by Pat Holt
Tuesday, December 18, 2001
ONSTAGE WITH ISABEL ALLENDE - PART I
Two big surprises awaited the crowds who packed the Herbst Theater in San Francisco recently to see Chilean author Isabel Allende.
First, although I was given the happy job of interviewing Allende onstage for City Arts and Lectures, I had to keep my jaw from dropping to the floor like everyone else when she admitted that she has always "lacked self confidence" and never felt that she "belonged," even and especially in her adopted country, the United States.
"I stand out like a sore thumb," she said. "I don't look like anybody else, I don't talk like anybody else, I have a heavy accent and I don't understand jokes or politics. To me Republicans and Democrats look alike."
Well, you're right about the last part, but what a statement! Not only has Isabel Allende achieved unprecedented success with one bestseller after another ("The House of the Spirits," "Eva Luna," "Paula," "Daughter of Fortune," "Portrait in Sepia" and others), she is one of the funniest, most passionate and original authors to burst upon the fiction scene in many years.
But "all this vulnerability" changed, she said, after the events of September 11, 2001, a date that, she told the astonished audience, has weighed heavily on her mind and heart for the last 28 years.
This was the second surprise: "It is a very strange coincidence that the military coup in Chile that resulted in the assassination of Salvadore Allende [her uncle] took place on Tuesday, September 11, 1973," she explained. "It was an act of terrorism, supported by the CIA, against a democracy."
No wonder that on September 11, 2001, Allende felt shaken to the bone. "My mother called just as I was getting out of the shower," she said. "She was crying, and I thought it was because of the anniversary of the coup. 'Turn on the television!' she said, and the images of people running and of smoke and fire everywhere were very similar to what I remembered in Chile nearly three decades ago."
The effect transformed Allende. "I told my husband that on September 11, 1973, I lost a country. But on September 11, 2001, I felt that I had gained a country. For the first time I grieved with everybody else, and for the first time I felt that I belonged. "I had always been a foreigner and believed that someday I would leave the United States. But after September 11, I realized that everybody else had the same feeling of vulnerability that I have felt all my life, and that people in this country did not have before September 11."
Americans have never felt vulnerable? No, she said - not in the way she had experienced it. "I began to think that maybe part of the reason I have felt so foreign was that people in the United States have an unyielding optimism about life, a feeling that the Constitution guarantees the right to search for happiness, which for many countries is unthinkable.
"Happiness is not a right. Happiness is something that happens in some people's lives for a flash of a second. We have to grab that second and treasure it. For most countries, happiness is irrelevant. Surviving is all they know. I think on September 11, for the first time, we thought about survival in that way. We still do. It's a feeling that we are living in a world that is basically unsafe."
That fear, she suggested, is not a bad thing. "It has brought people together - some by an excess of patriotism, which I dislike profoundly, but some in wonderful ways, mostly by a sense of compassion. We are reminded of fundamental things - spirit, community, family and the feeling that life can end at any minute, so let's treasure it while we have it."
But here is the contradiction, I thought: How can a person like Isabel Allende, who felt so alienated and lacked so much confidence, start out by writing so boldly, even wildly, in her first novel, "The House of the Spirits." Having waited until she was in her 40s before trying to write fiction, Allende wrote as if a damn had burst open. How did it happen that she, a complete unknown, could demand that readers follow her passionate digressions, her ferocious characters, her wild and often hilarious depiction of history?
"Well, it happened because I was so ignorant," she replied. "I didn't know anything about the world of publishing, or other writers, or critics. I didn't even know that books were reviewed. (Most normal people have never read a review.) Then, too, whenever I needed courage, I remembered what my grandfather said: 'Most people are more afraid than you are, most of the time.' And you know, when you're afraid, what's the worst that can happen? The worst thing, probably, is death. But we are all going to die. So that's fine, too."
The idea that death is "fine, too" would have sounded glib coming from anyone but Allende. Having watched her beloved daughter, Paula, lie in a coma for nearly a year in a Madrid hospital before bringing her home (to San Rafael, Calif.), Allende took the long letter she had written to Paula day after day and turned it into her first nonfiction book, "Paula," which remains her most popular book.
"The odd thing about it is that 'Paula' is not a sad book. Of course it was a terrible thing to live through. But there was also something wonderful about the way it brought our family together. It made us so strong. I wonder what could happen in my life that could ever be worse. If I survived that year of agony, of watching my daughter dying slowly, I think I can survive almost anything.
