Aug. 2, 2009


by Cecilia Woloch

And these are my vices:
impatience, bad temper, wine,
the more than occasional cigarette,
an almost unquenchable thirst to be kissed,
a hunger that isn't hunger
but something like fear, a staunching of dread
and a taste for bitter gossip
of those who've wronged me—for bitterness—
and flirting with strangers and saying sweetheart
to children whose names I don't even know
and driving too fast and not being Buddhist
enough to let insects live in my house
or those cute little toylike mice
whose soft grey bodies in sticky traps
I carry, lifeless, out to the trash
and that I sometimes prefer the company of a book
to a human being, and humming
and living inside my head
and how as a girl I trailed a slow-hipped aunt
at twilight across the lawn
and learned to catch fireflies in my hands,
to smear their sticky, still-pulsing flickering
onto my fingers and earlobes like jewels.

"Fireflies" by Cecilia Woloch, from Carpathia. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, (books by this author) born in Lima, Peru (1942), the author of 17 books including Eva Luna (1987) and Portrait in Sepia (2000). She grew up in a family of diplomats, and she spent her childhood in Peru and Lebanon, but as a teenager, she moved in with her grandparents in Santiago. Her grandfather told her stories about the history and legends of Chile, and it was because of him that she finally fell in love with the country. She became a journalist, and she says: "I was a lousy journalist. I had no problem exaggerating or making up quotes. My colleagues thought they were being objective, but I never thought they were and I didn't even pretend." She worked for a while translating romance novels from English to Spanish, but she got fired because she would adjust the dialogue of the heroines to make them sound more intelligent, and even change the endings if she thought the women weren't independent enough.

Then her father's cousin, Salvador Allende, became Chile's first elected socialist president. During his presidency, Isabel was a popular TV host for two shows. But on September 11, 1973, a military coup led by General Pinochet overthrew the government and assassinated Salvador Allende. Isabel and all her family were put on a wanted list and received death threats, so they fled to Venezuela. She thought she would be there for a couple of months, and instead, she remained in exile for 17 years, and she said that living in exile shaped the kind of characters she chose to write about once she became a writer. She said: "Even if they're not exiles in the sense that they have to leave the country, they are exiled from the big umbrella of the establishment. I like people who stand on the edge and therefore are not sheltered."

While she was in Venezuela, Isabel Allende found out that her beloved grandfather was dying in Chile, and she couldn't go back to see him. So she started to write him a letter, to reassure him that she wouldn't forget all his stories and memories.

She said: "I wrote the first sentence in trance: Barrabas came to us by sea. Who was Barrabas, why did he come by sea? I didn't have the foggiest idea, but I continued writing like a maniac until dawn, when exhaustion defeated me and I crawled to my bed. What were you doing? my husband mumbled. Magic, I answered. And indeed, magic it was. The following evening after dinner, again I locked myself in the kitchen to write. I wrote every night, oblivious to the fact that my grandfather had died. The text grew like a gigantic organism with many tentacles and by the end of the year I had 500 pages on the kitchen counter. It didn't look like a letter anymore."

It wasn't a letter … it was her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1985), a novel of magical realism that tells the story of four generations of the Trueba family and their lives in Chile from the turn of the century through the coup.

The House of the Spirits begins: "Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own."

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