Garcia Marquez isn't the only South American who can write a fantastic magical realism novel.

Garcia Marquez isn’t the only South American who can write a fantastic magical realism novel.

The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus)

  • Author:  Isabel Allende  (b. 1942)
  • Published:  1982  /  1985  (English tran.)
  • Publisher:  Plaza & Janés, S.A.
  • Pages:  433
  • First Line:  “Barrabás came to us by the sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy.”
  • Last Line:  “It begins like this: Barrabás came to us by the sea.”
  • Awards:  Panorama Literario
  • Film:  1994  (**)
  • First Read:  Fall 2000

The Novel:  When I first started at Powells, I was living in Beaverton and commuting into Portland on the Max.  That gave me a lot of time to read, and I was employed by the largest bookstore in the world.  So I made a list.  It was a mixture of a variety of books – some were books I had seen the film of, some were finishing off authors whose other books I had already read and some were award winners I felt the need to read.  I don’t remember all of the books on the list, but some of them come back to me vividly, as I remember reading them while on the Max, or walking through the streets of Northwest to the Max.  This is one of those books.

I had never read Isabel Allende before.  But it didn’t really matter.  Because who I had read was Gabriel García Márquez and it was clear that the blood of her writing was from the same vein as his: “The faithful followed him from parish to parish, sweating as he described the torments of the damned in hell, the bodies ripped apart by various ingenious torture apparatuses, the eternal flames, the hooks that pierced the male member, the disgusting reptiles that crept up female orifices, and the myriad other sufferings that he wove into his sermons to strike the fear of God into the hearts of his parishioners.  Even Satan was described in his most intimate perversions in the Galican accents of this priest whose mission in this world was to rouse the conscience of his indolent Creole flock.”  In her story are those some kind of moments that had been in the classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, moments that take place in the present and harken forward to the future: “Silence filled her utterly.  She did not speak again until nine years later, when she opened her mouth to announce that she was planning to be married.”

But to just approach the book that way is not fair to Allende.  Her novel is much more than that.  It was a book that helped show me how interesting something could be when the narrators are passed along, when we don’t know precisely how much we can trust: “Those were difficult times.  I was about twenty-five then, but I felt as if I had only a little life left ahead of me to build my future and attain the position that I wanted.  I worked like a beast and the few times I sat down to rest, not by choice but forced by the tedium of Sunday afternoons, I felt was if I were losing precious moments of my life.”  But, getting the story from the perspective of Esteban Trueba is a vital link in the story.  First of all, we see some of the important events from his perspective and we get an understanding of where he comes from, such as the death of his mother: “They were two bruised, elephantine columns covered with open wounds in which the larvae of flies and worms had made their nests and were busy tunneling; two legs rotting alive, with two outsized, pale blue feet with no nails on the toes, full to bursting with the pus, the black blood, and the abominable animals that were feeding on her flesh, mother, in God’s name, of my own flesh.”  But, more importantly, he provides a counterpoint to much of the novel’s action, the one man who believes that the conservative way is the way of the future, keeping the old values while only slowly allowing moderate change.

Like with the writing of García Márquez, the future is the present and the past impacts every moment.  We may have a simple moment that will have repercussions across the years, but we know that because of the style: “When they found them, the little boy was on his back on the floor and Blanca was curled up with her head on the round belly of her new friend.  Many years later, they would be found in the same position, and a whole lifetime would not be long enough for their atonement.”  We also have a moment that sounds poetic, but when we think about it, also tells us something about human nature: “Alba was born quickly.  Jaime removed the cord from around her neck, held her upside down and dangled her in the air, and with two resounding slaps introduced her into the suffering of life and the mechanics of breathing.  But Amanda, who had read about the customs of African tribes and preached a return to nature, seized the newborn from his hands and gently placed her on the warm belly of her mother, where she found some consolation for the sadness of being born.”

When does this book take place?  If you watch Airplane!, one of the fun things about the film is trying to decide what the hell war they’re fighting in.  The timeframe would make it seem like Vietnam, but look at the fight scene in the bar (with the disco), look at the planes, listen to the names of the battlegrounds and you think to yourself, seriously, what the hell war is this?  That’s part of the fun in that film.  In this film, it’s part of the mystery, or part of the timelessness.  For instance, the crystal radio set that Esteban Trueba is building on page 59 makes it seem like the 1920’s.  Yet, ten years (and eight pages) later, the war that is ending, and the aftermath of that war (“The ladies wore long strings of cultured pearls that hung down to their kneews, and cloche hats that hid their eyebrows.  They cut their hair like men, made themselves up to look like prostitutes, stopped wearing corsets and smoked like chimneys.”) makes it seem like it’s the Great War that has just ended.  Like with One Hundred Years of Solitude, this takes place at all times and at no time – there is magic to the realism after all.

