The interview: Isabel Allende

Graeme Green speaks to the Chilean author about her inspiration and the power of fiction as a useful history teacher.

Isabel Allende stands with her arms folded in front of shelves of books and photos
Isabel Allende. Photo by Lori Barra

Born in Peru and raised in Chile, 79-year-old Isabel Allende has authored 26 books, including The House of the Spirits, A Long Petal of the Sea and Paula (a memoir about the death of her daughter). She fled Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile to live in exile in Venezuela, later moving to the United States. She’s the god-daughter and neice of Salvador Allende, Chile’s first democratically elected socialist president, who was killed in the 11 September 1973 military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet. Her books have been translated into more than 42 languages and sold over 75 million copies worldwide. Allende lives in California.

Your new novel, Violeta, which tells the life story of Violeta des Valles, starts in the time of Spanish flu and ends in the Covid-19 era. Why start and end the book with pandemics?

My intention was to use the pandemics as bookends to the century that Violeta lives through, which is the century my mother lived [through]. The inspiration for the book was my mother’s death two years ago. We corresponded daily for half a century: I have 24,000 letters in boxes. Her life is all there. My mother was a wonderful person but she didn’t have an extraordinary life. Violeta lives in a way I wish my mother could have done. My mother was a much more dependent person: she depended first on her father, then her husband, then her second husband. She had a very good head for business. She was very creative, she was a good artist. But she didn’t do any of that.

There seem to be quite a few of your own life experiences in this novel too.

Isn’t that the case with all authors, that we draw from experience and memory? I lived in the military coup in Chile, I lived in exile… I lived many things that are in the book.

Violeta, the main character, writes that ‘there is always a war somewhere’. Is that how you feel?

Yes. I’ll be 80 in a few months. I was born in the middle of the Second World War. In my lifetime, there has been war permanently.

Is fiction a good way for people to learn about history?

Few people are willing to read history and to research, and what’s in the news is fast-paced and rather superficial. People read the news and the next day they’ve forgotten it. A book stays. You get the reader by the neck with a good story and in the process, you deliver information.

When Violeta leaves her country and goes into exile, she describes it as ‘a period of discovery’. Is that how exile felt for you when you fled Chile?

Absolutely. It changed my life. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if it hadn’t been for my experience of exile. I had planned a life. All that disappeared and I needed to invent a new life. It was hard. But I look back and it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

In your foreword to Eduardo Galleano’s book Open Veins of Latin America, you wrote: ‘Many years ago, when I was young and still believed that the world could be shaped according to our best intentions and hopes…’. Is that because you’ve seen powerful political and economic forces, like the dictatorships in Latin America, stopping the changes people want from happening?

Yes. But I’ve seen in my lifetime that the curve of our journey as humanity goes upwards overall. When we had the military coup, Chile was the longest and most solid democracy in South America and, in 24 hours, it was lost. The dictatorship lasted 17 years. There was a deep abyss for a while but there was a point where democracy returned.

I’m optimistic about the future. But not like I was when I was young. Then I thought, for example, feminism is such a rational and fair struggle that in 10 years we’ll have replaced the patriarchy. But look where we are.

How much progress has been made in women’s rights? And how much further is there to go?

We still have a lot of work to be done. When there’s an economic crisis, a pandemic, occupation, war or poverty, women lose their rights. Look at what happened in Afghanistan with the Taliban. All the rights women had acquired over 20 years were lost in 24 hours.

Looking at where Chile is today, the death of your uncle, Salvador Allende, seems to have permanently knocked Chile off the path it was on. Do you agree?

Chile changed completely. In 1970, when Allende was elected president, Chile was a wonderful country but there was a lot of poverty and stuff that wasn’t working. The socialist government tried to help people in ways that had never been thought of before in Chile. The military coup eliminated all that and turned the country to the extreme right. The economic ideas of the Chicago Boys [a group of economists who promoted free market principles in Latin America] were possible because of the extreme repression, which allowed the government to create a country that was apparently economically sound, but the wealth was very badly distributed.

How do you think the country would have looked today if the coup hadn’t happened?

We don’t know. The excuse for the coup, propped up by the CIA, was the Cold War, removing communists and eliminating all leftist movements – as happened in many other countries in Latin America. Allende’s idea of socialism was like the one we’ve had for decades in Scandinavian countries and many countries in Europe. It was never going to be a Communist dictatorship, as the rightwing propaganda said. The United States sabotaged everything. They would never have allowed a leftist government in South America. The idea was to ‘expand democracy’ but with that excuse, the US destroyed democratically elected governments and replaced them with horrible dictatorships. Look at what happened in Central America, places like El Salvador and Guatemala – genocides.

You’ve written 26 books. Does the fear of the blank page, when you start a new book, ever go away?

No. But I have learned one thing: that if I show up every day, I will be able to write it. I’ve never left anything undone. I’ve never started a book and thought ‘No’. I always finish.

Violeta by Isabel Allende is out now and published by Bloomsbury.