Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began, Isabel Allende suffered one of the greatest losses of her life: The death of her mother.
On Tuesday, the Chilean author published “Violeta”, a novel that begins and ends with an epidemic and that covers the last 100 years of history through the eyes of a grandmother inspired by her mom, Panchita, one of the women who marked her the most.
Violeta, a strong woman who manages to overcome innumerable obstacles, gradually reveals details of her family and love life to her grandson Camilo, whom she has raised since the day he was born.
Set mainly in the Chilean Patagonia, with moments in Argentina, Miami and Norway, the novel deals with a wide range of themes, from feminism and verbal abuse, human rights violations and homosexuality, to amorous passions, infidelity and even global warming.
Throughout its almost 400 pages, it also reviews socialist movements, communism, military dictatorships in the Southern Cone and democracies.
“Violeta, like my mother, was a person, a beautiful woman, that wasn’t very aware of her beauty. She was smart, visionary, talented, with good ideas to make money,” Allende, 79, says in an interview in Spanish from her home in California. “She takes all the chances, whether it’s her love life and the life she wants to lead … The difference is that my mom always depended financially on someone.”
So Violeta, the woman who says to her grandson that her life is worth telling not so much for her virtues as for her sins, is partly Allende’s mother, partly herself and “a lot of imagination.”
The novel, published in the U.S. by Ballantine, a Penguin Random House imprint, begins at the time Panchita was born, during the so-called Spanish flu of 1920, and ends at the time she died, during the coronavirus in 2020. Allende goes through the almost centenarian life of a woman born to a conservative and wealthy Chilean family, a status that changes radically when the Great Depression leaves them homeless.
The original idea for the book arose after the death of Allende’s mother. Knowing that the two had had a very close relationship and got to exchange thousands of daily letters, some of Allende’s friends suggested that she wrote a book about her mother’s life. The novelist was still too emotional to see her mother with the needed distance to write about her.
Months passed and, when she felt stronger, she began “Violeta” inspired by her mother, but with a marked difference: The protagonist is a woman who supports herself and a good part of her family with her businesses.
The character of Camilo, a mischievous and rebellious grandson who Violeta raised and who later became a priest, is inspired by the Chilean Jesuit priest Felipe Berríos del Solar, a social activist critical of the church who fights against inequality and segregation and whom for years has been a “very close friend” of Allende. The author dedicates the book to him, her son Nicolás and her daughter-in-law Lori, her “pillars” at her old age.
And from those conversations between a writer who describes herself as “completely agnostic and feminist” and a progressive priest emerged Camilo, to whom his grandmother Violeta confesses her admiration and tells him that he is the biggest love of her life. In real life, Allende feels the same way for her son Nicolás.
Perhaps that is also why a large part of the anecdotes of the character’s childhood are those of her son, who after having made his first communion in a religious school in Venezuela told Allende that he did not believe in God and did not want to go to church anymore, the author recalls.
Throughout her life, Violeta is marked by death: That of her mother; her daughter Nieves, the mother of Camilo (a young drug addict inspired by Jennifer, one of the daughters of Allende’s ex-husband Willy Gordon); her governess Miss Taylor and a lover, Roy.
The writer herself experienced the death of her 29-year-old daughter Paula in 1992, and that partly helped her with the character.
“I could describe that terrible pain of seeing your daughter die because I had lived it,” says Allende, who in 1994 published the memoir “Paula” in honor of her daughter.
Along with love, violence, women’s strength and the absence of fathers, death is a recurring theme in Allende’s books, from “The House of the Spirits” to “A Long Petal of the Sea.” This time, the message she wanted to convey was what she saw as her mother got older and run out of friends and loved ones.
“Loss is an important thing of old age. There’s so much loss! Everything dies on you,” says the writer as she reflects on the experience of her mother, who passed away at the age of 98. “It was important to make that clear in the book, that the longer you live, the more you lose.”
For Allende, the world’s most widely read living Spanish-language author, the coronavirus pandemic has been an opportunity. Away from her travels and world promotional tours, she has gained the time she needed to turn more stories into books. “Violeta,” Allende’s second book of the pandemic after the non-fiction “The Soul of a Woman,” already has a third ready: A novel about refugees that is in the process of being translated (the author writes fiction in Spanish.)
And as she does every year, on January 8 she began writing a new one.
“I have had time, silence and solitude to write,” says the author, expressing gratitude that no one in her family has fallen ill with COVID-19. “Maybe I always have stories, I don’t need inspiration; what I need is the time to write.”