Monday, June 24, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
Getting the narrative voice right is one of the most exacting things a novelist can achieve. A narrator who is too obviously the author’s mouthpiece lacks credibility, but then so does a narrator who sits incongruously with the life he or she is supposed to have led.
Isabel Allende’s latest novel Maya’s Notebook (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean) suffers very badly from an incongruous narrative voice. The novel is very busy with plot - improbably so in places – and quite heavy on social comment. But no matter how interesting much of this may be, Maya’s Notebook flounders with a first-person narrative voice just this side of risible. And, though it may seem blasphemous to say this of the Spanish language’s all-time best-selling novelist, much of what Allende has to say is insufferably pat.
Kindly let me explain by way of plot.
Chief protagonist and narrator is 19-year-old Maya Vidal. She has no mother. Her philandering father was married only long enough for her to be born, before her mother gave her up and took off. So Maya has been brought up by her loving Chilean alternative-lifestyler grandmother Nidia – “Nini” – and her equally loving mixed-race astronomer grandfather “Popo”. Her ineffectual father looks in occasionally.
Nini was a refugee from Pinochet’s Chile and has settled in the United States. So Maya has grown up a Californian, attending Berkeley High. But she has got badly into trouble with the law and with various nasty people. To shield her from harm and perhaps protect her from herself (and post-Pinochet Chile being a democracy once more), her grandmother has arranged for her to go and live on Chiloe Island, one of a group off the southern coast of Chile. Her host there is old Manuel Arias, a former dissident against the Pinochet dictatorship. Maya takes her notebook, in which the story is supposedly being written.
So we have a double-barrelled novel.
Maya gives an account of her life among the variously remote and quaint and healthy Chilean islanders, whose values and customs at first contrast so strongly with her Californese. She also chronicles her relationship with old Manuel. The novel is divided into the four seasons of her sojourn.
But her account alternates with memories of how she got into all her trouble in the first place; and this is where the voice narrating the novel is so completely at odds with the person she is supposed to be. For, without throwing too many “spoilers” at you, I can tell you that Maya got involved heavily in drugs while at high school; fed her habit by being part of a gang that extorted money out of paedophiles; was sent to a rehab facility in remotest Oregon; escaped; was kidnapped and raped by a truck-driver; wound up in Las Vegas where she became a courier for an abusive drug-peddler; got hooked badly on the stuff herself and almost died of it; and finally stumbled on a big-time gangster counterfeiting operation, the gangsters being the main people from whom she is fleeing.
I do not for one moment believe a recovering junkie and traumatised rape victim would speak with the perky, confident, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact voice that Maya uses. This is the novel’s central absurdity. Indeed it nullifies what I assume was intended to be the horrific effect of the novel’s more sordid episodes, because the young woman who suffers all these indignities is – if the tone of her voice is to be trusted – completely unaffected by them.
I am not complaining about an unreliable narrator here. Unreliable narrators are almost standard operational procedure in modern novels. I am complaining about a totally improbable narrator. True, Isabel Allende tells us that Maya comes from a well-read family who dabble in high culture. But this does not cover the yawning gap between Maya’s experience and the voice with which she speaks.
Early on, Allende tries to paper the gap by having Maya say:
“Writing is like riding a bicycle: you don’t forget how, even if you go for years without doing it. I’m trying to go in chronological order, since some sort of order is required and I thought that would make it easy, but I lose my thread, I go off on tangents or I remember something important several pages later and there’s no way to fit it in. My memory goes in circles, spirals and somersaults” (p.4)
But this explains only the novel’s back-and-forth revelation of Maya’s earlier life. It does not explain the voice itself. Indeed, we soon realize that when she chooses, Allende simply has Maya conveying information journalistically, as Allende herself would have done had she been writing in the third-person.
Take the travelogue of the following:
“In Chiloe the salmon-farming industry was the second-largest in the world, after Norway’s, and boosted the region’s economy, but it contaminated the seabed, put the traditional fishermen out of business, and tore families apart. Now the industry is ruined, Manuel explained, because they put too many fish in the cages and gave them so many antibiotics that when they were attacked by a virus, they couldn’t be saved; their immune systems didn’t work anymore. There are twenty thousand unemployed from the salmon farms, most of them women” (p.30).
