“One of the strongest impressions I took away from this book was that despite everything there is an optimism about the book’s ending. Throughout the book one has felt strongly the inevitability of events – that the blindness of the right-wing Esteban to the liberalism of his family, which one might argue is inherited from his wife’s parents, will lead to disaster, that Esteban’s casual abuse and rape of peasants will rebound on future generations of the family – and yet at the end Alba breaks the cycle of anger and hatred.” Zoe Brooks in Magical Realism
Books change each time we read them–unless we’re cursed with a photographic memory. Presumably, the words don’t re-arranged themselves on the pages, nor do heretofore unknown pages creep into the book with new characters and subplots from Central Casting.
The world is probably stranger than we know, so it’s safe to assume we change in between the readings. I’m not the same person I was when I first read The House of The Spirits in 1986 when my Bantam mass market paperback edition was published. Years have passed and governments and attitudes have come and gone since then.
Imagine the differences in first-reading perception of this 433-page saga between the rushed college student who has a few weeks to read it for a 400-level college course in order to compare and contrast it with the somewhat similar multi-generational magical realism sagas The Hummingbird’s Daughter and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and his/her twin reading the book on a rainy afternoon in a mountain cabin.
The first will be speed reading, taking notes, and writing in the margins. The second, (depending on whether the rain has interrupted planned outdoor activities or not) may be either relaxed or bored. They won’t see the same book. A third person who is reading the book leisurely in order to savor every line will come away with a very different memory of the story.
Like The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Mexican setting) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (South American setting), The House of Spirits (unspecified Latin American setting, but presumably Chile) includes peasant workers and their beliefs, strong patróns who control the people’s temporal destiny, harsh and potentially unstable governments, and leftist or other guerrillas seeking change.
To my mind, the magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude is more overt and widespread than the magic in the other two books, one with the young girl Teresita (in the very mystical “Hummingbird” based on a real person) who can heal, the other with the family matriarch, Clara, who talks to spirits and moves objects without touching them. Before re-reading The House of the Spirits during the last several days, my memory of the book was that it contained a lot more magic than it does. I remembered its gritty realism, but had blocked out the worst of it.
Had I taken a lie-detector test about the story in Allende’s debut novel several weeks ago, it would probably show (with no hint of fabrication) that my mind had mixed some of the characters and circumstances with those from her other books and that I recalled a much more ethereal tale than physically exists on the pages of my 31-year-old paperback. I don’t read books with the eye of a college English professor who also reads critical reviews and in-depth analyses of the books s/he teaches in class and/or writes papers about. So, if somebody asks me to tell them what the books I’ve read are about, my knowledge of the plots and characters will always be imperfect.
Somehow, books read by many an avid reader often run together over time unless the stories are constantly studied and compared with other books in the same genre. If there’s a blessing in a poor memory, it’s that in re-reading a book, the opportunity for fresh discoveries is all the greater for it. I suspect The House of the Spirits changed me more this time than it did in 1986, for now I am seeing more clearly a story that I had mythologized over the years. I am older, so I see the aging Clara with fresh but older eyes and, having come to terms to some extent with the amount of hatred and evil in the world, I see Alba’s hope at the end of her horrid torture as more authentic than when my anger–as a younger, more volatile man–at her treatment blinded me to her transformation.
Like absent old friends, old books usually aren’t the books we remember exactly. That’s the beauty of meeting up with them again and then going away all the wiser for it.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”
14 thoughts on “Re-reading a classic: ‘The House of the Spirits’”
I have the same experience with “Heart of Darkness.” Forced to read and analyze it in high school I was not impressed. As an adult I have read and reread everything Conrad. There is so much more to get out of a book when you are just reading it for pleasure.
I never liked having to analyze books in courses. And then, too, other teachers made reading assignments as though they were the only ones in the school doing it. Students were often weighted down by an armload of books to be read at the same time. Reading for pleasure was so much better. I also saw more in “Heart of Darkness” when I read it away from the school experience.
I was in the Ranger IOIC at the same time you were aboard. I read my first Conrad for pleasure then. “Nostromo”
Never read that one. I have no idea what I was reading while on the boat.
I spent three years in that ship. We worked around the clock when flight ops were happening on yankee station. Anywhere else we had lots of spare time. I read a lot.
At sea, there could be a lot of free time and the TV programs from the States didn’t fill it all up.
I will be in Chile the first two weeks in April. We’re going down to visit our son and daughter-in-law who are driving around South America in their Sprinter camper van!
This looks like an excellent book to take with me.
Hopefully things are more settled there now than in the book.
If my kids are to believed, it definitely has!
Good. By the way, I liked your blacksmith post.
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When my kids were in high school and college, I reread some of the works I’d first encountered back when I was a student. All felt different to me than they had on the first go-around, for better or worse, and I enjoyed revisiting almost all.
Oh, and I’ve yet to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, though one of my current clients, an avid reader who loves to share what he’s reading and ask about whatever I’m reading, has mentioned it numerous times. Each time he tells me that it’s his favorite book ever and wonders when I might get around to cracking it open. One of these days, I tell him. One of these days.
When it comes to classics, I read many of them for a college or high school course and went through them in a rush. So, I enjoyed them more (usually) the second time through.
If you read 100 years, we’ll all expect a full report.
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