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MUSINGS IN EXILE

My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile By Isabel Allende, HarperCollins, $ 23.95

“I was born in the years of the smoke and carnage of the Second World War”, writes Isabel Allende in her compelling memoir of Chile, the land where she was raised, and which she left after the 1973 coup that saw the killing of her uncle, Salvador Allende. “No one expected to live very long.” And therefore, she says, people in Santiago had little time for self-contemplation. It was carpe diem, at least as much as they could, between trying to survive. After all, they had the old saying: “Shrimp that dozes is shrimp on the platter.”

In a more serious tone, she wonders which, really, is her own country — for she feels out of place everywhere. Nostalgia, and the sense of not belonging, she elaborates, are what impel her writing forward all the time. Allende, writing her own sense of loss, of missing the seasons and smoke of her homeland, tells us that it is not an attraction to the United States of America that keeps her in California, but the man she loves. When she first met him, he had already been through two divorces and a string of affairs, and was waiting for the tall blonde of his dreams. “I was a tall blonde when I was young”, she tells him.

It is this sense of fun that makes her story such an evocative delight. First she tells us the fundamental things about Chile. The “dramatic topography”, the rugged landscape that ends at the South Pole, “where fables are born and men die”. And then, the Chilean people. A belief that they are at the centre of the world — and an unshakeable curiosity in the private lives of fellow Chileans.

Allende evokes the Santiago summers of her childhood with lyrical humour: the children who brought blackberries and bags of quince to make preserves, the gypsy women who read palms. Her numerous relatives, too, were colourful. Tio Jaime, who earned money to study medicine by playing the accordion in brothels. Her father, who, almost mythically, went out one morning to buy cigarettes and never returned. Her mother who, of all her eligible suitors, chose the ugliest — a “green frog” — and, by kissing him, turned him into a handsome prince. Childhood was “not happy, but interesting”. Isabel was liberally provided with books by a bachelor cousin, an energetic book thief who believed that all books belonged to all humankind.

Ah, but Chile. “Who are we, we Chileans'”, muses Allende. “We Chileans are enchanted by states of emergency”, she laughs, but not without a touch of irony. Chilean women are “abettors of machismo”. Through poverty and disasters, the people worship “saints of all stripes — we are the most Catholic country in the world.” And even today, she tells us, when she is in difficulty, “the first thing that occurs to me is to pray, just in case”. The only good thing about this oppressive religiousness and all-powerful church, she muses, is that the church is always on the side of the poor. In her family, she tells us, almost all the men studied law, though almost no one passed. “The Chilean loves laws, the more complicated the better.” They love politics, and yet, they are poetic souls. They adore Neruda and know his poetry by heart. They spend their long evenings in sad songs. They are affectionate, and kiss a lot. And yet they don’t think much of working at being happy: “In my family, happiness was irrelevant.”

Allende’s style in this book is musical, now dwelling on a theme, now dropping it lightly to return to it again. “My past is composed of passions, surprises, successes and losses: it isn’t easy to relate it in two or three sentences.”It is with mixed feelings that she returns to invent her troubled land. A lyrical, affecting and thought-provoking work that tells us as much about our century of immigrants and exiles, as about this “slender homeland”.

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