Eva Luna is a richly descriptive novel by Chilean writer Isabel Allende about personal and political struggles in 1950-80s Latin America. It follows two characters, one in Austria and one in Chile, whose difficult lives slowly join in the fight against the Chilean dictatorship. Eva Luna, an orphan born into Chilean poverty with ‘a breath of the jungle’, eventually becomes an influential figure through her eloquent storytelling. She copes with South American turmoil by creating a fictional version of life around her, which she writes as scripts for television: ‘I try to open a path through that maze, to put a little order in that chaos, to make life more bearable. When I write, I describe life as I would like it to be.’
The parallel narrative also shows Rolf Carlé, an Austrian boy growing up in post-war Europe with an abusive father. From a young age Rolf, like Eva, is forced to face tragedy that most people only hear about. As a child, for example, he is led to a prison camp where he is forced to dig mass graves with his brother. ‘Their hearts closed like fists,’ describes Allende, whose powerful imagery vividly recreates the sense of pain throughout the novel. When his father is murdered he is sent to live in South America with relatives, and develops a passion for journalism and photography. The stories combine when Rolf and Eva meet on the frontline of the guerrilla movement which resembles the 1974 coup d’état in Chile.
Allende deals with important issues, both universal and intrinsically South American. The majority of her protagonists are strong women, and through them Allende explores the crippling effect of male dominance on women and society. Eva continually surpasses the restrictions set upon her by society and the men she encounters. Thus the novel also explores freedom, or the struggle for it.
Personal and political freedom is sought by most of the characters, who fight against those suppressing power in the lower classes or minority groups.
One such ‘minority’ is the LGBT community which was slowly growing at the time, but whose members were forced to live in brothels and impoverished areas due to their exclusion from society. Famous for her realistic, or ‘unhappy’ endings, Allende does not ‘sugarcoat’ these issues but exposes them.
Ironically, perhaps the only ‘free’ character by the end of the book is Rolf’s sister, ‘freed of the bonds of the flesh’ in death. Yet the book’s narrative is surprisingly liberating, and the accurate observations of life and reality makes it identifiable to most readers.
Allende writes only in Spanish, claiming it as the language of her soul – but her translator of choice Margaret Sayers Peden reproduces the opulent narrative of the original. As a perfect example of writing in the ‘magical realism’ genre, this book is truly Latin American in its fusion of brutal politics and the magic of the jungle and the imagination. My favourite quotation is:
‘At times I felt that the universe fabricated from the power of the imagination had stronger and more lasting contours than the blurred realm of the flesh-and-blood creatures around me.’
Allende begins Eva Luna with an extract from A Thousand and One Tales of the Arabian Nights, a book about a woman, Scheherazade, who tells enthralling stories to delay her execution. Self-identifying as a storyteller more than a writer, Allende truly is a Scheherazade in her ability to make readers reluctant to let go of the richly-layered worlds she weaves together.