Like many writers, novelist Isabel Allende thinks of herself as an outsider. "I have always been by temperament a dissident and a rebel," she says during a call to her home in Marin County, California. "This has been my struggle all my life."
But it’s one thing to be somewhat alienated from family and social class, as Allende was in her youth, and quite another to be sent into exile from your homeland. Allende fled her native Chile shortly after a CIA-assisted coup on Tuesday, September 11, 1973, led to the overthrow and death of her uncle Salvador Allende Gossens, the democratically elected president of Chile. The coup resulted in a brutal military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. From exile in Venezuela, on January 8, 1981, Allende began writing a letter to her grandfather, an old-school Chilean who was nearing his 100th birthday and in failing health. The letter soon developed into Allende’s mesmerizing first novel, The House of the Spirits, which marked the beginning of her extraordinary literary career.
Outsiders almost always have an intense and ambivalent longing for the inside. This is certainly true of Allende. While her marvelous new memoir, My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, offers stinging criticism of her native land – its machismo, its religious and political oppression, its shameful treatment of native populations – Allende’s love for Chile is so evident and eloquent that many readers will consider packing their bags and booking the next flight to Santiago.
"When you are born in a place, especially a small place that feels like a village, you put up with the bad things and love the good things," Allende says. "There is a strong sense of community, of family, or extended family that still exists there. People in Chile will tell you, No, that’s over, it’s gone, it’s not like it was before.’ But coming from the United States, it’s the first thing that you see."
Allende has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since she met and married an American attorney, whose life and adventures were the basis for her novel The Infinite Plan. "California resembles Chile more than any other place in the United States," she says. "Not only the landscape and the vegetation and the weather, but the fact that some sense of Hispanic culture is very present here. My husband says that Chile looks like California looked 40 years ago."
Since Pinochet stepped down in 1994 and democratic institutions have slowly returned to Chile, Allende has been making annual visits home to see her mother, stepfather and members of her large extended family. Some of her family members read the manuscript for My Invented Country and, she says, "everyone had a different opinion." "I thought the book was going to be terribly criticized in Chile. But, actually, it was pirated immediately, it was sold in the streets, it became number one on the bestseller list, and the reviews have been great."
This is a surprise, and Allende explains it this way: "Many years ago when I was young, I used to write feminist articles, humorous articles, making fun of men and the things that men do because they are so macho. I would get loads of fan letters from men who enjoyed the articles and said they had a friend just like the man I described. It was always a friend. It was never them. I think that is what happened with this book. Readers think this is how the other Chileans are."
Allende’s sense of humor in conversation and on the page is enthralling. And as readers of her novels and previous memoir, Paula, know, she is a gifted storyteller who forges an enchanting amalgam of memory and imagination. "Memory and imagination are so closely intertwined that I can hardly separate them," Allende says. "If you and I see the same event, we will perceive it differently and we will remember it differently. When I wrote my very first memoir, which was Paula, I was in an altered state. My daughter Paula was dying. But even so, in the process of writing the book, I was perfectly conscious of the fact that I would choose what I was going to write and what I was going to omit, what adjectives I was selecting to describe a situation. That is an exercise in imagination; that’s a choice. Because if we were to remember without imagination, we would use no adjectives. It would be just nouns. But in life we remember the color, the flavor, the emotion. Not the facts."
According to Allende, the facts of life are mixed. "The world is a horrible place but also a wonderful place. For every horrible person out there doing evil, a thousand people are doing good. But good is silent, discrete, unassuming, whereas evil is so noisy. We only hear about the evil in the world."
In the Chile of Allende’s youth and, in a more menacing way under the dictatorship, "life was supposed to be uncomfortable and unsafe. . . . Even if you broke your neck tripping on the sidewalk there was no one to blame. It was your own fate."
This perspective made it very difficult for Allende to feel at home in the United States. "When I came here I had the feeling that this country was invulnerable, invincible, that the people had the arrogance of the winners, and that I could never belong here. The idea that you could go through life without fear, that you could go through life always feeling safe, that you are insured against every hazard of life, was just so foreign to me."
Exactly 28 years after her uncle’s violent demise led to her exile from Chile, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Allende discovered a suddenly vulnerable America and felt she "had gained a country." In conversation, Allende says My Invented Country "was born out of a crazy idea when my grandson Alejandro said ‘I think you are going to live at least three more years,’ and I wondered, well, where do I want to live them." That is no doubt true. But it is also true that the two September 11s mark the metaphorical beginning and end of Allende’s nostalgic journey. The path she follows between these two points vividly illustrates the good humor, humane spirit, tough mind and open heart we will all require to create a viable home in our new world.