Shadows of reality and shades of the imagination in Isabel Allende’s collection “The Stories of Eva Luna”

The storyteller’s art is above all a way of defeating mortality, a way of underlining moralities and playing them off against each other, and a way of leaving one’s mark on the world.  But in The Stories of Eva Luna, the storyteller’s voice drifts like smoke across the scene and disappears from one story to the next, fading out between moments and leaving only a taste of clean, clear water, somewhat in the same way the sand mandalas of the Tibetan monks are visible for a short time then blow away in the next strong wind.  The only continuous thing is thus the spell of words rising and falling and then halting, in fact introducing mortality at key points, sometimes making moral points and sometimes not, and allowing even and especially the storyteller to evade capture by leaving no mark at all behind.  It is not a coincidence that these characteristics coincide with an opening and closing mention in the book of the tale of Scheherazade, for the character Eva Luna narrates tales in bed in this fiction at the request of her lover Rolf Carlé (another character from the original novel Eva Luna, to which this collection of stories is a sequel).

The picture of South American life is what emerges most clearly, whether it is the life of the twentieth century or of the earlier centuries with their conflicts between Spanish conquerors and aboriginal citizens; in fact, history is set at odds in the South American scene of these stories, because the economic climate pictured herein is one in which several histories are being played out at once in the same or near physical space, with the economically privileged citizens living cheek-by-jowl with and in seeming ignorance of or indifference to the native tribes and their traditions.  Indeed, part of the richness and irony of Allende’s portrait of South American life comes from this juxtaposition of different traditions, and in the very midst of this scene, the storyteller takes a central place, and is received differently by different portions of the populace.

There are aristocrats and dictators, peasants and native Indians, prostitutes and degenerates, revolutionaries and banditti, sexy women and virile men, aged men and women of both wisdom and foolish credulity, children who suffer and children whose innocence protects them, and in the middle of all this, the fortune tellers and storytellers and magicians (who are sometimes one and the same) take up their posts.  Yet, in all this richness and confusion, it is clear that this is not reality, but a facsimile, a model of reality touched with the magic of the storyteller’s art, particularly in those places where the more fantastic elements of belief come into play with both Christian and secular miracles, ghosts, curses, places and people who disappear in thin air, reappear, then fade out again, doctors and professors of strange sciences whose cures and discoveries cannot be re-documented.  Yet the story also touches reality in those places where Eva Luna appears as a character, or one of her friends or acquaintances from the novel Eva Luna is woven into one of the dependent stories as a character, sometimes in words very similar to that of their original appearance in the first book.  Thus, the figure of the storyteller sits before us always, and in fact, the first section in the book is one spoken by the lover Rolf Carlé, describing the storyteller as she appears before him just as he asks her for stories.

The book circles back to the reference to Scheherazade in the end with a sad story about a young girl who comes to an unenviable end which Rolf is unable to prevent, and Eva Luna is stricken too, because of her empathy with Rolf.  Rolf is a famous camera man, who has tried to mobilize help for the young girl, but to no avail, and Eva suffers because Rolf’s emotional paralysis is one which has been lying dormant for years under a layer of accomplishment and happiness with her, until the young girl cannot be saved.  I don’t think it ruins the experience of reading the book at all to quote from the last page of the final story “And of Clay Are We Created,” in which the storyteller must cede ground to reality because at a certain point fiction is stricken mute.  She addresses Rolf directly, just as originally in the book he addressed her in his description of her:  “You are back with me, but you are not the same man.  I often accompany you to the station and we watch the videos of [the young girl] again; you study them intently, looking for something you could have done to save her, something you did not think of in time.  Or maybe you study them to see yourself as if in a mirror, naked.  Your cameras lie forgotten in a closet; you do not write or sing; you sit long hours before the window, staring at the mountains.  Beside you, I wait for you to complete the voyage into yourself, for the old wounds to heal.  I know that when you return from your nightmares, we shall again walk hand in hand, as before.”  On the final page just after this, we read:  “And at this moment in her story, Scheherazade saw the first light of dawn, and discreetly fell silent.”  Thus, there are some wounds that storytelling cannot heal, wounds that require private introspection, a kind of private storytelling akin to self-therapy rather than the more public storytelling of having even one other person present.  But paradoxically, by stating this in the story framework, Allende has given the cue and initiated the moment of healing by indicating that it starts with a voyage into self, a fearless exploration of nightmare terrain.  Finally, by reverting back to Scheherazade and the “first light of dawn,” the hope of awaking from nightmare terrain of whatever negative stories we all have privately or share with each other is extended to each of us as we read, and we too see the “first light of dawn” and the preservation of who and what we are for yet another day.  By concurring in this adventure of the storyteller’s art, we thus defeat mortality a little longer, reinforce the humanly shared morality of helping one’s neighbor to live and have joy, and by chalking this reading up to experience, leave our own mark on the world of the imagination, having found yet another thing we can share with others to make all our lives better and richer.

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Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

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