Not Magical, Not Realism

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FICTION APRIL 28, 2010

Not Magical, Not Realism

Island Beneath the Sea
by Isabel Allende. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden.
Harper, 457 pp., $26.99

Isabel Allende is the undisputed Grande Dame of the Latin American novel. Her reign began in the 1980s with the success of her magic-realist political novels, notably The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows. In the hyper-macho world of Spanish-language letters, Allende was the rare exception—a matriarch to García Márquez’s patriarch. But her feminine touch went beyond gender. At the center of her novels were strong, vibrant, meticulously written women. These wise, exotic characters were never incidental: they were repositories of magic, and they drove the narrative.

Allende’s not insignificant contribution to Spanish-language letters has been the demand that it finally heed to the Latin female voice. And she has been aided in her mission by a gift for portraying characters in a convincing manner, even when they are fantastical and improbable. It is no accident that the publication of an Allende novel is by now the event of the year in Latin letters.

Her latest effort, Island Beneath the Sea, is no exception. When the book was published in Spanish last fall, the book tour was more rock-star glamorous than popular-novel earnest. The promotion of the book--not limited to the usual signings, readings, and press conferences—actually included splashy video trailers which could be seen on national television and on the internet. The focus was on the Allende Brand: her fame, her fans, her ability to move books. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to the actual quality of the writing, of the story, or its characters. For all the pizzazz of the promotion and the bewitching conceit of the story, Island Beneath the Sea is abysmal.

It has been billed as a novel about the struggle against slavery in this hemisphere. In interviews, Allende has been quite explicit to link the story of Zarité, the slave who is the main character of the book, with that of thousands of slaves that were brought forcibly to the Caribbean Islands, to Brazil, and to the United States. A part of what makes the idea of the book so appealing is the inspired linkage of the stories of slavery in sugar plantations in Haiti and Louisiana: two French colonial societies that while socially and culturally different probably had more in common with each other than with their British and Spanish geographical neighbors.One would think that given such a brilliant pairing, a historical novelist of Allende’s caliber would produce some sort of magical realist masterpiece, a saga that masterfully reveals the subtle ways in which different cultural norms, political institutions, and environments may be explored by the evolution of Zarité’s character. But no such luck. Island Beneath the Sea is, instead, an extremely superficial novel that is perennially out of its depth about the subject it purports to be highlighting—the ravages of slavery on both sides of plantation societies.

The narrative is simple enough and follows some of the usual outlines of an Allende novel. At its center is a female heroine, Zarité, whose story of love and redemption we follow from childhood until middle age. When we first encounter Zarité she is barely nine years old and already a slave. She is bought by a French plantation owner, Toulouse Valmorain, who acquires her as a gift for his newly arrived Spanish bride. As Allende traces Zarité’s life in Haiti, we see her demeaned, abused, raped, tricked, and relentlessly treated as chattel. But we also see her flourish: she learns herbal medicine from an older slave in the plantation, knowledge that will prove powerful and a source of protection to her in the future. Her position in the sugar estate also improves as she becomes the lover of Valmorain, and with time she becomes integral to its running.

Zarité, like all Allende heroines, is not impervious to the devastations wrecked by passion (there is sometimes a Harlequin quality to Allende’s melodramas)—she has children from Valmorain, she falls in love with a rebel slave, she is a rescuer of sorts during the revolts for independence. It is the latter feat—saving the life of her master from the marauding gangs of rebel slaves that slaughtered plantation owners—that she uses to extract a promise of freedom for her and her young child. Then the plot moves to Lousiana, where Zarité’s experiences culminate in a tragic redemption: she achieves her freedom only to lose her daughter. Yet the story comes to a close on a hopeful if wistful note, with the heroine expecting a child from a man she loves, the first of her children to benefit from her newfound liberty.

In this hopeful ending lies one of the most frustrating problems of the book. How can this romantic mirage of happily-ever-after take place in Louisiana circa 1810? Never mind that the following century in the southern United States was not exactly kind to slaves or former slaves. It is as if with a fast swish of the magic realist wand Allende suspended history, not to mention disbelief. In the immediate historical aftermath to Zarité’s uplifting story, one cannot imagine either the Civil War or Reconstruction.

While Allende was conscientious about including all the relevant period players and details in Haitian history, their presence feels more like an obligation that had to be checked-off rather than an effort to illuminate the age. This glib historicism, together with the inclusion of countless extraneous minutiae about Haitian daily life, serves paradoxically to obfuscate the meaning and the importance of the larger events of the book. There is such a thing as too much research. Island Beneath the Sea will impart to its readers a full tutorial about the religion and music of the slaves, the importance of the loas (the spirits or saints of the Haitian Voodoo religion), the life and sexual miracles of the mulatto courtesans in Saint Domingue, and even the texture of the dresses that the grand blancs wore to the public executions of rebelling slaves.

What the reader will not learn is why Haiti became the first Latin American country in the hemisphere to fight for and achieve independence, or how this war started as a slave rebellion inspired by the French Revolution. When in the novel we encounter historical characters such as Louverture and Dessalines (the slave rebel leaders and heroes of the war of independence),we are at a loss to understand how they came to be fighting the French as they were. What were the forces in society that drove these events? How did this movement for independence come to be? What were the relationships between the different ethnic groups, their goals, their alliances, their interests? While we get glimpses of rebel life and the gory details of the battles in this war, Allende never provides the reader with a coherent narrative about it. So much so, that when independence arrives we barely notice and are bound to completely miss the awe-inspiring achievement this was. Instead, Island Beneath the Sea leaves the reader with the impression of an imploding society, and a sense of misery. No hope is to be gleaned from Haiti’s independence.

