For the past six decades, Isabel Allende and her mother, Francisca, have written to one another almost every day, first by post and latterly via email. The Chilean author, who is 73, keeps the correspondence in a closet, classified by year. Recently, for the first time, she began archiving the daily letters digitally, delving into her past to discover how much she has changed – and how little.
“I have learned that I fall in love madly and lose all sense of reality, that I’m very impulsive,” she says. “But I don’t think that learning it will prevent it: I’m sure I could still fall in love like a teenager and do the same stupid stuff I did every time, all over again!”
The office from which Allende runs her charitable foundation – and gives interviews – is a smart townhouse a few steps from the waterfront in Sausalito, a tiny northern California town in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. The author, whose force of personality defies her diminutive five-foot stature, sits with her dog, Dulce, curled beside her on the couch.
Framed on one wall is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she was awarded by President Barack Obama last year. On another is a poster for the 1998 movie The Mask of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas. The actor is Allende’s celebrity crush – she once said she dreamed “of devouring him naked and covered in guacamole” – and he has starred in two screen adaptations of her work.
Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, concerns a knotty tangle of characters searching for love in the wreckage of the 20th Century. They are survivors of the Holocaust, of the Japanese-American internment camps, of the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the Aids crisis. At the book’s heart is Alma Belasco, an elderly woman living at a seniors’ community in the San Francisco Bay Area, who slowly reveals the secrets of her tumultuous life to her carers and companions.
Allende has already filled four volumes of memoir with her own remarkable backstory: her itinerant childhood as the step-daughter of a Chilean diplomat; her self-imposed exile in Venezuela after General Pinochet’s 1973 coup against leftist President Salvadore Allende (a cousin to Isabel); becoming a best-selling author; moving to the US to be with her second husband, lawyer Willie Gordon; and the loss of her beloved daughter, Paula, to porphyria at 28.
The Japanese Lover was written before Allende and Gordon separated in April, after 27 years. As she completed the book, she says: “I was ending a marriage that had dragged on too long. It was a time for me to reflect upon love and relationships, romance and passion, ageing, memory, loss. The things that changed the direction of my life have been totally out of my control: my father abandoning me, my mother marrying a diplomat, the military coup, my daughter’s death.”
Since the split, she shares a small house in Marin County with Dulce, an “ordinary mutt” that she picked from a litter being given away in a park three years ago. “No one wanted her because she had a bad eye. But she had surgery and now she looks perfect.”
Letters are a key motif in the book, and they have played an outsized role in Allende’s life – not just those she exchanged with her mother, but also the one she began writing to her dying grandfather on 8 January 1981, which grew into her sprawling debut novel, The House of the Spirits.
At the time, Allende lived in Venezuela with her first husband, Miguel Frias, the father of her two children. “I was thinking that I would be 40 very soon and my life had no meaning, and nothing I thought I would achieve had come to pass,” she recalls. “I started writing a letter to my grandfather, and I kept writing for a year. Finally, I had something on my kitchen counter that looked like a book.”
A magical realist retelling of a half-century of Chilean history, The House of the Spirits became a global bestseller. For reasons of discipline and superstition, Allende still begins her books on 8 January. She has lived in the US since 1988, but continues to write in Spanish. “I can write non-fiction in English, but fiction comes from the womb, not the brain,” she says. “I count in Spanish, cook in Spanish, make love in Spanish. When I talk to the dog, it’s in Spanish.”
The Isabel Allende Foundation, which was set up in 1996 in memory of Paula, offers grants from the writer’s earnings to non-profit-making groups that empower women in Chile and California: a fitting mission for an author whose novels invariably centre on strong women. As Allende began writing The Japanese Lover, the foundation was working with a campaign against human trafficking. This year its largest grant went to Kind (“Kids In Need of Defence”), a charity that provides lawyers for child refugees seeking asylum. The foundation’s work is reflected in Allende’s novel, which has already been translated into several languages.
Readers from different countries have focused on different themes from the book, she says. “In Spain people asked me a lot about euthanasia, in Germany it was about refugees, in the Netherlands about ageing – and in Italy it was all about love.”
This coming January, Allende will begin another book at her new home. Nobody is allowed in her writing room but herself and the dog, she says. “On 7 January, I clean it up and remove anything unrelated to the new book. I only leave my dictionaries, the research for the new book, and the photographs of people I love, which surround me and hold me up.”
Allende’s family is small: her son, Nicolas, lives in the Bay Area and her daughter-in-law, Lori, is the executive director of the foundation. She has three grandchildren, one of whom is a social worker in nearby Berkeley. She travels to Santiago several times a year to see her mother and stepfather, who are now 95 and 100 years old respectively.
In Chile, she is often confused with her second cousin, also called Isabel Allende, the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party and daughter of the former President. The two Isabels were children together in Santiago, before the coup. “She is often asked to sign my books, and she does,” the author says. “I am accused of marching with the communists in Italy, and I say: ‘Okay’. Why explain everything over and over again?”
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende, Scribner, £16.99
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