Violence and time in North America – some thoughts from Isabel Allende

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Actually, as well as liking some of Isabel Allende’s ideas about Memoir and memory, I also found her comments on violence and time interesting. She wrote (and I hope I haven’t eliminated the context in which she writes this):

“I’ve been so thoroughly incorporated into the California culture that I practice mediation and go to a therapist…. I have adapted to the rhythm of this extraordinary place….”

“The North Americans’ sense of time is very special. They are short on patience. Everything must be quick, including food and sex, which the rest of the world treats ceremoniously. Gringos invented two terms that are untranslatable into most languages: ‘snack’ and ‘quickie,’ to refer to eating standing up and loving on the run … that, too, sometimes standing up. The most popular books are manuals: how to become a millionaire in ten easy lessons, how to lose fifteen pounds a week, how to recover from your divorce, and so on. People always go around looking for shortcuts and ways to [-p.189] escape anything they consider unpleasant: ugliness, old age, weight, illness, poverty, and failure in any of its aspects.
This country’s fascination with violence never ceases to shock me. It can be said that I have lived in interesting circumstances, I’ve seen revolutions, war, and urban crime, not to mention the brutalities of the military coup in Chile. Our home in Caracas was broken into seventeen times; almost everything we had was stolen, from a can opener to three cars, two from the street, and the third after the thieves completely ripped off our garage door. At least none of them had bad intentions; one even left a note of thanks stuck to the refrigerator door. Compared to other places on earth, where a child can step on a mine on his way to school and lose two legs, the United States is safe as a convent, but the culture is addicted to violence. Proof of that is to be found in its sports, its games, its art, and, certainly not least, its films, which are bloodcurdling. North Americans don’t want violence in their lives, but they need to experience it indirectly. They are enchanted by war, as long as it’s not on their turf.” (pp.188-189)

Ref: Isabel Allende (2003) My Invented Country: A Memoir. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. Flamingo: London

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Memoir thoughts – Isabel Allende

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I found Isabel Allende’s ‘memoir’, My Invented Country, very easy to read. There were also a couple of phrases and paragraphs in it that I found interesting from a critical perspective:

“I have been an outsider nearly all my life, a circumstance I accept because I have no alternative. Several times I have found it necessary to pull up stakes, sever all ties, and leave everything behind in order to begin life anew elsewhere; I have been a pilgrim along more roads than I care to remember. From saying good-bye so often my roots have dried up, and I have had to grow others, which, lacking a geography to sink into, have taken hold in my memory. But be careful! Minotaurs lie in wait in the labyrinths of memory.” (p.xi)

“I was born in Lima, where my father was one of the secretaries at the embassy. The reason i grew up in my grandfather’s house in Santiago is that my parents’ marriage was a disaster from the beginning. One day when I was four, my father went out to buy cigarettes and never came back. The truth is that he didn’t start out to buy cigarettes, as everyone always said, but instead went off on a wild spree disguised as a Peruvian Indian woman and wearing bright petticoats and a wig with long braids. He left my mother in Lima with a pile of unpaid bills and three children, the youngest a newborn baby. I suppose that that early abandonment made some dent in my psyche, because there are so many abandoned children in my books that I could found an orphanage. The fathers of my characters are dead, have disappeared, or are so distant and authoritarian they might as well live on another planet.” (p.28)

“How long I’ve lived, my God! Getting old is a drawn-out and sneaky process. Every so often, I forget that time is passing because inside I’m still not thirty, but inevitably my grandchildren confront me with the harsh truth when they ask me if ‘in your day’ we had electricity. These same grandchildren insist that there’s a country inside my head where the characters in my books live their lives. When I tell them stories about Chile, they think I’m referring to that invented place.” (p.33)

“Well, I’ve gone way off on a tangent, and I need to pick up the main thread of this account, if there is any thread in all this meandering. But that’s how nostalgia is: a slow dance in a large circle. Memories don’t organize themselves chronologically, they’re like smoke, changing, ephemeral, and if they’re not written down they fade into oblivion. I’ve tried to arrange my thoughts according to themes or periods of my life, but it’s seemed artificial to me because memory twists in and out, like an endless Moebius strip.” (p.141)