The sum effect of this disjunction is to turn the novel into something perilously close to “chick-lit”. Maya sees the sordid side of life then (without bearing any scars) is miraculously redeemed by immersion in a purer society than the one she left behind.
Which brings me to the ‘insufferably pat’ side of the novel. Maya’s Notebook far too easily and neatly contrasts rough, sordid USA with redeeming, quaint Chiloe. It is true that Allende has Maya make some wry comments about how tourists are deceived into thinking that in going to Chiloe they are meeting the unsullied, pristine past. Take this amusing account of eco-tourists’ delusions:
“People travel to Chiloe with the idea of going back in time, and they can be disappointed by the cities on Isla Grande, but on our little island they find what they’re looking for. There is no intention to deceive them on our part, of course; nevertheless, on curanto days oxen and sheep appear by chance near the beach, there are more than the usual number of nets and boats drying on the sand, people wear their coarsest hats and ponchos, and nobody would think of using their cell phone in public.”(pp.59-60)
It is true, too, that later in the novel there are some comments on domestic violence on the remote islands, and some ironies about local superstitions. Even so, the arc of the story suggests too easy a curing of the soul by withdrawal from corrupt modernity. That is signalled near midway point with such fol-de-rol as:
“In the academy I was my very own Russian novel; I was bad, impure, and damaging. I disappointed and hurt those who loved me, my life was fucked up. On this island, however, I feel good almost all the time, as if by changing the scenery I’d also changed my skin.” (p.126)
And if that idyll isn’t enough to show you that Allende thinks in terms of some sort of unrealistic magic, then consider Maya’s involvement in a coven of benign white witches, who act out healing rituals. Maya says:
“The ceremony of women in the womb of Pachamama connected me definitively with this fantastic Chiloe and, in some strange way, with my own body. Last year I led an undermined existence, thinking my life was over and my body irredeemably stained. Now I’m whole, and I feel a respect for my body that I never felt before, when I used to spend my time examining myself in the mirror to count up all my defects. I like myself as I am and don’t want to change anything. On this blessed island nothing feeds my bad memories….” (p.184)
Sorry. I believe none of this. It is soft-feminist daydream.
Did I enjoy anything in this book?
I suppose there are some interesting sidelights on Chile.
As is well known, Isabel Allende is related to the socialist President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and died in the coup that brought Pinochet’s dictatorship to power. (She is neither Allende’s daughter nor his niece, as some people seem to believe – she is his second cousin. Her father was the president’s cousin). Of course she looks with horror on the coup that overthrew Allende. In Maya’s Notebook, one strand of plot gradually reveals one character’s experiences during the years of repression.
What I found most interesting, however, was the implicit tone of forgiveness in this novel – the rich landowner who benefitted from Pinochet’s rule is depicted as an essentially decent man, only slowly realizing his errors of judgement. Likewise, while there are some jabs at the church and its teachings, one of the novel’s sympathetic characters is the liberation-theology priest Luciano Lyon and there is clear acknowledgment that the church largely stood against Pinochet. I think Isabel Allende aims for reconciliation rather than bitter memory. And I wonder if her depiction of a sordid, criminal-ridden USA isn’t a way of saying that Chile’s own violent past has to be seen in balance with the evils of other countries.
Having said all that, though, the novel’s improbably neat ending, the unbelievable narrator and the glib schematisation of the story made it difficult for me to accept it as something for grown-ups. Possibly its event-filled plot would go down best with teenage girls, such as the narrator is meant to be.
Odd Final Comment: Having read this novel, I searched the ‘net for reviews thereof. I was interested to find that New Zealander Emily Perkins reviewed it for the Guardian in England, and I felt reassured that she, like me, was troubled by the narrator, although she was a little more polite about it than I have been here. At one stage Perkins remarks: “The effect is a bit like taking a bus tour through the desperate parts of Las Vegas, a guide delivering facts about life on the streets. You see a mugging through the window, but the bus has moved on.” Yes. Quite.