Bestselling author and feminist: Isabel Allende turns 80

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Latin America's most famous author has published a new book just in time for her milestone birthday. A whole century is reflected in the life of Isabel Allende's heroine Violeta.

Isabel Allende 2019 in Madrid

She has written 26 books, they have been translated into 42 languages ​​and she has sold around 75 million. She has received 60 awards in 15 countries for her work and her achievements, and two international film productions are based on her novels.

These are the hard facts that Isabel Allende lists on her homepage under the heading “Biography”. Probably just to get that sorted out. Because she actually finds it strange to look back on her own life like this: “It's just a list of dates, events and achievements. In reality, the important things in my life take place in the hidden chambers of my heart and have no place in one Biography.”

Isabel Allende at her home in Caracas in 1985

It is not the books that are her greatest successes, but the love that connects her with some people and the moments when she tried to help others. For example when she campaigned for the politically persecuted during the military dictatorship under Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet or as a feminist who still fights for women's rights in her “Isabel Allende Foundation”.

The novel “Violeta” is a tribute to Isabel Allende's mother

In this respect, her latest novel “Violeta” is also a plea for those who have to assert themselves in the macho world. It is the biography of her mother Panchita, with whom Isabel Allende was closely connected until her death in 2018. And it's not a biography either, but wishful thinking on the part of the daughter: Because while the heroine of the novel fought for financial independence and freedom thanks to her business acumen, Allende's mother was dependent on her two husbands. The fictional Violeta is strong and combative on the one hand, but doesn't always behave in an emancipated manner, especially when it comes to love.

The century-spanning novel is amazingly timely. It begins in Violeta's year of birth, 1920, when the Spanish flu is rampant worldwide, and ends in 2020 with the Corona pandemic.

“The Spirit House” – Allende's first work

Allende's debut work “Das Geisterhaus”, which made her world famous, also has biographical features. The novel is about the life of an upper-class family that suffers from the violent patriarch Esteban Trueba. When a military coup ousted the socialist president towards the end, Trueba had high hopes for the new government. He is disappointed because the new rulers who bring terror and persecution to the country do not spare his family either.

Former Chilean President Salvador Allende

When Isabel Allende wrote the family saga in 1982, she was already in exile in Venezuela. Pinochet's military overthrew their great-uncle, socialist President Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1973. A short time later he committed suicide. From then on, the author, journalist and feminist no longer felt safe in her home country.

Strengthening women's rights

Isabel Allende was born in Lima on August 2, 1942, the eldest daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Because her parents separated, she spent most of her childhood at her grandfather's house. She later lived in Bolivia and Lebanon and then returned to Chile. There she worked as a journalist, got married and had two children – daughter Paula and son Nicolás. In 1994, she dedicated her very personal novel of the same name to her daughter, who died of a metabolic disease at the age of 29.

Isabel Allende campaigned for women's rights early on. In 1968 she founded the only feminist magazine in Chile, “Paula”, in which she also supported her great-uncle Salvador Allende. She also wrote various plays and made a name for herself as a television presenter. Since she no longer felt safe during the military dictatorship under Pinochet, she emigrated to Venezuela with her family.

The work in exile

Meryl Streep (right) in the film adaptation of the bestseller “The Haunted House”

In exile, she began writing an imaginary letter to her late grandfather. The long letter became a manuscript, and the manuscript became the novel  “The haunted house”. The novel was made into a film in 1993, starring Meryl Streep and Winona Ryder, among others. Even in her debut work, Isabel Allende's unusual narrative style, in which fiction and reality are intertwined, attracted attention, the so-called “magic realism”. She connected the cruel reality with a fantasy world full of magic, which was always characterized by hope.

Critics, however, accuse her of having copied the literary prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, who believed in magical realism, the blurring of fiction and reality. Nevertheless, her stories about strong women and long life cycles convinced the jury of the Chilean National Prize for Literature, so that she was honored with the prize in 2010.

“I look at my life with satisfaction”

Isabell Allende presenting her novella “Beyond Winter” in June 2017

Since over Isabel Allende has been living in the USA for 25 years, but Chile is and will remain her home, as she once said in a DW interview: “I still feel like a Chilean. My parents are Chileans, my family is Chilean and I have lived the first years of my life in Chile, important years, years that shape.”

She fell in love again at the age of 75 after divorcing her second husband. Roger Cukras was originally a fan of hers who sent her emails. Today she is married to him in the third marriage. And he's definitely looking forward to her next novel, because Isabel Allende definitely wants to continue writing.

She doesn't quarrel with her age, on the contrary, she considers it “a precious gift”: “When I was young, I often felt desperate,” writes the author on her website. “There was so much suffering in the world and so little I could have done to alleviate it. But now I look back on my life and am content because there have only been a few days that I haven't tried to make a difference.” 

This is an updated version of a 2017 birthday portrait.

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