Sunday, April 21, 2013

The House of the Spirits

I don't often re-read books. I always tell myself I know the ending, I've read it before, so how could I enjoy it again?

I'm especially wary of books I read in high school.

The House of the Spirits, by Isabelle Allende was one of the few books assigned in English that I remember truly loving. Now that I'm older, when I reflected on why I really couldn't remember. Was the book that good, or did I love it because there was a controversy attached to it (a number of parents thought it was inappropriate for high school students)? Did I love it because I read it during an important, emotional time of my life, or was there something deeper and more meaningful to my remembered emotion?

A few weeks ago I stumbled across it in my library and, just for grins, I picked it up and started reading. It really is that good. Allende creates a cast of characters that run the gamut from outrageous and hilarious to dreadful and menacing. I'm sure we discussed it in high school, but it wasn't until this time around that I understood this is the story of Esteban Trueba, not the story of Clara and her daughter, Blanca, and grand daughter, Alba. They are integral parts of the story, and are really more dynamic than the angry, self-absorbed Esteban, but it is more the story of his life than it is the story of any of theirs, even as Alba and Clara narrate.

In high school the main objection voiced by parents concerned about THotS was the amount of sex. I was too young then to notice it (plus, I was a reasonably sheltered girl) so the sex kinda went over my head. I caught it this time. I'm still pretty sure the sex that was there wasn't unnecessary. It certainly wasn't overly titillating.

Along side the sex (and the issue I wonder might have actually been at the heart of the parental misgivings) is a debate over economics and fairness in the economic system. For most of the book the country is run by capitalists, meaning those who are wealthy are also the ones in power. Esteban Trueba, as a rich, hard-working man, is one of the people in power. I wish I still had the book to quote directly, but he elucidates a viewpoint I think most rich people in this country espouse: they're rich because they earned it and if they were to hand over their wealth to those who work for them the workers would simply squander it. It's certainly a sentiment I've heard enough from conservatives in this country.

Esteban is the embodiment of the whole ideal--he pulls himself up by his bootstraps (fortunately firmly anchored to family land), turning a neglected hacienda into the prosperous foundation for further business. It's true that he worked hard, and it's true that the hacienda was effectively fallow when there was no patron. The workers on the land only lived at subsistence level without Esteban at the helm. On the other hand, once he took over he did exploit them, paying them in company scrip, enriching himself and not really rewarding the people who did the bulk of the hard physical labor, forcing them to adopt his views on vitamins, education, and nutrition. And then there was all the raping of the daughters, the illegitimate children he refused to claim.

Sure, Esteban is a self-made man, but he's also a duche.

Pretty much everyone around him is more liberal than him, and more willing to believe that poor people don't deserve to be downtrodden and constantly in want. There's a constant pull, then, between Esteban and the more liberal people around him. To his credit, Esteban indulges his liberal relations and because of that his fortune becomes a force for good in the lives of many people.

What I really loved about this book is that there aren't right or wrong answers to the economic questions, or really any of the questions posed in the book, with the exception of military intervention into the political arena. This isn't a book where all the bad guys a communist or fascist, or capitalist. There are enough positive and negative aspects to each character to make them whole, and a whole person is hard to see as entirely bad. The arguments each makes, the viewpoints each holds are similarly complicated, similarly whole, and thus, it's impossible to dismiss any of them out of hand. They're all right in some ways and wrong in others.

Something I definitely want to work into my own writing.

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