But there is realism as well.  We must remember that this is Allende’s vision of her country, where her first-cousin-once-removed was president and was deposed in a coup.  She began this as a letter to her grandfather and she doesn’t hold back from the horrors that her country went through: “The cameraman of Swedish television were filming close by Alba and her grandfather, to send back to Nobel’s frozen land the terrifying image of machine guns posted on the sides of the street, people’s faces, the flower-covered coffin, as well as the silent group of women clustered in the doorway of the morgue, two blocks from the cemetery, reading the names on the lists of dead.”

But in the midst of all that realism, there is hope, there is life, and there are, in a certain sort of sense, miracles: “She gave up, deciding to end this torture once and for all.  She stopped eating, and only when her feebleness became too much for her did she take a sip of water.  She tried not to breathe or move, and began eagerly to await her death.  She stayed like this for a long time.  When she had nearly achieved her goal, her Grandmother Clara, whom she had invoked so many times to help her die, appeared with the novel idea that the point was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle.”

note:  all quotes from the Magda Bogin translation

Has such a great cast ever made such a disappointing film?

Has such a great cast ever made such a disappointing film?

The Film:  There are a variety of reasons why this film doesn’t work.  There are reasons perhaps why it should – based on a brilliant novel, with an award-winning director (Bille August, twice winner of the Palme d’Or and winner of the 1988 Oscar for Best Foreign Film) and a truly impressive cast (the five main stars have won 4 Oscars and earned 28 nominations).  And yet, it never works, not for a single minute and you have to wonder why.  Well, as I said, there are a variety of reasons why.

The first has to do with the source in the first place.  Not all great books can be made into great films.  In fact, as I have written before, it is perhaps easier to make a great film out of a mediocre, or even bad book, than it is to make one out of a great book.  But magical realism is especially difficult to do properly.  There have been several films based on the works of García Márquez and none of them have been all that good.  This isn’t the only film made from an Allende novel (Of Love and Shadows was made the next year, also starring Antonio Banderas, and is just as bad).  There hasn’t been much headway in making films from Salman Rushdie’s books.  You would almost need a filmmaker like Luis Buñuel, whose surrealistic approach to film might work to translate something that is inherently fantastical on the page and make it into the type of fantastical image that works on film.  This film doesn’t attempt to do that.  Oh, yes, there is mention made of Clara’s psychic powers and her decision not to speak, but they don’t come across on the same way on screen as they did in the book.  This film attempts a realistic approach to the concept of magical realism and it fails just as badly as Troy did when Wolfgang Petersen tried to take the gods out of the myth.

There is also the issue of the cast.  Yes, this is a cast of fantastic actors, but none of them are particularly suited for their parts except for Banderas.  Jeremy Irons is far too old from the very beginning.  I can see him as the stern taskmaster of the book, but not the young suitor and not the man who would push up his sleeves and actually get down there and do the work on the farm to help rebuild it in the first place.  For some reason I always pictured Cary Elwes when I read the book; he at least could have seemed to fit the role.  You have the remember that the character builds himself up into a blue-blood, whereas Irons plays him like he was born into that life.  Glenn Close and Meryl Streep are more suited for their roles (provided you try to forget that all of this is taking place in a country that is supposed to be a magical realism version of Chile) but they are hampered by Irons’ performance and by August’s direction.

Perhaps the most disastrous decision, though, is the casting of Winona Ryder.  Now, at this time Ryder was actually one of the best young stars in Hollywood.  She was beautiful and she could act – this film came out between her Oscar-nominated performances in The Age of Innocence and Little Women, but she displays none of that talent here, although I should point out that Reality Bites also came out during that time, so maybe she really did forget how to act between those two films.  She is forced to carry the heart of the story but she has none of the passion that is needed.  She would retroactively win my Highest Ratio of Attractiveness / Acting Ability for this year if not for Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, who isn’t as beautiful, but whose performance is much worse.

All of this I must really lay at the feet of August.  I mentioned before that he won the Oscar but it was for a film I didn’t think much of (Pelle the Conqueror).  If a cast is this good and they do this bad a job, a considerable portion of the blame must go on the director.  He clearly didn’t have enough of a vision of what to do with Allende’s book.  Just remember – it’s not that certain books can’t be filmed, it’s that they shouldn’t be.