Isabel Allende

Winner of the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award

Isabel Allende is a Chilean-American novelist whose novels weave myth and realism. She received the H.C. Andersen Literature Award in 2012.

About Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende Llona is a Chilean-American novelist whose novels weave myth and realism. They are based partly on her own experiences and the experiences of women who have influenced her life. She received the H.C. Andersen Literature Award in 2012.

Isabel Allende (born in 1942) is a Chilean-American writer, whose writing sometimes contains aspects of the “magic realist” tradition. Allende, the daughter of a Chilean career diplomat, was born in Lima, Peru.

Her father was the first cousin of Salvador Allende, President of Chile from 1970 to 1973, making the former head of state Isabel’s first cousin once removed. As a result, she was heavily influenced by the political tragedies that took place under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

In 1945, her father abandoned the family, and Allende, her mother, and her siblings began a period of wandering from Bolivia to Beirut. Finally, her mother returned with her three children to her parents’ house in Chile. Her grandmother’s interest in fortune telling, astrology, and the stories she told impressed Isabel deeply.

While in Caracas In 1981, Allende learned that her 99-year-old grandfather was near death. She wrote him a farewell letter, hoping to “keep him alive, at least in spirit.” The letter grew into a book, The House of the Spirits (1982). The work was meant to exorcise the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Since then, she has written more than 20 works of fiction, non-fiction, essays, memoirs, and children’s literature, which have been translated into 35 languages and have sold nearly 70 million copies.

Her fiction is “realistic literature,” rooted in her remarkable upbringing and the mystical people and events that fueled her imagination. Her writing is informed equally by her feminist convictions, her commitment to social justice, and the harsh political realities that shaped her destiny.

She portrays fantastical events side by side with realistic historical and contemporary circumstances, and in doing so, reveals the magical in this unmagical world.

In addition to her work as a writer, Allende devotes much of her time to supporting human rights. Following the death of her daughter Paula in 1992, she established a charitable foundation in her honor dedicated to the protection and empowerment of women and girls worldwide. Allende has received dozens of international tributes and awards over the past 30 years.

Isabel Allende's acceptance letter

There are two types of tale: those that come knocking on one’s forehead, and those one makes up oneself. That is what the old man says who knows all about stories and tales. And he says so in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale ‘Hyldemoer’, The Elder-Tree Mother. The old man has been summoned to tell tales to a young boy who is lying in bed with a summer cold, feeling bored. ‘Will there be a knock soon?’ the little boy asks the storyteller, and fortunately there will – the tale knocks when the elderflower scent of a teapot winds round the two of them. One is reminded of Andersen’s tales, the real tales that knock, when one enters the wonderful world of Isabel Allende. Here stories and tales germinate out of colours, names, exchanges of words, things, places and creatures. As a reader, one can feel how they have knocked on their author’s forehead, and one is sucked into the wild energy with which they have been released and passed on to readers all over the world. A witch is what Isabel Allende calls herself in her autobiography ‘Mi país inventado’, My Invented Country, 2003. Yes, she actually says that, although she also mentions that the emancipation of women has made her realise that she is not the only witch in the world! As a narrator, however, she is also related to mermaids, Indian princesses, geographers, explorers and modern men and women. It is precisely this mixture of various ages, cultures, forms of knowledge and myths which gives Isabel Allende’s story-telling its wing-span and height. As a reader, one almost reels at the marvellous vision, wealth of details and good stories – but one lands gently, as when one has had a pleasant dream. One lands full of reflection and deep gratitude at having experienced these worlds together with the writer and at having shared in her insight. Isabel Allende’s chief work is the novel ‘La Casa de los Espiritus’, The House of the Spirits, 1982, a novel that traces the lives of certain Chilean families, from the beginning of the 20th century up to the time around the military coup in 1973. At the centre of the story we meet the conservative landowner Esteban Trueba – one could say that, but it is not a correct characterisation even so. For it is the women he loves who are the real main characters of the tale. They are the ones who shed light and life on Esteban and make him important and exciting. The beautiful Rosa and the psychic Clara, who can make tables dance and predict events, are the suns around which the other characters orbit. What is so marvellous about The House of the Spirits is that it is able to combine fairytale and social history – even political history about the dramatic events in Chile in the 1970s. Violence and suppression are the opponents of the tale, assuming increasingly cruel forms, but the tale proves the stronger, because it belongs to the spirits and to eternity. When Esteban’s grandchild, Alba, is left alone and manhandled in the old house after having escaped from the regime’s henchmen, it becomes clear to her that the writings of her grandmother, Clara, will enable her to survive her own horror. She realises that she must respond to all the injustices that have been committed not by revenge but by life and stories.

Some tales have the capacity to call forth others. They remind the reader of the atmospheres of other stories. The House of the Spirits can possibly remind the reader of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Andersen creates a special blue colour and mood at the beginning of his fairytale when he writes the following: ‘Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.’ It is this Andersen ‘blue’ that the reader finds once more in the description of Clara’s room with the blue sea of silk and the ship of the bed. Clara and Rosa are related to Andersen’s little mermaid. Mermaid-green hair adorns Rosa, about whom it says that in death she is transformed into the mermaid she has always been. The supreme narrative mastery that Allende possesses evokes other much-loved tales and stories in the reader. One recalls, reflects and rejoices.

Isabel Allende’s great merit as a writer is that she is able to turn us into readers. She invites us to enter the story with a mysterious prelude, a clear-cut plot and a sense-borne narrative, the images of which it is impossible to forget. She generates a joy in reading and a lust for reading that one does not lose again. She has given us a great many novels and stories. The books about the journalist and writer Eva Luna from 1988 and 1990 tell us about modern South American history, challenging us with both realism and fantasy, and Isabel Allende displays new facets of her narrative talent in the children’s book about the Spanish-Indian boy Zorro, and in the gripping series of books for young people about sixteen-year-old Alexander Cold and thirteen-year-old Nadia Santos, who get involved in really great adventures with Alexander’s grandmother, the journalist Kate Cold. ‘How many times haven’t I told you that you mustn’t believe everything your hear? Find your own truth,’ the Lama says to the prince – but also to the reader – in the story ‘El Reino del dragon de oro’, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, 2003. The tales are there for each of us to find our personal truth. Isabel Allende also shares wisdom and humour with Hans Christian Andersen, and is in every way a worthy recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award. In her amusing and challenging autobiography ‘Mi país inventado’, My Invented Country, she says about her books: ‘Every book is a message in a bottle that one throws into the ocean in the hope that it will reach the other side.’ May the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award 2012 bear witness to the fact that the literary bottle messages have reached readers all over the world!