Storyteller heroine of 1988 Allende novel returns to narrate enchanting tales

March 03, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

THE STORIES OF EVA LUNA.

Isabel Allende; translated

by Margaret Sayers Peden.

Atheneum.

331 pages. $18.95.

In her 1988 novel "Eva Luna," Chilean writer Isabel Allendinvented a modern Scheherazade in the character of a poor, young orphan growing up in a country like Venezuela. Eva is a born storyteller, whose gift for words is her greatest attraction, enabling her not only to survive but to flourish. She is a resourceful heroine, with a keen sense of justice and sympathy for others, whose life is a series of adventures, difficult trials, amazing coincidences and fortunate rescues. In the novel, author and character merge in the voice of the narrator who relates Eva's life, intertwining her story with that of her lover, Austrian-born photojournalist Rolf Carle.

"The Stories of Eva Luna" begins where the novel left off, with the concord of the two lovers. A pretext unites these 23 stories: In the prologue, Rolf asks Eva to delight him with a story after they make love. Unlike Scheherazade, Eva tells her stories not under the threat of death, but rather with the assurance of Rolf's devotion. As befits a lover's entertainment, many of these stories are about the mysterious, complex passions between men and women.

Their range is vast. Their settings span the South American continent, from the bleak sheepherding plains of Tierra del Fuego in "Toad's Mouth" to the tropical forests of Amazonia in "Phantom Place" and "Walimai." Several take place in Agua Santa, a provincial backwater whose inhabitants will be familiar to readers of "Eva Luna." The characters include aristocrats, members of the middle class, laborers, adventurers, European and Arab immigrants, mestizos and Indians. Many of the stories illuminate the complicated and paradoxical relationships between victims and oppressors.

The term "magical realism" has been coined to describe the lush and lyrical fictions of Latin American writers such as Ms. Allende and, most notably, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This term perhaps is misleading, for what characterizes the fiction of these writers is not so much an improbable sense of reality as a heightened and deepened sense of reality, where all events have a meaning determined by destiny. Fate is a mythical presence in these stories, shaping the lives of the characters in ways they can scarcely foresee, but cannot resist. Ms. Allende's feeling for plot is like a musician's ear for perfect pitch. These stories unfold in intricate and majestic designs, according to an inner logic. Their rich, evocative prose has been beautifully rendered from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, also the translator of "Eva Luna" and Ms. Allende's previous novel, "Of Love and Shadows."

In "Walimai," an Indian captured by white men and pressed into labor as a rubber collector discovers that an Indian girl from his mother's tribe has been enslaved as a prostitute by these men. He saves her from a life worse than death, and sets her soul free according to the rituals of his people. "Man does not control life, not even his own, and so I had to fulfill my obligation," says Walimai. In so doing, he achieves his own freedom.

In the brief, heart-rending story, "Our Secret," two Chilean exiles meet in a Caribbean country. They learn that they share not only "old nostalgias, of how life had been when both were growing up, in the same city, in the same barrio." They are haunted by shameful nightmares of having been broken under torture to betray their friends, and their recognition frees them at last to trust each other.

Ms. Allende possesses the ability to penetrate the hearts of Eva's characters in a few brief sentences. Of the well-born priest in "A Discreet Miracle" who has devoted his life to helping the poor, she writes: "Padre Miguel was one of those beings set apart by a terrible passion for justice. Throughout a long life he had accumulated so much vicarious suffering that he was incapable of thinking on his own, a quality which when added to the certainty he was acting in the name of God made him a man to be reckoned with."

In Eva's culminating story, "And of Clay Are We Created," she offers her lover the gift of her understanding. By telling Rolf his own story of how, when on assignment covering a volcanic eruption, he stepped out of his professional role to try to save the life of a doomed girl drowning in a mud pit, she reveals her awareness of how the experience has fundamentally changed him. "He understood then that all his exploits as a reporter, the feats that had won him such recognition and fame, were merely an attempt to keep his most ancient fears at bay, a stratagem for taking refuge behind a lens to test whether reality was more tolerable from that perspective. . . . But he had come face to face with the moment of truth; he could not continue to escape his past."

These are profound, transcendent stories, which hold the mirror up to nature and in their strangeness reveal us to ourselves. Like Rolf Carle, Ms. Allende's readers will be enchanted.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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