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Surviving Affliction

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Mother of the Spirits: Isabel Allende

In her newest book, 'Paula,' novelist Isabel Allende searches for ancient meaning in the modern suffering of her daughter

By Victor Perera

"I am seeking God, but he seems to elude me," Isabel Allende's daughter Paula wrote her mother shortly before she suffered a seizure and fell into a coma from which she never recovered. The cause of Paula's illness was porphyria, an ancient and little-understood disease that Paula inherited from her father.

Allende's latest book, Paula, which began as a letter to her daughter while Isabel sat vigil at her bedside in a Madrid hospital, evolved into a search of Isabel's own--if not for God, then for a reason to go on living after all her maternal love and will power failed to bring her comatose daughter back to the world of the living.

By one of the coincidences that seem to shadow Isabel Allende in private life as well as in her writing, she was in Madrid to promote her novel The Infinite Plan the day Paula suffered violent seizures and sank into a coma. As in Greek tragedy or a fairy tale, the mother was summoned to her daughter's side on the eve of calamity, and she was not to be spared a scintilla of the fate that befell her daughter.

At the time the illness struck her down, in December 1991, Paula was 26 and in her first year of marriage to a man she loved deeply. Her husband, Ernesto, in return, truly adored Paula, as he was to demonstrate by his unswerving devotion throughout the nightmare year she lay unconscious, a heartbeat away from the untimely death she herself had anticipated in a letter she wrote her family on her honeymoon.

I met Isabel Allende during her first months of grieving for Paula, who died in Isabel's San Rafael home after she and her second husband, Willy (the protagonist of The Infinite Plan), brought Paula back from Spain. Isabel was possessed by the myth of the Greek goddess Demeter, who searched for her daughter, Persephone, in Hades.

Even the exotic name of the illness that struck down her daughter--porphyria derives from the ancient Greek for "purple"--conspired with Isabel's resolve to live out Paula's story as classical myth. When we met, Isabel was seeking her daughter in a Hades of her own creation, even as she worked on the memoir that she describes as her offering to Paula.

"My main concern is that it not be sentimental," she told me, "because Paula had a horror of sentimentality." When Isabel published House of the Spirits, the semiautobiographical magical realist novel that brought her overnight celebrity and critical acclaim, Paula confided that she could not recognize the Chile described in the book as the country in which she and her brother, Nicolás, had grown up.

Isabel is the first to admit that the Chile of her novels is a literary invention, and one she far prefers to the real thing. The odd thing, she insists, is that the extravagant events she makes up tend to happen in real life, and the characters she invents show up at her doorstep years later, to thank her for telling their story. It has reached the point where members of her family have altered their habits and idiosyncracies to conform with those she ascribes to them in her books.

In Paula, she intended to write a straightforward narrative of the darkest experience of her life. It is a tribute to Isabel Allende that her memoir transcends the limitations of its genre and finally approaches the unsparing intensity and austerity of Greek tragedy.

In Simone Weille's essay "The Love of God and Affliction," the French philosopher wrote of the annihilating effect affliction has on ordinary mortals, most of whom sink under its weight. Affliction is "an uprooting of life ... made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain." Affliction attacks a life "in all its parts, social, psychological and physical."

According to Weill's definition, Paula was not afflicted, because she felt no physical pain; indeed, her doctors in Madrid concluded--for all Isabel's conviction that her daughter was sentient--that Paula suffered no pain of any kind, as her mind was destroyed by the seizures and the deep coma into which they plunged her.

The full force of affliction fell on Isabel; and, like Demeter and uncounted mothers since the dawn of the pagan gods, she had to plumb the depths of her calamity before she could wrest from it a reason to go on living. In Weill's view, those who survive affliction do so by admitting God into their souls and grafting a new life onto their old, shattered one. In that way, they are born anew.

The burden of this memoir is the birthing of that new life by a collaboration between the agnostic novelist mother who sees herself as a pagan goddess and the physically present but mentally disappeared daughter who was seeking renewal in her Christian faith when she was struck down. One of the rich ironies of the book derives from the startling realization that Isabel might have appropriated its plot--as she appropriated the joys and misfortunes of other family members--for one of her novels.

In the autobiographical sections of Paula, which detail Isabel's life in Chile before the overthrow of her cousin, Salvador Allende, the president of Chile, and her years of exile following it, Isabel writes of her remarkable bond with her Basque mother, which grew into the longest and truest love affair of her life; by contrast, her links to her father were virtually nonexistent until after his death, when he became real to Isabel for the first time. Isabel's mother was so embittered by her husband's betrayals that she cut out his face from family photographs after she left him. Her mother brought up Isabel to be strong and independent, and free of reliance on men.