[On the topic of the Dirty War in Chile] “Crimes perpetrated in shadows during those years have, inevitably, been coming to light. Airing the truth is the beginning of reconciliation, although the wounds will take a long time to heal because those responsible for the repression have not admitted their guilt and are not disposed to ask forgiveness. The acts of the military regime will go unpunished, but they can no longer be hidden or ignored. Many, especially young people who grew up without political dialogue or without a critical spirit, believe that there’s been enough digging through the past, that we must look to the future, but victims and their families cannot forget. It’s possible that we will have to wait until the last witness to those times dies before we can close that chapter of our history.” (p.161)

“When we call up the past, we choose intense moments – good or bad – and omit the enormous gray area of daily life.” (p.179)

“If I had never traveled, if I had stayed on, safe and secure in the bosom of my family, if I had accepted my grandfather’s vision and his rules, it would have been impossible for me to recreate or embellish my own existence, because it would have been defined by others and I would merely be one link more in a long family chain. Moving about has forced me, time after time, to readjust my story, and I have done that in a daze, almost without noticing, because I have been too preoccupied with the task of surviving. Most of our lives are similar, and can be told in the tone used to [-p.180] read the telephone directory – unless we decide to give it a little oomph, a little color. In my case, I have tried to polish the details and create my private legend, so that when I am in a nursing home awaiting death I will have something to entertain the other senile old folks with.” (pp.179-180)

“I suppose there are people who do plan their lives, but I stopped doing that a [-p.184] long time ago because my blueprints never get used. About every ten years I take a look back and can see the map of my journey – well, that is if it can be called a map, it looks more like a plateful of noodles. If you live long enough to review the past, it’s obvious that all we do is walk in circles.” (p.184)

“…as soon as i got my residence papers I began the process of moving Paula and Nicolàs to California. I had quickly become enamored of San Francisco, a happy, tolerant, open, and cosmopolitan city – and so different from Santiago! My new home was founded by adventurers, prostitutes, merchants and preachers, all of whom flocked there in 1849, drawn by the Gold Rush. I wanted to write about that intriguing period of greed, violence, heroism, and conquest, perfect material for a novel.” p.186)

“I don’t know whether my home is the place where I [-p.193] live or simply Willie. We have been together a number of years, and it seems to me that he is the one territory I belong in, where I’m not a foreigner. Together we have survived many ups and downs, great successes and great losses.” (pp.192-193)

“This book has helped me understand that I am not obligated to make a decision: I can have one foot in Chile and another here, that’s why we have planes, and I am not among those who are afraid to fly because of terrorism. I have a fatalistic attitude: no one dies one minute before or one minute after the prescribed time. For the moment California is my home and Chile is the land of my nostalgia. My heart isn’t divided, it has merely grown larger. I can live and write anywhere. Every book contributes to the completion of that ‘country inside my head,’ as my grandchildren call it. In the slow practice of writing, I have fought with my demons and obsessions, I have explored the corners of memory, I have dredged up stories and people from oblivion, I have stolen others’ lives, and from all this raw material I have constructed a land that I call my country. That is where I come from.
I hope that this long commentary answers that stranger’s question about nostaliga. don’t believe everything I say: I tend to exaggerate and, as I warned at the beginning, I can’t be objective where Chile is concerned. Let’s just say, to be completely honest, that I can’t be objective, period. In any case, what’s most important doesn’t appear in my biography or my books, it happens in a nearly imperceptible [-p.198] way in the secret chambers of the heart. I am a writer because I was born with a good ear for stories, and I was lucky enough to have an eccentric family and the destiny of a wanderer. The profession of literature has defined me. Word by word I have created the person I am and the invented country in which I live.” (pp.197-198)

Ref: Isabel Allende (2003) My Invented Country: A Memoir. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. Flamingo: London

Incidentally, this puts me in mind of Pico Iyer’s talk on ‘home’ and belonging (http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.html)