Autobiography

It was in the late summer, the very beginning of my first year at college that I met Melquiades. He was alone in the library, on the second floor, reading from a book which looked so impossibly old that I am still certain it could not have been in circulation, and that he must have brought it from home.

He was a senior, and an international student – from where, exactly, I never learned, but he was dark, and he had sharp, angled features. He was fluent in Punjabi, and when I learned this I believed he was Indian or Pakistani. I then learned he was also fluent in Arabic, and Hindi, and Spanish, and Russian, and French, and Latin, and Catalan, and Portuguese . . .

All I ever really learned about Melquiades, besides his fluency in every language I could think of, was that he was writing a massive book, or novel, or something, in a language I didn’t recognize. He told me once that I would be able to read it when it was my turn to read it.

Every time I went to visit Melquiades through August and September, the library seemed totally empty. No one sat at the help desk, or on the couches, or on the computers. As I recall, the lights even seemed to always be off. Dim rays of warm afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows and lighted the causeless dancing of an infinitude of dust particles, each identical to the last, but with no relation to one another, and never touching as they floated aimlessly through the great empty library.

I would come to the library almost every day and find him in his usual place. I would sit across from Melquiades and study for hours at a time. Some days we wouldn’t speak. Some days we wouldn’t stop speaking, and he would tell me things I didn’t believe, like the results of the upcoming presidential election. It was a race between a politician with years of experience and a reality television star with an upcoming rape trial. The outcome seemed so obvious that it was not worth speculating. Melquiades said with absolute confidence that the television star would win. I asked him why and he shrugged. “Democracy only has maybe forty-four years left, anyway,” he said, without any apparent intention of explaining his prediction. “Nothing serious will come of his presidency, and it won’t matter in the end.”

I tried never to let Melquiades unsettle me too greatly. Through October and November he gave me a new prediction every day. A great many of these predictions, like the nuclear wipeout of Singapore, the extinction of democracy, and the US-China conflict, I have seen come true in my adulthood. Many others I have not seen, but not a single one of his predictions can I say was entirely false, and not simply yet to come. Some of his predictions came true, but not literally as he made them.

“You will marry a dog,” he once told me. “You will have to put her down.” Last winter I authorized my wife’s doctors to take her off of life support after an eight month coma. I haven’t figured the dog part out yet.

In December Melquiades seemed very weary. He told me that his writing had made him incredibly sad, and that he wished he could take a break, but he seemed to have forgotten how not to write. I advised him to leave his project at school and stay with his family for the holidays. He looked down at his hands and said, “My family has moved on from this world. I think that all there is for me to do is to write.” He looked at me and smiled. I smiled back, not sure why.

I returned to school at the beginning of January to find Melquiades exactly where I’d left him. Come to think of it, I never saw him anywhere else. He was always there, writing or reading, always alone until I came and sat with him.

“How is the next great American novel coming?” I asked him. I was shushed by someone I couldn’t see. Melquiades looked up at me and shook his head very slowly. “I wish that you could read it now,” he said, “so that I could make it less sad.”

“What has that got to do with anything? If you want it to be less sad, write it less sad. My reading it now won’t change anything.”

He almost laughed. It was the closest sound to a laugh I ever heard Melquiades make.

The weather transitioned painfully slowly into a milder, sunnier winter – the leaves and flowers and animals, however, did not return for spring. It was a mystery, and confused theories filled the news all day every day. Melquiades wrote furiously.

I still sat with him every day, but he spoke less and less every time. He seemed sadder, more tired and withdrawn, and he stopped giving me predictions. Every day I asked him what was wrong, and every day he answered simply: “I am tired of writing, but I’m not done yet.”

Melquiades finished writing in May, and it was then that spring played a furious catch-up. It was difficult to breathe for all the pollen in the air, and difficult to walk on the sidewalk for all the squirrels and rabbits. Days before his graduation Melquiades handed me his finished book.

“I can’t read this, Melquiades.”

“You will, someday. You’ll be able to. I promise,” he said. He stood shakily, as if for the first time – it was, actually, the first and only time I ever saw him stand. He turned away from me and walked out, saying nothing. I never saw Melquiades again. He wasn’t at his own graduation.

