NEW YORK — She talks politics, burning with indignation at the injustices rampant in her native Latin America, and speaks rapturously of the role of literature in abetting revolution.
But it is in discussing the most mundane of events--how she met the San Francisco lawyer she resides with, for example--that journalist-turned-novelist Isabel Allende, exiled niece of the assassinated ex-president of Chile, shines so luminously as a born raconteur.
"I had been lecturing in San Jose (Calif.). I was in a restaurant with some friends; yes, there is a restaurant in San Jose. I looked across at another table, and there he was, eating a plate of pasta. He was alone. I needed a man.
"I walked over to him. What did I say? I said, 'Hello!' And then I said, 'Tell me your life story.' He thought I was crazy."
Allende followed this encounter by sending the lawyer "a contract, listing all my demands, and the few concessions I was willing to make." The lawyer, whom she now lovingly calls "the gringo," protested that such things take time, why the rush. But Allende showed up the next day.
"I have stayed, since December," she added with a smile.
Witty, Irreverent Tales
Allende, whose third novel, "Eva Luna," will appear in this country this fall from Alfred A. Knopf, regaled fellow guests at a dinner here last week after a lecture she gave at the New York Public Library. Marked by wit and irreverence, her stories abounded: a dinner with a Soviet diplomat in Washington that turned into a show-and-tell of the plastic sex devices Allende had purchased for her daughter, a psychology student, on a trip to the Netherlands.
"Harrumph, harrumph, we do not have such things in the Soviet Union," said "his excellency, Mr. Senior Diplomat."
"My dear," Allende remembered the diplomat's wife remarking, "you do not get out much, do you?"
But Allende's stories speak also of private pain and public passion, of politics, lost souls and an urgent need to write "as an act of human solidarity and commitment to the future." In one moment she had table mates laughing uproariously as she first confessed that she disdained all exercise ("anything that makes you sweat except making love"), then placed hands on round, ample hips and ordered "the fattest thing on the menu," profiteroles swimming in a pool of whipped cream and dark chocolate, for dessert. Just as quickly, the table turned sober as Allende told a story about her father.
Like Irene Beltran, the protagonist in Allende's second novel, "Of Love and Shadows" (Knopf, 1987), Allende spent much of her 20s working at a women's magazine in Santiago. And like Irene Beltran, Allende was the daughter of a man who vanished when she was an infant. Raised by her mother and stepfather, a Chilean diplomat and cousin to Salvador Allende, her only contact with her birth father came when, as a teen-ager, she stumbled across a trunk of children's books that
had belonged to him, the sole relics of his existence that her mother had forgotten to throw away.
"It was forbidden," she said in a voice that recalled the mystery. "I had to take the books out one by one and read them in secret."
When she was 26 and working as a writer, editor and advice columnist at the magazine, Allende recalled, "I was called to the morgue to identify a body. It had on it the name of my brother."
The body was unfamiliar to her, but later her stepfather identified the body as that of her natural father.
Readers in North America and elsewhere, many of whom study Allende's books in universities, even writing papers and theses based upon them, have since pointed out to her that "in my books you never find a father, certainly not a kind father, anyway. You find either an authoritarian father, or an absent father."
Meant to Write Letter
It amuses Allende that such readers have also psychoanalyzed the role of Barrabas, the dog in her first novel, "The House of the Spirits." Allende insists she was merely writing about the dog she grew up with when she penned that first phrase, "Barrabas came to us by sea," at home in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1981. For that matter, she told the audience gathered for her talk, "I was not even conscious that I was writing a novel. I thought I was writing a letter to my grandfather." The talk was the first in a Book-of-the-Month-Club-sponsored series on "Paths to Resistance: The Art of the Political Novel."
Allende had felt aimless since she fled to Venezuela from Chile six years earlier, two years after the coup that killed her uncle and felled his government. Unable to secure work as a journalist ("Have you ever tried to work in another country? Try it. You can't."), she had taken a job in school administration. Her children and husband were with her, but she felt cut off from the large extended family that remained in Chile. When she received word that her grandfather was dying, she sat down to write for him the stories he had told her as a child.