Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What I Read: The House of the Spirits

Image courtesy Plaza & Jan├ęs
Hoo boy, where do I start with this one?

I guess I need to start with the fact that I am an American transplant to Sweden (for those of you who might have just found me). My Swedish is passable, though on a daily basis I almost exclusively use English. I write here and elsewhere in English, I work on my literary aspirations in English, JV and I default to English, and I work in English editing and tutoring. The Swedes who comprise my new social circle use English with me, though if the conversation switches to Swedish it's not a problem. Really, the only time I use Swedish is with the parents of some of my tutees, themselves immigrants but who didn't acquire too much English before they moved here, or who feel more comfortable in Swedish than in English.

In other words, I have to make a concerted effort to expose myself to Swedish. The easiest way to do this is to read books in Swedish. Novel concept, right?

So when my Internet book club decided that March's book would be Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, I decided to challenge myself and read the Swedish translation rather than the English translation. (I think translation between languages is certainly fruitful and possible but I am team Original Language whenever possible.) Because if I'm reading a translation anyway, it might as well be a translation that benefits me somehow.

The book took me around two months to read. More than that, really, considering that I just finished it about a week ago.

So I want to preface everything I have to say about this book with the caveat that I read it through the hazy veil of a non-native language. Or non-fluent. (Though I would consider myself fluent in Swedish, I still have a ways to go. But I think someone who is technically a "non-native" speaker can acquire a native-level fluency in a language.) There were, no doubt, nuances that I missed or things that I completely misunderstood. But on a broad strokes, big picture level, I had no problem following what was going on.

It's hard for me to separate my enjoyment of the book from my pride at having finished a substantial novel in Swedish. This would be the longest thing I've ever read in Swedish by a not insignifcant margin. But even so, I also enjoyed the process of reading itself—mostly.

I also want to say that despite being a huge international celebrity and a writer (apparently?) discussed in schools in Sweden, Allende never came up for me in my studies. Not in high school, not in university. When I mentioned what I was reading to JV, he said, "Oh yeah, Allende. I haven't read anything by her but she's supposed to be good." I would have said, "Who's that?" So I feel like I am woefully underschooled in international contemporary literature, and that if you're in the same position as me, then this review is for you.

Because have you heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Of course you (probably) have, because he is a Big Deal author and people can't stop talking about him. So how is it that Marquez is a household name for me but Allende isn't?

I bring up Marquez because he is comparable, and because his 100 Years of Solitude is comparable to The House of the Spirits. Both deal with a nation's tumultuous history by viewing it through the framework of a large and influential family. Both have the elements of magical realism that have become the hallmark of Latin American literature.

I hated 100 Years of Solitude, but I at least enjoyed reading The House of the Spirits. Over the entire course of 100 Years of Solitude, it felt like Marquez was reaching for some point that was always just out of reach. (I felt the same way about way-overhyped American Gods.) The House of the Spirits, on the other hand, put forward an idea of justice and something almost like karma quietly, without straining, and with more elegance. Her characters were nuanced, each with their personalities and their principles, so that despite a huge cast of characters you never confused them with each other.

The only part of the book I did not enjoy, even taking my pride at Swedish reading comprehension into account, were the sections of the book from the perspective of the family patriarch, Esteban. As a writer, I have to give Allende all the kudos in the world for sketching someone so vividly and creating someone so repulsive and yet so real. But as a reader, I could not endure Esteban and his violence and his snobbery. (And also rape! Not that people shouldn't write about rape; I actually think Allende writes about it very well in that she refuses to engage in salacious details or use it as character development. But I'm at a point in my life where I'm not in the mood for men, even fictional ones, defending and meditating on their entitlement to women's bodies.) So I quickly learned to just skip the sections written in the first person perspective and nothing of value was lost.

The House of the Spirits is another tally mark for my participation in the Women's Classic Literature Event. I'm still torn on whether or not I want to count it towards my modified TIME Top 100 Novels list. Would it be cheating? =/

If you are trying to diversifying your reading habits, if you have a burning curiosity about Latin American literature, or if you love long, multi-generational epics, then The House of the Spirits is very much worth your time.


  1. I loved this when I read it and quickly read many more books by Allende at the time. Some of her more recent books have not wowed me so she is not an auto-buy like she used to be... Unless one of her new books wows me! But, her early stuff, like this, is awesome!

    1. It seems to be common Internet consensus that Allende's early works are better than her later ones. And since her early works were written in the 80s, maybe I'm just at an age where I missed all of her hype?

  2. Congrats on finishing a Swedish novel!! I've tried reading Isabel Allende books multiple times but just couldn't get into it. I remember being a teenager and a bunch of my friends were reading her for HS stuff, but since I was homeschooled I never had the same required reading as anyone else. My friends seemed to like it enough so I tried picking it up, only to find it kind of a snoozefest lol. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it more?

    1. I don't think I read anything for high school that was newer than, like, Lord of the Flies or Night. My AP English teacher put Cosmos on the reading list (her husband is an astronomer and so she's quite interested in space as well as literature) but we never got around to it. What are these high schools with relatively contemporary English syllabi????

      House of the Spirits starts off a bit weird and slow. She starts by talking about Barrabas (who is a dog and I don't know if that was intentional on Allende's part or if that was a Swedish-language problem, but I didn't get that at first at ALL) and how he arrived from the sea, but then it gets sidetracked into something else for PAGES and you're like "BUT WHAT ABOUT BARRABAS" so I can see high school me being "I'm done with this!"

      I should go back and read the books I hated in high school (hello, Wuthering Heights). Except Lord of the Flies because fuck that book.

  3. Hahah now and then the schools here would read more recent books. There was an odd phase where teachers would assign "The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian," but then it started to get banned everywhere because RACIST (never mind that the author himself is Native American) and MASTURBATION JOKES, so then of course when it started to become "taboo" to teach people just wanted to teach it even more. Schools are weird.

    I enjoyed Wuthering Heights as long as I remembered to take everything with a grain of salt. Everyone in that book is an asshole and people like to pretend otherwise because they romanticize the time period. Also I don't remember if you've seen this before, but Thug Notes is everything:

    1. OK so I have a really boring Sherman Alexie story and it's this: I'd never heard of him until my creative writing workshop freshman year of college. We had an assignment to read "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" and then watch "Smoke Signals" (the movie based on the story, with the screenplay by Alexie himself and with him pretty heavily involved IIRC and they were both so forgettable. And now all of a sudden so many people I know/blogs I follow are talking about "The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian" and so now I'm curious but then I remember how underwhelming "Smoke Signals" was and.... =S

      Our school would have never gone in for controversy, though. There was a fit when we managed to institute a "diversity day" that was a great idea in theory (my school was white as Christmas) but flopped in practice from my perspective because they didn't really actually bring in....many diverse people? But even that flop was enough to people in a snit over PC CULTURE and WARBLE GARBLE. The librarian had to keep a handful of books off the shelves and in her office because parents had complained, or would probably complain, if they were out in regular circulation. I don't remember all of them but I remember one was a harmless book on paganism and witchcraft. No way we'd read a book with jokes about masturbating for class...!

      I HATED Wuthering Heights SO MUCH, but the more I think about it now, the more I think I'd like it if I read it now? It's a popular choice to read in school but I don't think teenage me was bitter and jaded enough to really appreciate it. I had yet to develop an appreciation for unhappy/downer endings (even though as an adult I still have Angst Aversion). But because everyone is such an asshole it's kind of satisfying that almost no one ends up happy??