Why It Took Chile So Long To Honor Isabel Allende

The best-selling novelist is adored by ordinary Chileans (and millions of readers worldwide) but has been shunned by the cultural elite of her native country. She is not the first successful person to get such treatment.

Isabel Allende at a book signing event
Isabel Allende at a book signing event
Claudio Pereda Madrid
SANTIAGO — Chile is a said to be a hospitable place. Indeed as the Chilean refrain goes: "You'll see how much they can love a friend in Chile, if he is foreign."

There is a related tendency here, however, which is to downplay or ignore Chilean personalities of international prominence or repute. They call it el pago de Chile, the "Chilean wage," or "Chile's payback."

One of the country's founders, Bernardo O'Higgins, received this rather mean wage, ending his days in voluntary exile in Peru. More recently, Chilean intellectuals scoffed at the songs and singing style of Violeta Parra, now considered one of the great folk singers of the 20th century. Countless other, lesser personalities of our country have been paid in this coin.

Nobody is a prophet in their own country, they say, but in Chile we seem to take it a little further, forcing some talents to move a continent away to find their bearings in life.

But this year, possibly for the first time, a Chilean university finally bestowed an honorary doctorate to one internationally acclaimed Chilean, the writer Isabel Allende. Typically, domestic recognition has come much later than international renown for the author of The House of the Spirits, Paula and The Infinite Plan.

And though Allende was given the National Literature Prize in 2010, the country's intellectuals seemed to be holding their noses in disdain, perceiving Allende to be more best-selling novelist than a literary figure like Mario Vargas Llosa or the poet Pablo Neruda. They are still holding their noses, as Allende continues to sell her books: some 50 million of them so far.

In November last year, the United States gave Allende one of its highest civilian awards. She had never received anything similar in her country, or its halls of academia, until this month, when the University of Santiago decided to shake off the prejudices of local intellectuals.

Politicians and critics

She is, alongside the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the second Chilean woman to receive such recognition at home, suggesting that our irksome national trait is complemented by another type of prejudice, sexism.

[rebelmouse-image 27088914 alt="""" original_size="1280x960" expand=1]

Allende at a TED 2007 — Photo: advencap

Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru, where her father served as a diplomat. As her family kept changing residences, for a long time the family itself, then writing, were the constant references in Allende's mind.

She travelled in boats, planes and automobiles, "always writing letters in which I compared what I saw with my only and eternal reference, Chile," she wrote in the autobiographical My Invented Country. From her father, Tomás Allende Pesce de Bilbaire, she inherited a most desirable family name, though she notes she had few ties with the political branch of the family, bar with her father's cousin, President Salvador Allende.

"Uncle" Salvador was the only member of the clan to "keep in touch with my mother" when her husband left her, she recalls. He was a good friend of her second husband, Isabel's stepfather, Ramón Huidobro, also a diplomat, which allowed her on many occasions to spend time with Allende during his presidency. While she did not collaborate with his Popular Unity government, she has called its time in power in the early 1970s as "the most interesting years I have lived."

Two years after the military coup on Sept. 11, 1973, she went to live in Venezuela where, after publishing her third book, she abandoned an office job at a school to become a full-time writer. She became successful enough to travel the world promoting her novels. On one of those trips to the United States, she met her current husband, the lawyer William Gordon.

She moved to California, where they still live together and where she runs a foundation that helps women. Allende has had little problem fitting into North American society, in spite of her left-wing views. She notes that she is so firmly attached to her husband that he could have taken her "to Africa or Asia." As she writes in My Invented Country, she does not feel she has to choose: "That is why we have planes." California has become her home and Chile "the territory of my nostalgia."

She also cites in the book the "historical karma" she observes, in terms of proximity of dates and time of the day, in the dates Sep. 11, 2001 in the United States, and Sep. 11, 1973 in Chile. She has qualified the coup as a "terrorist act," orchestrated by the CIA against Allende's elected government. Her life changed entirely after the coup, but after the 9/11 in New York, she writes, she "got a new country."

Allende admit to having a complex relationship with the father who abandoned his family. They never met again she writes, until one day, she was told the police had called and wanted her to come and identify the body of a Tomás Allende who had died on the street. She went running — thinking it could be her brother — but recovered her "calm" when she found it was in fact an elderly gentleman. Her stepfather informed her that it was her father.

She has had a similar, distant relationship with the Chilean cultural establishment, though as she says, ordinary people are visibly fond of her. "You could get into a taxi and the man gives you a kiss and doesn't charge you money ... that is what really matters, the readers," she said after receiving her honorary doctorate recently.

When it comes to the Chilean wage, the country's intellectuals and politicians seem to share a trait: both can wind up dangerously removed from reality and events on the street.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Micronations, A World Tour Of 8 Bizzaro Spots Barely On The Map

A journey through the unlikely phenomenon of microstates, which have been founded on nothing more than a personal whim or nothing less than a diehard political stance.

In the République du Saugeais in eastern France

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

Taiwanese businessman James Chang has been mired in a long battle with municipal authorities over what he sees as "excessive" taxes on the hotel he owns on the eastern coast of Australia.

So when all traditional legal and political means have been exhausted, what do you do?

Keep reading... Show less
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!