Isabel Allende’s novel Eva Luna, written about a sort of modern-day Scheherazade continually dancing on the edge of the volcano of societal upheaval with her tales as her only defense against falling, is first and foremost a novel about new beginnings. Eva’s mother Consuelo dies when Eva is only a child, and from then on, Eva makes her way through the various strata of society from being a house servant to being a loved informally adopted daughter to being a well-known and respected formal story-teller. But it is not a rags-to-riches story per se, because one is always having one’s attention called to the reversals and contretemps in the plot of Eva’s life, and there is never an easy answer to her dilemmas, despite the basically strong and positive way in which she seems to confront her problems.
A key theme relates to the role literature plays in our lives, whether of the “high” literary variety or of the popular variety heard on the radio and seen on the television screen. What seems to be important is the impetus to keep on telling, keep on telling, and never stop. It’s almost as if Eva is spinning out a thread like a spider from which she may hang until her feet touch solid ground again, for in every part of her life, and regardless of whom she is staying with or living with or serving, there is always someone to whom she can tell her tales, which gives her an added purpose in life to merely being a house servant or a dependent.
Yet another important element in the book Eva Luna is the plethora of generations of mothers and mother figures, and the degree to which they contribute support to younger women, not so much financially as psychologically and spiritually. There are many male characters, but they are often seen as adversarial unless they manage to think beyond the machismo of the average male in the South American society of the time portrayed in the book, during some part of the twentieth century. Possibly due to the fact that while being born in Peru, she is a Chilean, Allende seems purposefully to have left the exact South American country she is writing about imprecise and has instead created a sort of composite land for the story. Yet still the female characters, in their subsidiary place in society, are yet seen as the hidden strength of the country, while the men bickering and politicking and warring and torturing and imprisoning each other are seen as passing fads, with one following behind and more or less resembling another, despite their apparent differences.
This, however, does not mean that there is not an opportunity for love between men and women. The women in the book (and this includes a transgender woman named Mimi with whom Eva Luna resides in the latter part of the novel) keep looking for love, accepting the men as much as possible as they are, never giving up hope for a better life or a better relationship, forgiving and overcoming and enduring in a way that Allende evidently sees as essentially female. The men, in their turn, look to the women for nurturing and companionship and sexual love, and are conventionally male in general, with the good and the bad alike that goes along with this. The question of love is not relegated only to passionate sexual relationships, however; family or family-like love and societal love of one’s fellows are equally subjects of the book.
While Eva Luna’s stories are told to happy, unhappy, and desperate people alike in the novel, Allende makes her character Eva, a storyteller from a very young age, aware of the way in which stories not only help ameliorate harsh conditions, but also can distract from harsh realities which need to be addressed. For instance, in the final pages of the book, Eva negotiates with the Comandante of the government over just how much of a real recent event (the freeing of guerrillas by their comrades, friends of Eva’s) can be put into her televised fictional script (since the government is trying to suppress the guerrillas by keeping quiet about news of their success). This shows not only how Eva’s stories have power over the small and comparatively simple events in her friends’ lives, but how they also acquire power in the daily events of a country as well.
Allende has emphasized throughout her own story that while people are continually requesting happy endings to stories from Eva, Eva chooses instead to go for high drama and complicated and tragic endings. But for her story of Eva Luna’s own life, Allende generously and equivocatingly gives us a choice: after providing a qualified happy ending for Eva with a lover, in which the “judicious” and “modest” degree of love and happiness they win is at the end of the penultimate paragraph said to be worn to “shreds,” Allende ends with “Or maybe that isn’t how it happened,” and then goes on to suggest that sometimes reality responds to how it is described rather than the other way around. This means (according to the storyteller) that though she has provided a slightly elevated and ecstatic description of Eva’s love, it isn’t totally fictional. And here the indeterminacy and open-endedness of stories which is a contemporary preference finds acceptance.
It took me a long time to read this book, partly because I found its episodic structure a bit distracting, partly because of other things that have to do with time commitments rather than with literature. But I’m not sure it wasn’t the ideal way to encounter the adventuresome and inventive Eva Luna, who was always in another scrape, always surviving somehow, always finding another audience for her stories. Eva Luna is a character of Allende’s who becomes a character in her own tales, so that a voice from beyond the world of fictional limits speaks to us, penetrating and interpenetrating our own views of reality and story, and giving us hope of passing beyond our own limits, our imaginations having become our swords with which to slash through the veil between worlds.