Monday, February 14, 2005

Title: My Invented Country
Author: Isabel Allende
Publisher: Flamingo

My Invented Country is a book which leaves me frustrated and a little bemused. Described as being something of a memoir, Isabel Allende explores her history with her original home nation – Chile. She admits herself that to a degree this is an exercise in the exploration of nostalgia, and unfortunately that is what comes through more than anything – there is a lot of potential to the material presented here, but too often it lacks depth through the 198 pages. With that, My Invented Country is perhaps not the best introduction to the work of Isabel Allende – I have only read one of her novels, so technically this counts as an introduction to me. Throughout there are references to stories which have influenced her writing over the years, but rather than repeat herself she suggests reading those books – providing numerous opportunities to miss the chance to provide some of that desired for depth.

Under a variety of headings, Allende explores the invented nation of Chile that resides in her head. A nation which for so long she felt she belonged to, even while she travelled the world with diplomat parents, and then as an exile herself. With that there are odd little nuggets that reward the reader, but for the most part this is a book that just flies past without necessarily making too much of an impression. Although for me, one of the most interesting ideas that one encounters here is that of shifting cultural identity; in turn generating the contradictions which I found to be so frustrating.

For Isabel Allende her sense of “home”, of cultural identity is summed up by the one day in two different years – September 11th. In 1973, Chile experienced a military coup, the result of which saw Allende becoming an exile. While she had been working as a journalist in Chile, she had never been a novelist until she left the country. In the years between she travelled about, from the Chilean enclaves of Venezuela to marrying and moving to America. Which put her in San Francisco in 2001. Between 1973 and 2001, she suggests that she would have claimed no national identity, and only when pushed would have said that she was a Chilean. However having been living in America for some years, married to an American, and with an American passport, it took the attack on the twin towers to make her realise that today she is an American.

This concept is something that she sums up in her introduction to My Invented Country, even as she then goes on to include herself as a Chilean for the entire text that follows. Through the course of the text she tends to dwell in a pre-1973 Chile, which she admits is the time period which informs the nation in her head. Periodically she will make comments about how Chile is now, comparing her Chile to the country she has encountered on visits over recent years. In this process, she eventually gets to the start of Chile’s troubles.

The president at the time was a man called Salvador Allende, something which I had taken to be a coincidental occurrence of names. Actually Salvador and Isabel were cousins, not necessarily close family, but certainly related, and she had met him. As she describes this period she explains how as far as she is concerned America was alarmed at the rise of the left in Latin America, and with the imminent election of Allende they were determined to sabotage the process. When this failed, America triggered a military coup, in which the democratically elected president was murdered and replaced by a dictatorship.

From this Isabel Allende makes it clear that this was a horrible and difficult period, where regardless of how hard they tried they couldn’t deny the awful things going on. Particularly as Allende was a journalist, and despite the censorship, she very much knew what was going on, which is what led to her own decision to leave the country. Yet somehow from blaming America for these events, she now considers herself to be an American. At a time where Latin America is still experiencing difficulties, where the dictator Pinochet is perhaps going to stand trial for his trials, and where America could be said to have shifted the focus of its regime changing tendencies towards the Middle East, she decides that she is now an American. For me that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, something which grates, hovering at the back of my mind throughout the book. In the end it is a paradox she attempts to address – she fell in love with an American, and that was that.

This kind of material, sadly, isn’t really the focus of the book. Rather there are wandering discussions on religion, about the role of women in society, about the sober and serious character of the people, about the class system, and to what degree racism exists within that system, and a variety of other topics related to cultural identity. And yet, if it weren’t for that period of trouble Allende repeatedly admits that she would never have become the novelist she is today.

I suspect that My Invented Country probably holds more for someone more familiar with the works of Isabel Allende. Perhaps gaining some grain of happiness from the extra fleshing out of where her ideas have come from over the years. But for me, My Invented Country is too short a work to provide any depth, and while it admits to being a work of and inspired by nostalgia, nostalgia didn’t inspire me here.

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