I meant to write the events of the rest of my life. This is, after all, my autobiography. But oddly it seems to escape my recollection. I have not slept in several days.

I’m afraid that I am dying. My chest feels tight and my vision is fading. I have lived a very long, very sad life, and everyone I know is gone. I can’t remember, but I know that’s true. What should I do? I don’t remember what a man is supposed to do when he is dying. I can’t stop writing.

Melquiades’ book is here with me. Or, it was here with me. It looks like it’s been replaced by an identical copy, one written in English. I will read it, and when I am done I will tell you what it says.

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Revolution in THOTS: Thematic Analysis

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende is a complex and fascinating novel. Its author was cousin to Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile who died in the famous 1973 coup, and it was written in the late twentieth century, when the civil and political scenes were writhing under the stresses of change. Isabel Allende was understandingly sympathetic to her cousin’s Marxist ideals, and so her novel is ripe with progressive, anti-hegemonic sentiment. One of the most pronounced themes in The House of the Spirits is revolution – at times upsetting, but usually quiet. The novel chronicles political, cultural, and social revolution, reflecting the changes in twentieth century Latin American countries that its author was witnessing.

One of the earliest social revolutions the book makes note of is a women’s suffrage movement in the nameless country (terribly similar to Chile, the author’s home country) where the novel takes place. Nivea del Valle, mother to young Clara, campaigns with other upper class women for their right to vote. Through the novel there is an emphasis on women standing socially beneath men, regardless of wealth or class. Amanda and Clara resist this, though passively. They live their own lives, independent of any man – there are men in their lives, but they couldn’t usually seem to care one way or another. This is infuriating for the men (Nicolas and Esteban, respectively) who expect to easily bind them in their chauvinistic idea of a romantic relationship and find that these women are more apt to do whatever they please whenever it pleases them. Blanca, Clara’s daughter, also refutes this – but out of love for Pedro Tercero. Alba later falls in love with Miguel, Amanda’s younger brother and an important Marxist revolutionary figure. Their relationship is important because they are not married and they are not in typical gender roles, and they’re both proponents of a socialist government.

From very early on there is a looming political revolution, spelling disaster for the established oligarchy. For as long as Latin America had been colonized, the accepted way was simply that some people ought to be in charge and the rest, unfit to lead or even to learn to lead, ought to work for those in charge. Now, however, Marxist thought is spreading like wildfire through the poor and hungry, the working class, and the intellectuals, and the wealthy landowners are doing everything they can to suppress it. Esteban Trueba fights bitterly to “protect” his hacienda from this growing threat to his power and wealth, but he cannot stop it. Pedro Tercero Garcia, a child born under Esteban’s rule of Tres Marias, begins to teach the rest of the inhabitants about Marxism and the promise of equality. Despite his efforts, Esteban cannot reform the boy. He instead banishes him from Tres Marias and later attempts to murder him with an axe. Pedro Tercero goes on to become a hero to the burgeoning socialist population, writing songs of revolution.

There is an inspiring social revolution that occurs when the Candidate is elected president. The poor pour into the streets where the wealthy live, where most of them had never been in their lives. They do not loot or cause any damage – they simply walk, fascinated, soaking in their newfound equality and trying to understand their utopia.

Allende by no means wrote a fair and objective study on the differences between capitalism and socialism or between conservatism and liberalism. Her bias is glaringly obvious, but retrospectively it seems appropriate. She was forced to flee Chile after the extreme right wing conspirators usurped the new Marxist president, her cousin, and demolished any hope of immediate social and political reform. She also grew up around the very prevalent Latin American ideal of “machismo,” which, among other things, connotes that men are superior to women and are expected run society. She faced sexism in the real world that mirrored some of the sexism in her book. The House of the Spirits was rejected several times – no doubt because its author was a woman. But Allende persevered, just as Clara and Alba persevered in the face of discrimination and subjugation.