Worse, Allende seems not to care enough to follow the historical thread of her plot to its logical conclusion: how was Haiti to remake itself after the war, and how would that reinvention affect the fate of the thousands of slaves that lived in the other countries in the region? For a writer loudly proclaiming to be writing about the scourge of slavery, she seems oblivious to the centrality of the Haitian slave rebellion as a source of inspiration for the abolitionist movement. Once the plot moves to Louisiana, Haiti and its slaves fall off the page and into the dustbin of fiction.

This failure to capture history in the making is the greatest contrast between this book and Allende’s early works. The rich texture of details that Allende provided in The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows served to bring a particular universe vividly to life. The rich details were not superfluous or banal—they had a purpose, they represented a larger understanding. In Island Beneath the Sea, by contrast, what we get is a shallow and lazy pastiche of a well-researched historical mise-en-scène embellished by irrelevant but colorful particulars that are supposed to certify the book’s authenticity but are instead a poor substitute for a deeper comprehension of what this moment in history was about.

This problem with the trite assessment of the momentous historical developments in Haiti is only compounded when the story moves to Louisiana, where one gets the impression that slavery is but a minor component of society, the treatment of slaves an enlightened venture, and the hope of abolition just around the corner. The American passages of Allende’s novel are simply weird. Instead of a picture that reflects the economic centrality of slavery and its brutality, we get instead the languid sensual Louisiana of hoary cliché, in which what matters most are lurid descriptions of the copulation arrangements between upper white male society and young quadroon girls.

If I am being uncharitable in not accepting the novel’s excuse of narrative brio, it is for three reasons. First, Allende ignores the shining existence of a classic of Spanish language literature on the topic of Haiti and its slave rebellion. I refer to Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World. It is a book as short, superbly written, and historically illuminating as hers is long, tedious, and misleading. The Kingdom of this World was the standard to meet and then to improve, and Allende failed. This is ironic because Carpentier’s novel is overwhelmingly recognized as the foundation of magical realism, Allende’s chosen aesthetic realm.

Second, and more infuriating, the writing in Island Beneath the Sea is so mediocre. If the problems of the novel were limited to its historical errors, one could be more forgiving. What one cannot forgive is the treacly romantic fustian, the tacky erotic writing that takes over for extremely long portions of the novel. One of the main secondary characters is a courtesan, and so readers will find themselves immersed in an endless stream of sexual scenes that have none of the sensual force one expects of a writer such as Allende. Other romantic scenes, particularly those which detail the lovemaking between Zarité and her runaway slave lover Gambo, are even more embarrassing to read.

For example, on the night before the slave rebellion destroys the Valmorain estate, Gambo returns searching for Zarité. No moment in the book could be more perfect to evoke the emotional complexity of Zarité’s life or hold more erotic potential—the sugar plantation that enslaved her is about to be destroyed, the lives of the children she cares for and loves are in danger, but her lover has returned, and with him the longing for physical ecstasy. How could the reader not identify with her, and be moved by the collision of eros and thanatos? With a heavy hand Allende simply kills the moment describing the encounter thus “Zarité became foam beneath him. In the anguish and voracity of love so long contained he was not quick enough to penetrate her, and in an instant his life escaped in a single burst. He sank into the void, until Zarité’s hot breath in his ear brought him back to the madwoman’s room. She hummed to him, lightly patting his back, as she did with Maurice to console him, and when she felt he was beginning to return to life she turned him over on the bed, immobilizing him with a hand on his belly as with the other, along with her bitten lips and hungry tongue, she massaged and sucked him, lifting him to the firmament where he was lost among the racing stars of love…”

Finally, Allende’s characters are barely two-dimensional: we never really get to know them as breathing, living, believable people. Their inner world, their motives and thoughts, their moral universes, are mostly opaque to us. For example, Toulouse Valmorain arrives in Haiti at the beginning of the novel as a man of the Enlightenment, a reader of Rousseau. In midstream, he becomes a ferocious defender of slavery, a coarsened man. And yet even in his long perorations on the subject, we cannot discern how this considerable change took place, where his previous principles went, and how he squares the change. The conversations he has about slavery and freedom with a kindly French doctor fail to reveal anything more than excuses. Perhaps Allende intended for us to deduce from all this that the experience of slave owning has killed Valmorain’s soul, but that would be giving her too much credit. Instead every single one of her characters seems to move as if overtaken by events, with little agency and insight.

The extent to which this book relies upon stereotypes and stock figures is quite remarkable. Many of the characters in the book will be instantly familiar to readers of nineteenth-century novels. It is as if Allende could not be bothered and simply went looking for her people at central casting. We get, in rapid succession, the beautiful and much sought mulatto courtesan with the heart of gold and the mind of an entrepreneur (sort of La Dame aux Camélias without the tragedy). We get also the mad woman in the attic, deceptively given in marriage, so familiar to us from Jane Eyre. (Never mind that Bertha Mason also hailed from the Caribbean.) Even Toulouse Valmorain himself could be momentarily confused for Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park.

It may be heresy to challenge the literary reputation of Isabel Allende, but reading Island Beneath the Sea one cannot but conclude that some essential inspiration and vitality is now missing from her work. Yes, she once gave female characters their due as central actors in Latin American history and politics; and yes, she once drew whimsical female characters that enthralled thousands of her fans. But none of that excuses how bad this book is.

Naomi Daremblum teaches Latin American politics and is currently working on a history of the modern right in Latin America.

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