"I lost the fear of death, and once you lose that, there are very few other fears you can have. You become sort of detached - I love my house, my clothes, my 'stuff.' But if everything burns today, I don't care, because I saw my daughter leaving this world with nothing, and a few months later I received my granddaughter, and I took her out of her mother, and I cut the umbilical cord, and she came as Paula left, with nothing. So it's wonderful to know that we are so attached to things that don't matter at all, that we can leave everything behind."
Allende's eyes grew wide and round as she spoke to the hushed audience, and there it was again - that certainty, that boldness - her trademark ferocity in the face of the worst possible scenario.
"Paula gave us this gift: At the end of the year I had the feeling that for months I had been throwing overboard all the extra load. First I had to let go of Paula's intelligence, her laughter and her voice. Then I had to let go of her beauty - after a few months of paralysis she was totally deformed. Paula had wonderful, dark hair, a mane of hair - but we had to cut it because we couldn't handle it in bed. So everything sort of shrunk, and she became this creature that was hard to recognize. And then we had to let go of even that.
"There was a point we had to let go of her spirit. And then when she died, I had the feeling that I had lost everything. But in a matter of hours, sitting there at her bedside - it was winter, and we opened all the windows to preserve the body because we were waiting for [her husband] Ernesto to come from China - I realized that I hadn't lost everything. I had the love I had given her. Even if she had been in such a condition that she couldn't receive it, what we all had given her was what we had, and that was never going to be taken away from us.
"So the biggest lesson was: You only have what you give. It's by spending yourself that you become rich. We would not have learned this if Paula had died at the beginning, if she had fallen into the coma and we would have disconnected everything at the beginning. We should have, but the doctors lied to us all the time, and they never admitted that she had severe brain damage, so we were always waiting for her to open her eyes, and it never happened. But if she had died at the beginning, as I always wished, maybe we would not have learned all the things we learned. Maybe Ernesto would not be my son today, because what brought us together was that year of terrible sorrow. So now I have two sons, because Ernesto and his new wife are like my children. This is why there are gifts."
Listening to Allende talk about fighting back brought a stillness to the theater that was both eerie and wonderfully cozy. Outside a winter storm that turned umbrellas inside out and made people cranky kept raging, but nary a cough or sneeze was heard all through the house. More to come in Part II.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Like the other small presses mentioned in your last column, we also received the message from Amazon about damaged books and a UPS account. We double-box all our books and have never had a damage claim from Amazon before. I posted a note on the Mystery_Pub ListServ and three other small publishers chimed in with similar experiences. Makes you wonder if there was an accident in the warehouse?
P.S. One publisher wrote to Amazon.com aboout the letter regarding damaged books. Here is what Amazon sent in reply:
"Thank you for writing to Amazon.com Advantage.
"Our recent e-mail concerning damaged items was sent to a large number of Advantage members, and I apologize if the information within was not sufficiently clear for your purposes. This message was primarily informational and does not indicate that a return of damaged units is pending or required. Please note, there is no need to send any copies until a new order is placed.
"While we maintain the highest damage standards for the benefit of Amazon.com customers, we understand that some damage caused during transit is unavoidable. For that reason, items with some damage may still be considered sellable and will not be returned to you.
"We are in the process of reviewing your Amazon.com Advantage inventory in order to determine if any items need to be returned to you. In the event an order is returned to you, please feel free to contact us for details you may need for your records.
"Thank you for using Amazon.com Advantage.
Holt responds: A number of readers have suggested that Amazon.com is so desperate to show some kind of profit by the end of the year that it's trying to use these books both as assets and as write-offs - that's why the definitions of what's damaged and what's not are so fuzzy. I can't believe this penny-ante stuff will bring the many millions Amazon needs even for its fake "pro-forma" profit scenario, but who knows what they're up to? These letters the company is sending out still look fishy.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Hmm. According to Len Vlahos' response to my problem with BookSense.com, I get the impression I'm supposed to know which of the 260 stores listed at the Booksense website could get that hard-to-get book and go to that store's website from the Booksense website. If I knew that, why wouldn't I go directly to the store's website instead of to Booksense?
Len Vlahos responds: BookSense.com was not intended to match the consumer with the store that has the hard-to-find book. Rather, it's intended to match the consumer with his/her locally-owned independent bookstore. One of our primary goals with the hub site is to let consumers know that wonderful stores with knowledge, passion, personality, character, and community, are right around the corner. That's why our store search is featured so prominently on the page.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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