This is a story of revolution, and all of the things that it brings with it: bloodshed, heartbreak, triumph, equality, inequality, loss, grief, and satisfaction, mirroring the life of its author, and the lives of all those who have lived to see revolution, its changes, its effects, and who have fought for it or against it, selfishly or for loved ones.

He-said She-said: Gender Narrative in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende’s powerhouse novel The House of the Spirits is both an exercise in magical realism and a demonstration of twentieth-century Latin American life. It explores topics “like ‘ideology,’ ‘gender,’ ‘race,’ ‘class,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘culture,’ ‘marginality,’ ‘hegemony,’ ‘oppression,’ ‘myth,’ [sic]‘destabilize,’ ‘identity,’ ‘monovalence,’ and ‘polyvalence’” (Tayko). What is incredibly interesting about the book is that in many of these topics there is a rigid dichotomy, and each of these dichotomies is directly related to gender – the men, for the most part, are base and greedy, and are both symbols and propagators of hegemony, oligarchy, classism, fascism, rape culture, etc., while the women, who are more spiritual and in all senses of the word “pure”, function likewise for progressivism, democracy, liberalism, and equality. Thus, in telling the story through the eyes of both men and women, i.e. different gender narratives, Allende provides commentary on the social issues presented to her characters via their responses to these issues.

The democratization of Latin America was characterized by the involvement of women in politics (Espinal and Zhao 3). Predictably, given its author’s gender and relationship to former Chilean president Salvador Allende, The House of the Spirits is incredibly politically charged. Some of the most important political comments Allende makes are through the eyes of Esteban, Alba, and Pedro Tercero. Esteban Trueba, the patriarch of the Trueba/del Valle/Garcia family and supposed co-author of Alba’s nonfiction family memoir, is the novel’s main proponent of the right-wing. Allende’s bias is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Esteban’s thoughts and actions – he is a rapist and an ill-tempered, intolerant miser. He’s also a government official who stymies his country’s liberal progress. Pedro Tercero Garcia, a folk hero to the proletariat, is one of a handful of left-leaning men in the novel – a reminder by Allende that (while gender in her novel is instrumental in understanding binary belief systems) neither men nor women are uniform groups of good or evil. His daughter, Alba Trueba, who is also Esteban’s granddaughter, is probably the most important female political voice. Just as Esteban embodies the right, Alba embodies the left, participating in Marxist demonstrations and aiding communists after the extreme-right military coup.

The duality of the spiritual and the physical is as important an identifier between the genders of these characters as their physical sexes. The women, Clara del Valle (Esteban’s wife) in particular, are more naturally attuned to the spirit realm, and some can even communicate with and summon apparitions. The men are not concerned with spirits – most of them don’t acknowledge or believe in them. There are far fewer exceptions to this than any other dichotomy – the closest is Nicolas, who devotes his life to the spiritual, trying to emulate his mother’s natural abilities, and never quite succeeds.

Dire poverty is important to the plot, given especially that the main characters are incredibly wealthy for most of the novel. Jaime, like Pedro Tercero, is a notable exception to the rule, but for the most part the only characters concerned with charity work are the women. Clara and Blanca take in the destitute to stay in their massive home in the city. Ferula donates to the starving and homeless. Esteban resents this charity, espousing the very typically conservative view that these impoverished or otherwise unfortunate people are lazy and undeserving of his money or his time, and should instead be looking for jobs to provide for themselves and their families. These views are, of course, commonly held by staunchly conservative whites in the middle and upper class in the United States today.

Of course, the conflict between men and women itself is central to The House of the Spirits. Clara, Esteban’s wife and ideological opposite, embodies the patient female resistance to subjugation. The novel as a whole was written similarly as a resistance to the male-dominated literary scene of twentieth century Latin America (Smith 2). Clara suffers Esteban’s wrath throughout most of her life. At one point, he even hits her in the face, breaking her teeth.

Today, attitudes toward women in Latin America are changing for the better – they are being heard in their governments, and have even been presidents in six countries (Elgar 3). It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to attribute this to one thing – democratization, globalization, and US principles have all probably had a lot to do with it. Yet it would seem that if Isabel Allende and brave Latin American female authors like her were not indeed catalysts, they were certainly some of the earliest steps in the right direction.

