when walking with a cane, which is the nearest he gets to being Latin, he’s humorously butch in his snobbishness—a tanned, spotted-up 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; he may be one of the rarest of British actors who is best not being British, in that his physicality makes 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: his prissified masculinity makes him unimaginably right for the twin gynecologist psychos in Dead Ringers and super-fitting for the necrophilic Claus von Bülow in Barbet Schroder’s ghoulish Reversal of Fortune. (And he’s tasty trash as conniving pope in Showtime’s The Borgias.) Hating his stuffy Esteban is as much “solemn” fun as it is in the novel, but in that August cuts the symbolic Barrabás, viewers are short-changed of the concluding uplift of spirituality—a finale which, revealed on a Discovery Channel documentary about sleep, came to Isabel in a vivid dream.

At a screening I attended, some audience members wondered out loud what accent Meryl Streep would foist on us as Clara. The laughs Irons got from the clods quickly became letdown when she doesn’t provide another example of her specialty. And there is a long moment or two of shock that she has the courage to play Clara as a young woman; no matter what director August does to help her (it isn’t much), the inescapable fact is that there’s no way she can. Isabel describes Clara as “the most elegant, discreet and charming lady of (her) social circle,” but there’s little evidence of these attributes in Streep; there’s an aura of dingy depression, not the supernatural, hanging around her—she looks and acts exhausted, not too unlike Julie Andrews’s last half hour in Hawaii. A minor miracle (that nevertheless feels like a major strain) to accept her good-bye to Esteban’s sister Férula, played by Glenn Close, or when she makes after-death visitations. She does a great collapse while Irons slaps her, and a near-collapse when decorating a Xmas tree, and she wears her hair somewhat like the illustration 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 before (with William Hurt as Esteban), has the unenviable duty to explicate to a priest what is venomous 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 before she could ever admit to feelings she couldn’t handle. (And am I the only to have noticed that when Férula & Esteban’s mother dies, the size of her coffin wouldn’t be quite up to the task?)

Isabel 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. (Isabel has Blanca and her beloved Pedro escaping to Canada while Alba is left behind and repeatedly violated by Esteban’s bastard offspring, portrayed by Joaquin Martinez without the other Joaquin’s cleft palate.) 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 uninspiring, lacking resonance, out of pithy sync with the sweeping emotionality of Isabel’s language that both the author’s and our sensitivities get somewhat mugged.

Admirers of the novel will be moderately pleased by the fidelity August holds to the basic narrative; compacting major scenes, he gets to the quick of each—he’s being very respectful. But he suffers the higher risk of omission: Barrabás’s absence nullifies Isabel’s spiritualism. Being a sucker for dogs, Barrabás’s demise as political warning had me chocking up, as it did with many other readers; the shock and cruelty were rivets pounding into the heart. When Esteban has the dog taxidermied as rug for Clara, at whose feet he died, there’s a gulf between intent and outcome: the rug is gesture to please her but she will have no part of it, condemning the remains to the basement. Yet he rises from the cellar in two moments of gooseflesh: after Clara’s funeral, her beloved granddaughter Alba is found sleeping on him, and, after Esteban regrets that his acquiescence to the military has been submission to fascism and surreptitiously works to free his family from the hands of Pinochet’s henchmen, he reopens the hacienda and, observing an emptiness on its main floor, retrieves 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 Isabel politely claims to like and approve of the alterations for the movie, August only proved that a movie maker could adapt 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 Netflix has announced that it will dare the “deluge” of legerdemain as miniseries), House isn’t a scary challenge; the story is factually based, it has reverberant political currency, its parapsychology has genre continuity. The next time around Isabel will hopefully be in the hands of an epicurean illusionist like 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 7/2019)  All Rights Reserved.