Books: 20th century nipples

A tale from Chile is marred by its translation. By Elspeth Barker; Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende Flamingo pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
"Many years later, standing before a human head preserved in a jar of gin, Eliza would remember that first meeting with Joaquin Andieta and again experience the same unbearable anguish." This splendid sentence, with its almost indiscernible edge of wit, its bizarre content, its tenderness and sonorous dignity is quintessential Allende, Allende speaking in her distinctively South American voice. Indeed these particular words, their structure and their rhythm, curiously echo the opening lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is an act of homage or playfulness which must be deliberate, but "a few years later, standing before ..." is lightweight by comparison. And so alas, is too much of this novel, Allende's first since The Infinite Plan, which was weakened and brought down by the same fatal flaw: Americanisation.

The opening third of the book goes wonderfully. Baby Eliza is found on a doorstep in 19th- century Valparaiso. She is naked in a battered wooden crate, or perhaps she is swaddled in lace and mink. Memory and imagination and myth weave their spells. She is taken in and nurtured by a wealthy English couple, brother and sister. At the age of 16 she falls in love with a penniless revolutionary and follows him to San Francisco at the height of the gold rush. The rest of the book describes her search for her lover. As gold fever wanes into disillusion, so Eliza's quest loses its impetus. Is she in love with love or its ghostly memory? Is the journey more important than its ending? "You don't go anywhere in life, Eliza, you just keep walking," says her Chinese mentor Tao Chien.

Allende creates world upon world in dazzling descriptive prose. Above the sea rear the balconies of the tall, draughty house in Valparaiso, backing on to its jumbled extensions "springing up like organic tumours". Its ponderous furniture, its gleaming crystal, elaborate salons and sooty kitchens are pungent with Miss Rose's vanilla perfume, with leavening dough and "the smell of caramel beaten to frost cakes; the fragrance of mounds of chocolate melting in milk". Miss Rose, Eliza's adoptive mother, bathes in infusions of mint and rosemary. Maids dress them in "stockings and boots, underdrawers to the knees, batiste camisoles, contrivances with padding over the hips to accentuate a slim waist, then three starched petticoats and finally a dress which covered the body completely, leaving only head and hands exposed." It's different outside. Floods rip coffins and bones from the hillside graveyard; here the air reeks with "the sickening wind-borne stench of misfortune", flagellants are flaying half-naked penitents with steel-tipped thongs, and the church bells toll incessantly. A freezing gale blasts in off the sea.

With equal exactitude Allende evokes the landscapes of California and their degradation in the name of human greed, the crazed turbulence of the milling adventurers, the argonauts, the dream of El Dorado and its bitter aftermath. And beside and beyond all this, the steady expansion of settlements, the gradual imposition of law and order on this new land of opportunity which still seems to offer hope of a better life to these "masses of beings escaping poverty or violence, hoping to find work and erase the past".

But it is here that things fall apart. Eliza in Valparaiso was a promising heroine, vying in interest with her adoptive mother Rose. Somehow on her epic voyage to San Francisco she loses her individuality and becomes a cipher. For self-preservation she disguises herself as a boy and rides endlessly about on her quest. She meets all manner of fellow seekers, has adventures, does good to others and is generally accepted at face value. She has ceased to be credible to the reader. And now worse happens. The writing slackens, becomes repetitive, torpid, even folksy. "Her fears had dissipated in the awesome grandeur of this landscape ... Here men are proud, with no one above them but the sky overhead; they bow to no one because they are inventing equality. And I want to be one of them ..."

Characters address each other in the language of the late 20th century rather than the mid 19th, and these characters are stereotypes - the gentle giant, the unstintingly generous and hospitable peasant woman, the tough guy who can cry, the tarts with hearts of gold (loads of these). Even the translation wavers: "The blocks of iceberg melted slowly during the sailing but there was enough left that the captain intended to sell it at a usurer's price." There are inconsistencies and daft statements: "Eliza, on the other hand, like a bird, had the instinct to nest." We also learn that Eliza has nipples "like garbanzos". Oh. The narrative voice has lost its austere native beauty and joined the speech patterns of the contemporary West Coast.

Towards the end of the book there is a brief episode back in Valparaiso. Miss Rose has become more vivid and compelling than Eliza and people speak in language appropriate to their time (although someone does exclaim "Egad!")

Allende's story is inherently fascinating, but this return to the tall house by the sea points up how much has been lost in intensity and in artistry by so lengthy a relocation to California and by the sad, wilful distortion of a distinguished and profoundly Latin voice.