On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, backed by the CIA, overthrew the controversial popular unity government led by Socialist President Salvador Allende. Allende, Isabel Allende's uncle, reportedly committed suicide during this coup d'etat, and General Augusto Pinochet established an anti-Communist military dictatorship that lasted until 1990. While Chile had experienced prior political unrest, strikes, and food shortages, under Pinochet's military government and free-market reforms, the economy expanded--as did horrific "disappearances" and human rights abuses.
The brutal events of 1973 forever changed Chilean author Isabel Allende's life. After the coup d'etat, Allende-then a 31-year-old journalist--fled to Caracas. Although she and her family had intended to return soon to Chile, Allende spent 13 years in Venezuela. In 1979, six years into Pinochet's reign, she learned that her 99-year-old grandfather had decided to die. Because she couldn't return to Chile, she began a spiritual letter to him. This letter, which eventually reached 500 pages, became the manuscript for The House of the Spirits (1982)--a family chronicle, a political testimony, a work of magical realism comparable to that of the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a best-selling novel. "In the process of writing the anecdotes of the past, and recalling emotions and pains of my fate, and telling part of the history of my country, I found life became more comprehensible and the world more tolerable," she said. "I felt that my roots had been recovered and that during that patient exercise of daily writing I had also recovered my own soul" (William Zinsser, ed., Paths of Resistance, 1989).
The House of the Spirits, which recounts three generations of the Trueba family and the events that culminated in the bloodshed of 1973, marked Allende's arrival as a best-selling novelist. Her sagas that followed--from Of Love and Shadows (1985) to Portrait in Sepia (2000) and a children's trilogy--contain similar elements of magical realism and trademark themes--from estrangement to war, rebellion, and the often toxic mix of love and politics. Memory, a rich oral tradition, and her journalistic outlook heavily influence Allende's fiction. "I grew up in a family of secrets," she said. "Writing comes from a quest for identity. A quest for memory. I write because I want to know from where I come" (Washington Post, 11/24/01). While most of her tales take place in South America and reflect Chile's social complexity or her Venezuelan exile, she sets others, including The Infinite Plan (1991), in the United States.
Allende was born in Lima, Peru, on August 2, 1942. Her father, Salvador Allende's cousin, served as a Chilean ambassador to Peru, where she spent her early childhood. When her father abandoned the family, her mother and two siblings returned to her maternal grandparents' home in Santiago. Her mother remarried a diplomat, and Allende spent her remaining youth in La Paz, Bolivia, and then in Beirut, before the Suez Canal crisis forced them back to Chile in 1958. In Santiago, Allende worked for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. In 1962, she married Miguel Frias and a year later, she gave birth to Paula. She traveled with her family around Europe in the mid-1960s, returning to Chile to give birth to Nicolas in 1966. Allende then started writing for Paula magazine, published feminist articles, and contributed to a children's magazine. In 1970, Salvador Allende was elected president, and her stepfather, Ramon Huidobro, was appointed ambassador to Argentina. During these years of Socialist government, Allende hosted two popular television talk shows.
September 11, 1973 changed everything. Exiled to Caracas, Allende pursued her journalism. In 1982, she published The House of the Spirits. Of Love and Shadows and Eva Luna (1987) followed. In 1987, she divorced her husband. On a lecture tour in San Jose, California, to promote Of Love and Shadows, she met Willie Gordon, a lawyer and great admirer of her work. She married Gordon in 1988 and returned to live with him in Marin, California (she adopted American citizenship in 2003). In 1991, while Allende was in Spain promoting The Infinite Plan, her daughter Paula fell ill and into a coma; her death inspired Paula (1995), an account of her daughter's life and her own political and feminist awakenings.
Chile continues to haunt Allende's work and soul. My Invented Country (GOOD Sept/Oct 2003), for example, reflects her attempt to recapture a "lost country" and the...