Author meanders around Chile in memoir

Sunday, July 6, 2003

Isabel Allende has written a dizzying, contradictory, maddening memoir.

One would expect nothing less from the author of such magic-realism masterpieces as "The House of the Spirits" and "Eva Luna." And yet, "My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile" is oddly hollow when compared to these works. The same background that served Allende so well in her fiction fails her in this autobiographical exploration.

Sparked by her grandson's generous observation that she had at least three more years to live and a stranger's inquiry about the role nostalgia plays in her novels, Allende set off on an oblique look back at her life in relation to her native land, mixing memory vignettes with breezy historical washes and (often ridiculously) generalized depictions of Chileans and their culture.

Those looking for a cohesive portrait of Allende's past will not find it here.

"I'm wandering, but I ask you to stay with me a little longer," she writes in her rambling introduction. One is inclined to be tolerant; even wandering, Allende can be a treat.

Certainly, the book is not without its charms. Allende writes with wit and warmth, particularly in her childhood memories of her grandfather, a man who "lived nearly a century with never a sign of a single loose screw."

But Allende seems unwilling, or unable, to make the many strands of her past coalesce into something meaningful. More than once, she shies away from an in-depth description of a time or event that seems promising, on the lame rationale that she has written about it elsewhere. Instead, she offers sweeping generalizations about Chile that are amusing at first but quickly grow stale, leaving the reader without any sense of what Chileans actually are like.

"We Chileans," she tells readers are "fascinated with psychopaths and murderers," "enchanted by states of emergency," "bothered by others' success" and "magnanimous during disasters."

Surely these stereotypes could just as easily be applied to the people in Allende's current homeland, America. But Allende charges ahead, tossing out so many cavalier summations of her family and Chile that she inevitably contradicts herself. She asserts that Chileans have "a tendency to speak in falsetto," then remarks on the next page that Chileans "speak very low." She relates early on how her hair was dyed from a young age to suit Chileans' preference for blond hair only to state 100 pages later that "physical appearance was ignored in my family."

These meanderings and contradictions would be forgivable if rendered in the service of a larger, compelling narrative. But one can wander for only so long without wondering where, exactly, one is being led. By choosing to explore Chile through nostalgia's smeared lens, Allende forfeits such focus.