Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Reading Notes: Paula

(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is Translation - a book originally written in a language other than your native tongue.)

I like Latin American fiction a lot. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera is one of my very favourite books - it'd make my lifetime top 50, certainly - and I've read a lot of works by Carlos Fuentes, Juan Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa, and Laura Esquivel's wonderful Like Water for Chocolate has a special and enduring place in my heart.

One of the features of much Latin American writing that most appeals to me is its reliance on magic realism - that difficult-to-define aesthetic that blends magical elements into otherwise reality-based plots and situations. Unlike fantasy - another genre I enjoy - the magical elements of this kind of fiction are understated, subtle, and ambiguous. They colour the story rather than infuse it. I enjoy the almost dreamlike quality this lends to this kind of fiction, and the lushness of the prose that is born from refusing to be bound by what's really possible in the storytelling.

All of this is a long preamble to talking about a beautiful book, a tragic book, a life-affirming book: Isabel Allende's Paula.

"Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost."

This book is, effectively, one long love letter - and journey into the interior - written by Allende to her daughter, Paula, who lies dying in a porphyria-induced coma. The book is about more than Paula - and more than Isabel, for that matter; it explores family and history and the making of the self, violence and love and politics, the real and the unreal, magic and mundane, in equal measure. In many ways, it's a magic realist autobiography of Isabel herself, and her life, which has been eventful enough for 20 books, makes this an engrossing journey in and of itself.

But while the narrative flits and dives and weaves through many stories, it is threaded together with Allende's overpowering love for, and grief for, her dying daughter. It is to Paula that she is writing these things; to her, unseeing and (maybe) unknowing as she is, that she tells her tales, as if the potency of her words, the truth of them, will somehow draw her daughter back from the place she's going, and back into life.

Much of the book is affecting - as you'd expect, given the subject matter - but the final few pages, when Paula at last slips from life, is almost unbearably moving. The vision of Paula's family clustered around her, easing her passing, resonated so strongly with me, as did Allende's own realisation that the year of Paula's coma has been a training ground, an awful process that has somehow prepared her for this final step:
"In this year of torment, I had gradually been letting go: first I said goodbye to Paula's intelligence, then to her vitality and her company, now, finally, I had to part with her body. I had lost everything, and my daughter was leaving me, but the one essential thing remained: love. In the end, all I have left is the love I give her." (p 327)

All in all, this is a wonderful, wonderful book. Sad, of course; I never re-read it completely free of tears. Melancholy, raw, difficult in places, yes. It's also beautiful, engaging, lyrical, peppered with odd moments of lightness and humour, and life- and love-affirming.

At the end, Allende can write:
"Godspeed, Paula, woman.
Welcome, Paula, spirit."

It breaks my heart and lifts me, all at the same time, to read those words.

(NB: I am not 100% sure that Paula was written exclusively in Spanish first; Isabel Allende is Chilean and a US citizen, and writes in both English and Spanish, and both language editions came out simultaneously in 1995. However, I feel it still qualifies as the text is infused with Allende's Spanish language sensibility and feeling; the prose reads as un-English in some ways, more lyrical and softer and more lush than what I am used to from writers whose first language is English).

1 comment:

  1. I've only read a couple of Allende's works, but I adored both. I will look this one up once I have cleared a few more off the pile i currently have sitting around the place. Although, not sure I need to go to a teary place right now *eek*

    I thought I was anti-magic realism as I hated Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, but I haver read other works in that genre and found that I really enjoy it. Haruki Murakami is my favourite, but I really enjoyed the Portugese novel The Double (I cannot remember the author right now, and have sadly lost my copy :( ).

    Oh, yes, Allende's national identity was a hard one for me to reconcile too. I think I lean more on the Chilean side, and i am happy to see her as such. Unlike Amy Tan who I will not see as Chinese no matter how you put it! ;P (See my post, when I finish it, for explanation)