Her diplomat father disappeared when she was three so her abandoned mother took her children to her parents’ house, where Allende grew up among books, fortune-telling, astrology and fables. When her grandmother died her grandfather wore black and painted all the furniture black. He died before Allende’s letter arrived but it would become the magical realist The House of the Spirits, translated into 37 languages.
‘‘I didn’t have to invent much with a family like mine, you don’t need much imagination.’’ Its success was ‘‘a huge surprise, it changed my life completely. Without the success of The House of the Spirits I would not even be a writer today.’’
She has gone on to sell 79 million books, been the recipient of countless awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, the highest honour the United States gives to a civilian. ‘‘The fact that I was a Latina immigrant when there is all this rhetoric against Hispanics in this country, it was important. I felt that I represented immigrant life myself.’’
But reading Neruda is not only because she writes in Spanish and needs to limber up for the switch from the English she lives her life speaking. And not only for the tremendous power and virtuosity of the Nobel laureate’s poetry. ‘‘His poetry has accompanied me in all my nomadic existence.’’ It is also because he had been the first person to suggest that she write fiction.
She had been working for a feminist magazine when he invited her to his house for lunch in 1973. When she thought an interview would begin, he said: ‘‘I would never be interviewed by you, you are the worst journalist in this country. You are never objective, you put yourself in the centre of everything, you make up stories, you lie all the time. Why don’t you switch to literature where all these defects are virtues.’’ Now, she admits, ‘‘I didn’t pay any attention to that. I thought he was demented.’’
This meeting was only a month before her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, the reforming socialist president, was killed in a CIA-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet that was followed by 17 years of a brutal dictatorship. Neruda is said to have been poisoned the same month by the regime while in hospital.
It was no longer safe to be an Allende in Chile. But like so many refugees, she says, she will always be a foreigner, ‘‘everywhere, even in Chile now’’.
Allende writes unflinchingly about the great sweep of history, the wreckage and violence of the 20th century. Her new book, The Long Petal of the Sea, takes the reader through the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, at the end of which half a million refugees walked from Spain into France where they were held in concentration camps and thousands died.
Working as special consul for Spanish emigrants in Paris, Neruda had, without any money from his government, somehow managed to commission an old cargo ship, the S.S. Winnipeg, and transport more than 2000 refugees to Chile. ‘‘My family were one of the many that had refugees come to stay.’’
The story is of one of the Winnipeg’s passengers, Victor Dalmau, a man Allende befriended in Venezuela and who died at 103, six days before she could send him the manuscript.
He was a 23-year-old medical student from a socialist family when he joined the Republican Army. For three years he endured the privations of war, but in 1939 as Franco’s troops advanced, a panicked civilian population began an exodus to France. Victor’s brother had been killed in action, leaving a pregnant girlfriend, Roser, who had been taken in by his music professor father. Together they walked across the Pyrenees.
To gain her passage on the Winnipeg Victor married Roser, but it would be many years and many ups and downs before they grew to love each other.
‘‘He was a good person,’’ she says, ‘‘with terrible memories. He had seen too much horror. He had very few illusions about the goodness of humankind. He was prone to depression and despair. But he was an amazing man.’’
But despite all the losses of her life, including that of her daughter, who died at 28, Allende is buoyant, kind and sparkly. ‘‘I’m a very happy person. I am full of laughter and joy. I am never depressed, ever. My life is good.’’
All she wants to do is write, even inventing excuses not to go on family holidays. ‘‘I don’t have a glamorous life. I drive a small car, I have a small house, I have a very contained life. I don’t live like a celebrity, I am not a rock star, I am just a writer. Possessions don’t mean anything once you have your basic needs are solved. I really don’t want any clutter.’’
There is an urgency now in her writing as her time gets shorter, although ‘‘I don’t feel any different in my head yet. I feel ageing in other ways but not in my brain.’’ She still has so many stories to tell. ‘‘I try not to hurry but unconsciously in the back of my mind I am going ‘finish this one, come on’. I feel if I don’t have that urgency it will sort of fade.’’
Allende says she is guided in her writing by her dreams, especially when things are not going right.
‘‘I think we all accumulate a lot of information that we are not aware of and that gets stored somewhere in the basement of ourselves, and when we are asleep it comes out, certain images and places. Sometimes they guide me in a certain direction and I am almost never aware there is a problem until I have the dream. It used to be a baby with an old man’s face, which was really disturbing. After 37 years I came to realise the baby was the book. Then I realise there is something wrong with the narrative voice, or the clues and direction.’’
Perhaps the key to Isabel Allende and her seeming agelessness is the passion that drives her. ‘‘Passion is not always sexual, my dear. Passion can be applied to many things.’’
But after the disintegration of her second, 37-year marriage to American lawyer William Gordon, and just as she had got used to coming home to an empty house with no lights on, a man heard her on the radio and wrote to her.
‘‘A lawyer, a widower in New York contacted me and started to write to me every morning and every evening for five months. He was very persistent. When we finally met I confronted him, and said ‘what are your intentions, because I don’t have any time to waste’. The third time we met he said his intentions were to marry me. He sold his house, gave away everything it contained and moved to California with two bikes and some clothes, which I promptly discarded because they were dated. When he arrived he said ‘well I hope this works because if it doesn’t I will be homeless.’ It was a big risk.’’
Reader, she married him at the age of 75.
The Long Petal of the Sea is published on January 21 by Bloomsbury at $34.99.