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Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits

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Meryl Streep and Winona Ryder in "The House of the Spirits" (Movie)
Meryl Streep and Winona Ryder in "The House of the Spirits" | Image credit: Constantin Film & Miramax Films

I saw the film before I read the book. Cable TV was new in the mid-1990s and one of the first movies I enjoyed was The House of the Spirits. To say that I was mesmerized would be an understatement. I fell head over heels in love with the story and the years of search for Isabel Allende’s book began. Sadly, Allende was not as well known in the Philippines as Gabriel García Márquez whose One Hundred Years of Solitude was a popular reading material for many of my friends in college. Personally, I don’t remember getting past page 20 of Marquez’s book.

Despite my non-interest in Marquez, I’m partial to epic-like novels. I enjoy those where historical events are interspersed with the lives of fictitious characters (see also roman à clef for comparison). That’s why my favorite contemporary Filipino novelist is F. Sionil Jose — I just love his Rosales saga, especially Po-on, chronologically the beginning of the saga but is actually the last of the five novels to be published. But going back to Allende…

The House of the Spirits is the story of the Trueba family. It begins in the early 20th Century when Esteban Trueba was a young man engaged to Rosa del Valle. Rosa dies from a poison intended for her father, an aspiring politician. Esteban flees to the family hacienda in rural Chile to mend his heart. On his mother’s deathbed, he promises to marry and have children to continue the family line. Nine years from Rosa’s death, he marries her youngest sister, Clara, a young woman who, from childhood, exhibited supernatural powers.

Although the story is basically about the family that Esteban and Clara had, it was also a pseudo documentary of the social and political upheavals of the time. It was the rise of socialism and the couple’s only daughter, Blanca, was caught in the turmoil of change.

From childhood, Blanca loved Pedro Tercero Garcia, the son of Esteban’s foreman. But it was an age when marriage between members of different social classes was taboo. Esteban succeeds in driving the lovers apart but illicit affair resulted in a daughter, Alba, who grew up thinking that the man her eventually mother married, the Frenchman who called himself the Count de Satigny, was her father. As an adult, Alba fell in love with a revolutionary, Miguel, and became part of the revolutionary movement. She was imprisoned, raped and tortured but manages to survive.

The House of the Spirits is a story about change. It is about the refusal of a generation to accept that the life it had always known is about to end. It is also about the struggle between the rich and the poor, the stronghold of religion over both rich and poor, social taboos, abuses of the landed elite, the ignorance of the poor and how it is honed to keep them helpless and at the mercy of the rich.

Other noteworthy though less important characters served as social symbols. Ferula Trueba, Esteban’s spinster sister, exhibited signs of lesbianism in her strange attraction to Clara. It is interesting how the subject was treated in the story. Neither Ferula herself nor those around her understood why she was different. Ferula could not explain why the knowledge that Clara was sleeping with her husband bothered her. Esteban, on the other hand, could not understand why Ferula seemed to be standing between him and his wife. There is a scene where Ferula confessed to her priest how she felt about her sister-in-law and the priest’s reaction was a toss between cluelessness and dedma.

There is the prostitute Tránsito Soto who became the most sought-after whore in the city after escaping the countryside with money lent by Esteban Trueba, one of her clients.

Then, there are the revolutionaries. This is where one has to ask if the idealism of a revolutionary is driven by a true understanding of social change or whether his decision to rebel is a reaction to his own personal desperation borne from hunger and abuse in a social order where he is doomed from birth until death.

Isabel Allende wrote about Chile in The House of the Spirits but the story could have taken place anywhere in the world at any point in history. It is poignant, it is moving, it is real beyond its surrealism.

There is a lot of difference between the book and the film. Although the characters are the same, the roles they played, and even events, differed. In the film, for instance, it was Blanca (played by Winona Ryder), not Alba, who got involved with the revolutionary movement. But whether on print or on film, Allende’s story is a masterpiece.