Isabel Allende is one of those authors who I’ve been aware of for years, but have never managed to find time to actually pick up any of her books. Now that I’m trying to read both books by women and books by authors from more diverse backgrounds, this seemed the perfect opportunity. I’ll admit I chose this specific book based on the fact it had the lowest list price on the Kindle store, but I definitely made a good choice.
As I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, I’m a huge historical fiction fan. Inés of My Soul tells the story of Inés de Suárez, the only conquistadora during the Spanish colonisation of the Americas who, along with her lover Pedro de Valdivia, founded the Kingdom of Chile. In the author’s note, Allende states that “[t]his novel is a work of intuition, but any similarity to events and persons relating to the conquest of Chile is not coincidental” . On the face of it, this seems like an easy way of getting past the issues that plagued the narrator of HhHH, however from reading Inés’ wikipedia article afterwards, the book doesn’t seem to deviate from history all that much.
Having been abandoned by her husband in favour of the new world, Inés managed to get a special dispensation from the church to follow him to Peru, one of the few women allowed to make the journey. As you would expect, her gender defines her place in the new colony, as not only is she dependent on the support of her lover, but she also lives her daily life in a very different sphere from the rest of the Spaniards in the expedition. Most of the women who travelled south from Perú were natives brought along by the men as “companions”. The way that Inés interacts with these women is interesting, as even though there is an element of civilised vs savage in the relationships, unlike her male counterparts, she isn’t inherently distrustful or abusive. She happily works alongside them, listens and learns from them, and trusts them with her secrets and with responsibilities. This is a contrast to the way she talks of the Yanaconas (native men hired by the Spaniards as auxilliaries) or the black soldiers, both of whom are described effectively as if they were children (they’re always panicking from night terrors or are the first to flee the enemy), or worse they are entirely disposable in her narrative. Now it is important to remember that however close to history the plot sticks, it is still a work of fiction, and that Allende may well be projecting more “modern” ideals back onto Inés through her narration. However, the fact she does so in a way that doesn’t seem overtly anachronistic is, I think, a testament to Allende’s writing, and indeed to the translation, as the book was originally written in Spanish.
The conquests of Pizarro and Cortés in Perú and Mexico are well established in the public consciousness, but I had no idea of the history behind Chile’s foundation. With this in mind, even if the actually writing had terrible, I would probably have taken something out of it. Happily that is not the case. As part of Harper Collins’ P.S. concept (discussion topics, interviews and the like included at the end of the book) there’s a quote from Allende that says that it is “very easy for [her] to write about Chile”. Indeed, it seems fitting that someone like Isabel Allende should write this story. By virtue of her family name she is inextricably linked to the history of Chile, however after fleeing the Pinochet regime in the 70’s after the assassination of her cousin Salvador, she also has a first hand perspective of what it is to emigrate to another country. Indeed, in her own words “To survive one needs to draw strength from within and make double the effort of the locals to get half the results”. This sentence could easily have been said by Inés, and I think it is this parallel between author and protagonist that makes this book so impressive.