by Isabel Allende
Flamingo, pounds 16.99, 399pp
JOAQUIN MURIETA is one of those characters that would surely have been invented had he never existed. A Mexican (or Chilean) bandit (or freedom fighter) of the 19th century, he roamed the Californian valleys and staged Robin Hood-style robberies. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, he was believed to be so ubiquitous that in 1853 the state of California authorised the capture of five men whose first name was Joaquin. The head of one was pickled and displayed in San Francisco, along with the amputated hand of his fellow, "Three-fingered Jack".
In one of the many lumps of history bobbing about in the rich broth of Isabel Allende's prose, we learn that "To the Yanquis, Murieta represented what was most despicable about the greasers"; it was believed that the Mexicans helped him "because he stole from the whites to help the people of his race." Allende, too, has set about restoring a right by writing of her adoptive homeland. After all, 300 of the past 450 years of Californian history belong to a period when Mexico controlled the provinces from Florida to Colorado.
Murieta (here called Andieta) is one of this novel's colourful cast of might-have-beens, written into a tradition where history and legend are indivisible. Miss Rose is the Anglo-Chilean spinster sister of Jeremy and John Sommers, whose seafaring waywardness has produced a child, Eliza. While Miss Rose raises Eliza with a Victorian correctness that includes a metal pole down her back to improve posture, Mama Fresia plays the all- purpose Indian wise woman (with a touch of Juliet's nurse).
Eliza betrays signs of love-sickness akin to those of her adoptive mother, who fell for an evangelist of a very different stripe. What Andieta and the rakish Jacob Todd, a "charismatic red-head" with a beautiful preacher's voice, have in common is a capacity to evoke and evade the passions of the women. That, and a linking of their fates only revealed in the closing chapters of this improbable romp. Politics and religion, in a racy context that roves from Chile to the US via the high seas, ought to make for a powerful plot. All the ingredients are there: the suffocating upper classes who still strangulate much of Chilean society (look at Pinochet's henchmen); the exploited Mexicans who build the Golden Gate but are excluded from "the Golden Age of new prosperity", and the Chinese traders who ship in children to sell in brothels.
Enter Tao Chi'en, whose name already suggests his pacific way. Tao is a physician intended as a counterpart to Andieta: the contemplative to the active, platonic to erotic. He is also an aspect of what Allende does in all her books: use personality as a substitute for narrative. The plot itself hinges on magical seances, clairvoyant encounters and the footnotes of national archives - a bit like House of the Spirits, Allende's first and most successful book.
She got away with the unlikeliness of her motley assembly there by basing it directly on her family in Chile. It's a paradox of her fantastical novels that she does best when writing about what she knows.
Allende's last book was Aphrodite, a hotchpotch of erotic recipes, garnished with unintentional bathos. It's an unfortunate trait here fostered by her translator, Margaret Sayers Peden. Between Allende's feast of overheated tidbits, and Sayers Peden's famine of clear syntax and believable adjectives, the reader is stranded with a severe loss of appetite.Reuse content