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A South American landscape of the imagination

My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, Isabel Allende, HarperCollins: 200 pp., $23.95

August 03, 2003|Jorge Edwards | Jorge Edwards is a former Chilean diplomat and the author of several books, including "Persona Non Grata: A Memoir of Disenchantment With the Cuban Revolution." His review was translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden.

One of the things Chileans do most tenaciously is explain Chile. We do it face to face, by correspondence, in the form of a book, in films and over the Internet. We escape from Chile but always return to the point of departure, if only in imagination. I remember voluntary exiles of long ago, expatriates often assimilated into the international world, members of what today would be called the jet set, who would fall into paroxysms of nostalgia. They would get together to reminisce, to talk about the "country of absence," as the poet and Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral called it, to party, laugh and lament.

In my mind's eye I see an elderly Chilean woman married to an authentic French duke and living in a 17th century castle, who in the twilight of her life masqueraded as an Araucanian -- a Mapuche Indian -- and wept from the bottom of her heart for her lost childhood. I travel to Paris from Madrid for a weekend and find the cafes and restaurants of the new exiles, primarily the second generation of those who escaped the military dictatorship. They may have learned many things and forgotten others, but memory of things Chilean is now and always persistent, obstinate. I walk past one of those places, and I hear the cuecas, tonadas and tangos of the old guard. I tell myself that we're hopeless. We aspire constantly to go; we're incapable of living peacefully in our corner of Chile, but when we do leave, we never truly adapt.

Isabel Allende writes that she gained a country after Sept. 11, 2001: That she developed a true solidarity with her adopted country. I do not doubt that sentiment. It is a generous, human, understandable reaction. But Chile, her invented country, is an unresolved space in her sensibility, a permanent internal crisis, a contradiction. This writer is the daughter and stepdaughter of diplomats; she has spent her life packing and unpacking suitcases. That is not a way of life recommended for acquiring what we think of as a secure identity.

But in the pages of "My Invented Country," one sees that finally she has been able to adapt and survive with enviable health, with a blend of solid good sense, ingenuity and imagination. She has, moreover, added a new title to a Chilean genre par excellence. Interpretations of Chile in verse and prose have flourished since the days of the conquest. Allende refers to "La Araucana" by Alonso de Ercilla, a 16th century poet and soldier, but she could also cite the letters of Pedro de Valdivia, the first of the conquistadors, Pedro de Ona's "Arauco Domado" or "Historica Relacion" by the Jesuit Alonso de Ovalle.

In the 1940s, Pablo Neruda set out to write a "Canto general de Chile." Later he broadened his initial project, developed it and ended by publishing it as "Canto General." The tendency to explicate without ever reaching definitive conclusions, to depict the country, has been never-ending. And inevitably it is contradictory and partial because there is no one Chile, and, especially, there is no one way of being Chilean. In Allende's book, country is a history of family and also of literature. Identity is sustained by familiar recollections of childhood and adolescence: scrapbooks, small religious cards, family memoirs. And it is writing that imposes coherence upon those reflections, making the organization of memory possible.

"My Invented Country" is a mixture of questions that remain unanswered -- or half-answered -- and of scattered affirmations. Allende is remembering an earlier time, vanished now except in her consciousness. She says, for example, that women do not have the same opportunities as men in regard to political power. This statement was valid 30 years ago, but now it seems less so. Michelle Bachelet, minister of defense, and Soledad Alvear, minister of foreign relations, are never in less than second or third place in polls for the next presidential election. And even in past generations it was argued, with good evidence, that Chile is the closest thing to a matriarchy. There is a long line of strong women behind or at the side of power, of grand, dominant females.

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