 

Works cited

Tayko, Gail.  “Teaching Isabel Allende’s `La casa de los espiritus’” College Literature. Oct92-Feb93, Vol. 19/20 Issue 3/1, p228. 5p

Espinal, Rosario and Zhao, Shanyang. “Gender Gaps in Civic and Political Participation in Latin America.” Latin American Politics and Society. Spring, 2015, Vol. 57 Issue 1, p123, 16 p

Smith, Kathryn. “Telling (T)he(i)r Story: The Rise of Female Narration and Women’s History in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.” Florida Atlantic Comparative Studies Journal Vol. 11, 2008-2009

Elgar, Richard. “Women’s rights in transition: the collision of feminist interest groups, religion and non-governmental organizations in three Latin American countries.” Journal of Public Affairs (14723891). Nov2014, Vol. 14 Issue 3/4, p359-368. 10p

Poetry in Symbolism

“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.” – Gene Wolf, Shadow & Claw

Symbolism – the principle topic in every discussion of every novel my high school English classes read. The silver dollar in In Cold Blood, the turtle in The Grapes of Wrath, and, in a book chock-full of symbolism, the most perfect, most hauntingly meaningful symbol I’ve encountered: Gatsby’s green light. We spent far too long sitting in our circles trying to decipher these and many others in our several years of class, while our ancient teacher leaned back in her chair, sometimes laughing quietly to herself as we struggled, having known the meaning of each and every symbol in each and every book for at least a thousand years. Gary Casey and I consistently agreed upon concrete meanings for symbols, and were consistently believed by our classmates. But when we all looked to Doctor Sorrells in unison, still unsure, she would often shrug and throw her tiny, arthritic hands in the air, saying, “I don’t know!”

We were generally pretty upset by this. What we never seemed to realize is that she was prompting us to reexamine our symbol, to give it new possible meanings, and to fail, more often than not, to settle on just one. It was a careful lesson that most of us never took to heart: symbols are poetry. They transcend the definition and limitations of ordinary literary devices and change, like living things, with time and with their interpreter.

The film Il Postino is “a quiet meditation on fate, tact, and poetry” (Ebert). In its meditation on poetry it examines symbols and metaphors – metáfori, those wonderful arrangements of words which do not mean what they say – as parts of telling a story. Mario is initially interested in using metaphors to seduce women. He then falls in love with a woman named Beatrice, forcing him to look deeper into what metaphors really are. He says at one point, “the whole world is a metaphor for something,” without even realizing exactly how thought-provoking his comment is (Berardinelli). The film examines metaphors in a traditional sense, but there is a nontraditional subtext which calls into question their very definition. Is a metaphor only a literary tool? Words which mean something more? The sun is a symbol of hope and courage, so is the dawn, which alerts us to itself not with words but with warmth and light, not a metaphor for greatness? It certainly can be and has been a traditional metaphor in literature, but there is a question as to whether it was a metaphor before man wrote poetry, before man wrote, before man was. A metaphor is then, in a sense, inherent in the universe, independent of word.

On an only slightly less convoluted and pretentious note, the poetry of Pablo Neruda abounds with symbols and metaphors. It seems that there is nothing in the human experience that Neruda could not reduce to a color, a place, an everyday object. In “Walking Around,” he writes about his deep, ancient weariness of simply existing. It is disgusting to him now, innately gross and pointless and tiring. He says all of this very, very simply with his metaphor of the felt swan steering his way through waters littered by wombs and ashes. The wombs symbolize birth, the ashes death, and the waters life. Living has taken on that soggy, weighty feeling of wet felt as he navigates the waters aimlessly, slowly, like a swan.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, much like The Great Gatsby, was virtually a catalog of symbols. There were no questions of details left unanswered, no loose ends not tied up, and seemingly not one object in Macondo that wasn’t symbolic. Fernanda’s golden chamber pot, for which she would accept no substitute, was just a bowl for shit – a metaphor for her arrogant, self-important attitude and customs which disguised a woman as base and human as everyone else in her home. The railroad which comes to Macondo, quickly bringing gringos and their industry, symbolizes the intrusion of that industry into the lives of people. This somewhat Marxist sentiment is seen throughout the novel in the unionizing of the banana factory workers and in the efforts of the rebels fighting under Colonel Aureliano Buendia in his thirty-two civil wars.

