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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage