Gregory's father is an itinerant preacher and a painter, wildly eclectic in both disciplines, but charismatic and eloquent. Beneath a suspended orange, which represents the soul, he stands entwined by a boa constrictor and preaches the Infinite Plan, God's creation, in which nothing is random and salvation follows on observance of clear-cut rules. Urinating on a hilltop at sunset, the infant Gregory exults in his sense of being part of this world of wonders, of unending possibility. Fifty years later he will recognise that there is no Infinite Plan, 'just the strife of living'.
When Gregory's father dies, the family settles in the barrio, the Hispanic immigrant area of Los Angeles. His mother, who has withdrawn from the world in horror at the bombing of Hiroshima, ignores her children, concerned only with opera, Bahaism and the weekly visits of her husband's ghost. Gregory and sister learn to survive, outsiders in a Latin world, but sustained by the friendships of the Mexican Morales family and the wondrous Olga, midwife, fortune-teller and magician, a woman of 'visceral talent'.
At high school Gregory becomes a scholar, reading everything from Aristotle to Zoroaster under the tutelage of Cyrus, the communist lift-man. Gregory is obsessed by women and money. Olga relieves his hormonal torment and the rest of his time is taken up with earning. His confidence increases to the point where he can confront the worst bully of the barrio in a duel; protected by the Virgin of Guadeloup, he wins:'pieces of Martinez were scattered across the landscape'. Thus ends the first of the book's four parts.
Gregory leaves the barrio, goes to university in Berkeley, then law school in San Francisco. Longing for the warmth of a family life of his own, he marries. However, his dream of a rose garden enclosing a pie-baking wife is at sad variance with the times. Promiscuity and transcendent experience have become life's ordinants. Sick at heart, betrayed by his wife, he joins the army and goes to Vietnam. The third section of the book deals with the hallucinatory horrors of that war and its aftermath, the fourth with Gregory's subsequent career as a lawyer, his disillusionment with his target of wealth and fame, and his redemption through psychotherapy. At the end he is returning to the barrio with a new woman and the suggestion that at last he will have a little happiness.
This is so nearly a great novel. The characters, maimed and heroic, all displaced, all searching for the indefinable, both convince and fascinate. The sense of place is stunning. Lyrical and passionate, Allende describes with equal vividness women preparing a feast in a slum back yard, a small town breathless in the heat of summer, or a battalion slaughtered by night on a mountainside. This last scene, dominated by Gregory's screaming figure, is the dreadful polar twin of his moment of childhood happiness on the sunset hill. Allende's writing is supremely elegant, dense yet economical, and her effortless disposition of vast hosts of troubled humanity against their random historical circumstances, her courtesy and tenderness towards them, reminded me of the Pasternak of Dr Zhivago.
But alas and alack, during the final section of the book, in the 'Bacchanal of conspicuous consumption and noisy patriotism' which disguises the humiliation of the defeat of Vietnam, it is as if Allende loses heart. The writing becomes two- dimensional, characters are allotted success and happy endings in a manner which seems quite arbitrary, and Gregory wrecks his credibility by making remarks like 'they say that the first five or six years are very important in our formation', or, worse, 'I needed to revise that aspect of my personality.' He concludes that the most important thing is to find one's own soul, be reconciled with oneself, be self-aware. This drab solipsism, as much as greed, was one of the unpleasant characteristics of the Eighties, and it is sad indeed to see it spoil a work of such potential splendour.
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