There is no literature without symbolism. At least, there is no great literature without symbolism, in the same way that there is no great art without contrast,  no great food without flavor. Symbolism is the lifeblood of poetry. It’s the true meaning in every story, just barely hidden by everyday objects. Even this weak conclusion is a symbol of the futility of effort in a universe that does not care about us.

Ebert, Roger. “The Postman (Il Postino).” Roger Ebert, 23 June 1998,  http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-postman-il-postino-1995 Accessed 12 October 2016

Berardinelli, James. “Postman, The (Il Postino) (Italy/United Kingdom, 1995).” Reelviews, http://www.reelviews.net/reelviews/postman-the-il-postino Accessed 13 October 2016

Nothing in Life Matters

There are easy comparisons to be made between Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, his later film Volver, and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. They depict fiercely intelligent, flamboyantly Latin female protagonists dealing with the messes men have made.

Color pervades both movies and even the novel, where we cannot exactly see it. Almodovar conveys the passion and intensity of his women in striking, vivid colors all across every scene; Allende paints with words.

Why the color? The subject matter seems very gray, sometimes black. Yet bright reds and blues and rustic yellows and golds bounce off pages and screens. There is a lightheartedness in it. In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown the director “sets out to charm rather than shock” (Canby). Allende’s intention is the same. It goes beyond relief from the harrowing tragedies in the lives of these women – it is a symbol of their grace; the characters themselves almost seem to say, “I will color this bleakness and hold my head high.” It’s a small but powerful rebellion.

There is an understandable frustration with men in all of three of these works. Pepa and Raimunda, Almodovar’s heroines, and Clara, Blanca, and Alba, Allende’s deeply understanding storytellers, are pushed to extremes by the men in their lives: fathers, lovers, brothers, sons, sadistic army colonels. There is heartbreak, death, rape – never, in these stories, at the fault of the women. A reviewer for Unsung Films said of the ladies of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that they were “flawed and at the same time perfect, warm but hysterical, needing love and attention and going crazy when they don’t get back what they give, insecure but strong, saving people’s lives as well as their own and at the same time setting everything on fire and destroying whoever gets in their way when they’re heartbroken” (Coconi). The same can be said of Allende’s women, with the peculiar exception of Clara, but can’t it be said for women everywhere, at least for most of history? No two people are the same – some women are shallow, evil people, and some men are absolute sweethearts – but most people are alike, as much as that might disrupt your notions of individuality and your special-snowflake ideals. You, reader, and I are 99% similar. We’re statistics. Where’s the comfort in that?

Well, there is very little comfort overall. The human condition seems at best disappointing and at worst hopeless. The abstract, arbitrary social constructs that govern us threaten every day to implode, rendering everything, even this enlightened blog post, absolutely meaningless. But if I can say I share an ounce of the strength of any of these women, I’ll hold onto that and be exorbitantly proud of it for as long as it matters.

Coconi, Angeliki @UnsungFilms. 8 Apr 2012. – http://www.unsungfilms.com/4482/women-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown/. 22 Sep 2016

Canby, Vincent. New York Times. 23 Sep 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=940DE2D7123DF930A1575AC0A96E948260. 22 Sep 2016

 

I’d Rather Be a Woman

Film Title: VolverIf there is one thing that I’ve learned in reading Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits or watching Pedro Almodovar’s Volver, it’s that women are better than men.

Okay, maybe that’s not the moral. Maybe that’s not even true. But how can you not hate men after these stories? Men are dull, earthly creatures, where women are beautiful, mystical, patient goddesses. Volver beautifully illustrates this in an incredibly subtle way by the juxtaposition of Irene’s “resurrection” and Paco’s staying dead – “… a bulky corpse whose disposal becomes one of the story’s main plot devices” (Baumgarten).