After she fled Pinochet's Chile and settled in Venezuela, Isabel found employment as a feminist journalist. In her witty newspaper columns, she celebrated women's emancipation and denounced "troglodyte" men who refused to come out of their caves. Many of her Latin fans still think her satirical columns represent her best work, although she dismisses them today as examples of the mediocrity of her life before she left Venezuela for California and wrote House of the Spirits.

Critics of Isabel Allende point to a willful, self-aggrandizing vein in her novels, where an overbearing "Yo" is thinly disguised in characters who are projections of her ego, and who are not allowed to develop an identity independent of the author's.

This propensity for narrative control and self-exhibition is evident in Paula, but here it is balanced by the skeptical, crystalline voice of her daughter, who chose a life of Franciscan simplicity and compensated for her mother's New Age mysticism with a self-abnegating search for God.

In Isabel's journal of the year she sat vigil over her daughter, a subtle, almost imperceptible merging of the two voices--Isabel's and Paula's--creates a third voice that is a genuinely magical blend of Persephone and Demeter, of darkness and light cast in both mythical and spiritual terms.

In her agonized self-questioning after she finally concedes defeat and surrenders her daughter to death, Isabel strips to her core in the presence of her brother Juan, who has become a priest:

    'I'm lost, I don't know who I am, I try to remember who I was once but I find only disguises, masks, projections, the confused images of a woman I can't recognize. Am I the feminist I thought I was, or the frivolous girl who appeared on television wearing nothing but ostrich feathers? The obsessive mother, the unfaithful wife, the fearless adventurer, or the cowardly woman? Am I the person who helped political refugees find asylum or the one who ran away because she couldn't handle fear? Too many contradictions ...'

    'You're all of them, and also the samurai who is battling death.'

    'Was battling, Juan. I've lost.'

In losing the battle of wills for her daughter, the samurai of the "Yo" rids her life of its egocentric excesses, and gains command of her soul. But at what a price!

In the letter Paula wrote her family on her honeymoon, with the proviso that it was not to be read until after her death, she appears to have foreseen her coma, and her mother's refusal to let her die:

    I do not want to remain trapped in my body. Freed from it, I will be closer to those I love. Please don't be sad, I am still with you, except I am closer than I was before. In another time, we will be reunited in spirit. ... Remember that we spirits can best help, accompany, and protect, those who are happy ...

By dying in her mother's home, under her mother's care, Paula in effect complemented Isabel/Demeter's conception of her role and returns as Paula/Persephone to join the other departed and reinvented relatives in her mother's "House of the Spirits," as Isabel has named her San Rafael home. (The book ends: "Godspeed, Paula, woman. Welcome, Paula, spirit.")

But this story does not end with Paula. Her death leaves a void in the matriarchal line of descent from Isabel's grandmother Memé, who returns to life as Isabel's fondest literary invention: the clairvoyant Clara in House of the Spirits. And the porphyria that hangs like a sword of Damocles over her former husband, Michael, and their son, Nicolás, who have tested positive for the disease, also casts its shadow over Isabel's granddaughter, Andrea, born to her Venezuelan daughter-in-law, Celia, while Paula lay at home in her timeless sleep.

Her daughter's death has led Isabel along a more exacting spiritual path than she has traversed in her novels, whose magic realist devices were becoming facile and repetitive. The question hanging in the wake of her daughter's disappearance is, what next?

Will Isabel maintain the stricter standards she has set for herself in Paula, or return to the beguiling synchronicities and exotic characters of the Eva Luna stories that appeal to millions of her readers but which her own daughter deplored as self-indulgently sentimental? Under Weill's definition, the personal transformation brought about by affliction is permanent, sustained by a wholehearted acceptance of one's renewed conception of God.

Paula's "horror of sentimentality" and her interrupted search for God have inspired Isabel to write the starkest, most powerful book of her career; and, like true tragedy, her memoir elevates the reader's pity and terror for Paula and her fate to a pinnacle of cathartic release--not only from Isabel's affliction but from our own private experience of calamitous loss and grief.

For all that, Isabel's search for her lost daughter may have only begun, not only on earth but in the fertile nether worlds of her fecund and invincible imagination.

Victor Perera, who teaches at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (California) and The Cross and Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (Knopf).

Paula by Isabel Allende; HarperCollins; 330 pages; $25 cloth.

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