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Literature: Turning Plagues Into Poetry

by Paul Wilner

Isabel Allende weaves fictional gold in the latest novel of her illustrious career.

Allende Violeta. | Photo courtesy of Lori Barra.

Isabel Allende has made a virtue of necessity. When the pandemic hit, the prolific Marin County– based author, best known for her iconic 1982 debut, The House of the Spirits — a new television adaptation starring Eva Longoria is in the works — was already plugging away on her latest novel, Violeta.

“I started the book after my mother died — she was born in 1920, when the influenza pandemic peaked in South America, and lived to be almost a hundred years old,” Allende shares via email. “[The character] Violeta is not my mother, but I framed her life to be between two pandemics to tell about the century my mother witnessed.”

She adds, “During the pandemic, I had time, silence and solitude. I didn’t go on book tours and had very little social life. In a couple of years, I wrote [the memoir] The Soul of a Woman, Violeta and another novel that probably will be published in 2023.”

The highest-selling Spanish-language author in the world, with over 75 million copies of her work in print, Allende always starts writing on January 8. The habit dates back to 1971, when she got a phone call that her beloved grandfather was dying. She began a letter to him that evolved into The House of the Spirits.

Closing the circle, the new book is told as a letter from Violeta to her grandson, Camilo.

“I came into the world one stormy Friday in 1920, the year of the scourge,” the story begins. Allende’s account will ring true for modern readers: “The onset of illness brought first a terrible chill from beyond the grave, which nothing could quell … with terrifying hallucinations of death lurking steps away.”

(Ballantine Books)

Prolific author Isabel Allende’s latest tome, Violeta, takes place over the century between two pandemics.

The unnamed country where all this is set bears a resemblance to Chile, where Allende, who was born in Peru, was raised before fleeing to Venezuela after her second cousin, Chilean President Salvador Allende, was assassinated in a military coup in 1973.

Summaries do not do justice to this panoramic tale. Suffice it to say that the complications of family endure, regardless of locale. Violeta deals with her son Juan Martín’s rebellion against his macho, unfaithful father, Julián Bravo. Her daughter, Nieve, rebels against him through drug abuse. Nieve’s downfall resonates in Allende’s telling — the author’s daughter, Paula Frías Allende, died in 1992 at only 29, after falling into a coma worsened because of a medication error. Allende chronicled the heart-wrenching experience in her 1994 memoir Paula, which also begins as a letter to her daughter.

“Nieve’s death was very difficult to write because it brought back the most traumatic time of my life,” Allende allows. “I wrote about my daughter’s demise almost 30 years ago, and the feeling of loss and sadness remains intact. Writing that memoir was cathartic — it helped me understand and accept what had happened. Now I live with my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.”

As the new year debuted, she kept to her annual ritual of starting work on January 8. “It’s discipline and superstition,” she says. “Also for superstition, I don’t talk about a new project until it’s done — it’s bad luck.”

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