In spite of the fact that men bring very little to the table in either of these stories, their power and their lust are evidently the causes of mishap and tragedy across generations (Stein). You can see this in The House of the Spirits in Esteban Trueba’s rape and fervent, possessive love of Rosa and then Clara and in Nicolas’ careless impregnation and abandonment of Amanda. It’s also abundantly clear in Volver‘s prevalent incest motif, with Raimunda’s pregnancy by her father and Paula’s narrowly-avoided rape by her stepfather, and in the affair that killed Raimunda’s father, Agustina’s mother, and, in at least a very strictly legal sense, Irene. Well, this sounds awful. I wouldn’t have gone to college if I’d known this was the sort of thing I’d be enlightened to. I’d live and die as a blissfully unaware cashier or machinist.

So, what is the moral? Is there one? Should we resign to the hopelessly destructive, careless dynamic of men versus women? I don’t think so. If The House of the Spirits and Volver have taught me one common lesson, it’s that while there is a major issue, we’re still fixing it little by little every day. It’ll never go away – some people are just pieces of shit. But the human race has finally opened its collective eyes and is stumbling – most certainly stumbling – into the blinding light of a future where we are a singular, equal species.

Volver

By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 12, 2007 – http://www.austinchronicle.com/calendar/film/2007-01-12/430977/ Accessed Sep. 8, 2016

SFGate

By Stein – http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/Leave-it-to-Mama-to-clean-up-the-mess-2484510.php Accessed Sep. 8, 2016

A Common Dynamic in The House of the Spirits

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The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, her first novel written in 1982, is powerfully driven by the social and political scene of Chile in the twentieth century. Allende beautifully connects myriad issues to a common theme of resistance, easily summarized by the old man Pedro Garcia’s story of a coop of chickens who rise up against a fox who is stealing their eggs.

Women today are, in most first-world countries, equal to men (with, of course, some inexcusable exceptions, but that’s for another blog). Yet in Chile in the twentieth century and in most of the world for the lifespan of civilization they have been viewed as chickens where men have been foxes. They have been viewed as the “weaker sex” and have been subjugated with no hope of social or political advancement. This was the status quo (symbolized in Blanca’s disbelief that chickens, weak and stupid, could never triumph over a fox) – an accepted and mostly unquestioned part of life, like the inferiority of a chicken to a fox. But in Isabel Allende’s lifetime, women have done something remarkable in Chile and all over the world: they have found the strength in numbers to effect a change towards equality.

Similarly, Communism gained traction in parts of Latin America, promising a change towards equality for the enormous proletariat – the chickens who greatly outnumbered the foxes. Esteban Trueba’s hacienda is a microcosmic example of Chile as a whole, and Pedro Tercero is the voice of dissent, echoing his grandfather’s tale of chickens and foxes and strength in numbers and rebellion.

At the heart of the whole thing, the fox has many real-life counterparts: the status quo, the oligarchy, the superiority of men. The chickens, then, obviously represent a Communist ideal of the power of the people and social equality. The story itself says this: sometimes change looks impossible or ridiculous. Maybe even unnecessary. But it is always possible, and when its time comes, it is unstoppable.

El Laberinto del Fauno

The 2006 film El laberinto del fauno by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, known in most English-speaking countries as Pan’s Labyrinth, is a modern cinematic exploration of the style of “magical realism,” a literary element unsurprisingly associated with Latin American authors. It is set in Spain in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and follows a young girl named Ofelia who acts as the bridge in the narrative between the fantastical world of the Faun and the bleak world of fascist post-war Spain.

Idealism plays a central role in the film. The characters in this movie are all working to make their ideal worlds into a singular reality. Captain Vidal and Mercedes are on their own missions to create an ideal Spain. Both of them face uncertainty of the future of their worlds and a desire to end that uncertainty; this is paralleled by the ambiguity of the different realities and by Ofelia’s quest to live only in the world of the Faun with her father.

The major takeaway of the movie, as is the case with much of magical realism literature, is that reality is an ambiguous, even unimportant concept. Truer, more romantic notions such as courage, selflessness, and right in the face of wrong are instead the focus of the movie and are demonstrated by Ofelia and by the Spanish rebels.