Isabel Allende: "I have lived the horror of drugs"

The Books Interview.

The narrator of your new novel is a 19- year-old American who knows next to nothing about her grandmother’s past in Chile. What do your grandchildren know of your Chilean past?
I have taken them to Chile but they don’t speak Spanish. I don’t think they know very much about Chile. They don’t quite understand what a military dictatorship is – they can’t envisage it. It’s hard to explain this. I’ve written books about it and I hope some day they’ll read them with attention.

They’re growing up as Americans. Do you talk to them about the role the US played in overthrowing the government of Salvador Allende?
Yes, all the time. And not only to my grandchildren. I live in the US and I think it is my duty, every time I speak in public, to tell Americans what their foreign policy has been, the awful things that have been done in the name of democracy.

We get a glimpse of Chile’s past in this book. Was this a way of reaching back to a pre-Pinochet Chile?
I’ve always been interested not so much in the pre-Pinochet period as in the time during which we had the dictatorship – 17 years in which the country changed completely. It became very polarised and divided.

Even today, nearly 25 years after the dictatorship ended, there are people who deny the atrocities that were committed during the time the military was in power; or else they will justify them – they will say, “It was either that or become a communist dictatorship.” And there are other people who suffered during that time, who were in prison or tortured or had to leave and live in exile – such people can see nothing positive in the years of dictatorship.

In the novel, there is a secret in the narrator Maya’s family, which she discovers at the very end of the book. There’s a secret in the family and there’s a secret in the country. So, in a way, the micro-melodrama of that family is amplified by the macro-melodrama of the country.

Maya flees to the island of Chiloé, where she listens to the islanders’ stories. Have the stories of Chile’s indigenous peoples influenced you as a writer?
I grew up in my grandfather’s house and my grandfather was a great storyteller. At that time, there was no television in Chile and the radio was forbidden at home – my grandfather considered it an instrument of vulgar ideas. So we would listen to his stories. There was a mythological, epic quality to even the most banal story.

Maya has been brought up in Berkeley, California, which occupies a special place in the American imagination, doesn’t it?
Yes. It’s known as the “Independent Popular Republic of Berkeley”! It’s very liberal. The last remaining old hippies all live in Berkeley. You see them with their Birkenstock sandals. I love it. I go there all the time, although I live on the other side of the bay.

One of the themes of the book is the deranging effects of grief. We learn from Maya’s journal that she went off the rails after her grandfather died.
She adores her grandfather and when he dies she feels abandoned. So she gets in with the wrong people and ends up running away from home and becoming homeless, on drugs. But it’s the memory of the grandfather that saves her. I have lived through the tragedy of my husband’s children. They’re all addicts. The daughter has died. The elder son has spent half his life in prison. And in March, the younger son died of an overdose. So the family is in a very dark place right now.

I have lived the horror of drugs, how they destroy not only the person who takes them but the people around that person. It’s very hard to survive addiction.

The book is also about the redeeming power of writing, isn’t it? Writing is a way for Maya to process her grief.
I’ve lived that, too. Writing a memoir about the death of my daughter saved me from going crazy. It allowed me to understand and accept what happened. I will always carry sadness with me but it has not destroyed my life. I was able to process it, as you say – it was very cathartic.

Isabel Allende’s “Maya’s Notebook” is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99)

Isabel Allende at the Rome Literature Festival in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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