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Interview: Isabel Allende


Interview first published May 12, 1985


It was as a letter to her Chilean grandfather, “hateful and much loved,” that Isabel Allende’s first novel, “The House of the Spirits,” began: “He was very machista, but he thought I was a genius, the most beautiful woman alive.”

A niece and goddaughter of Salvador Allende Gossens, the Chilean president who was killed in a coup in 1973, she became a journalist at 17, went on to write four “awful” plays and resisted leaving Chile after the coup because she did not believe a dictatorship could take hold in her country. Now, living in exile in Caracas, Venezuela, she perseveres in her disbelief from a distance. “In a way, I feel that I am working for my country, even if I don’t live there.”

In New York recently for a two-week visit that combined publicity for her novel — a best seller in Europe and Latin America — and teaching at Montclair State College in New Jersey, Miss Allende insisted that she has written “a lucky book, filled with the spirit of my grandmother.” Her concern for the place of women in Latin American society is clearly mirrored in “The House of the Spirits,” but she calls it “a private story,” written for herself and for her children — Paula, 21, and Nicolas, 18. She excepts their father, her husband of 23 years, from the tradition of Latin American male chauvinism “because he was educated in British schools.”

At the outset an unknown on the Latin American literary scene, she had a difficult time launching her first book. “I went to editors there with 500 pages of manuscript, and they said to cut 200 pages because they couldn’t accept more than that from me,” she said. Finally published in Spain, the novel is about “the roots of my mother’s family, the Llona Barros. Just as it is told in the book, Rosa, my grandmother’s sister, died poisoned.” And the patriarch, Esteban Trueba, closely resembles the grandfather with whom she went to live in 1956 when her father, a diplomat posted to Beirut, Lebanon, sent his family home to Chile and safety.

She believes the United States bears responsibility for political problems that have plagued her homeland and Latin America as a whole: “You’ve encouraged governments in Latin America that you yourselves wouldn’t tolerate.” But her visit here has given her another view. “I asked my students at Montclair to name the five qualities they most valued, and 29 out of 34 of them called for honesty.” She smiled in surprise: “What sort of country is this, that people believe in honesty, sincerity, love? We have so little of it in Latin America.” — Leigh Hafrey


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