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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.

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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.

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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Must Face Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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