Berkeley Talks: Chilean novelist Isabel Allende on war, loss and healing

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actors on stage—one wearing a dark veil in mourning

The House of the Spirits, a play adapted by Caridad Svich from Isabel Allende’s 1982 novel, was presented by the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies in spring 2019. (Photo by Natalia Perez)

“People say, ‘Oh no, the institutions in the United States can support anything. We are safe.’ No, beware. Nothing is safe. Nothing is forever. Everything can change. We have to be aware of that and be therefore very alert. I wouldn’t say vigilant because the word vigilant has a double meaning, but alert.”

That’s Chilean author Isabel Allende in conversation with playwright Caridad Svich, who won a 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her adaptation of Allende’s 1982 novel, The House of the Spirits. The play, presented by UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies in spring 2019, tells the story of a family that spans three generations and a century of violent change in an unnamed Latin American country.

The conversation, part of Berkeley Arts and Design’s public lecture series, was held on April 25, 2019, at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). It was moderated by Michael Moran, who directed the Berkeley production.

During the talk, Allende discussed how she grew up in Chile, where she and her family lived through the 1973 military coup, then fled to Venezuela as refugees.

“In 24 hours, everything disappeared,” said Allende. “No freedom of the press, the congress was eliminated, the judiciary system was suppressed. There were no political parties. You couldn’t even gather more than six people in a room without permission from the police. All this, which was unthinkable, happened in Chile in 24 hours. In 24 hours, we had concentration camps and torture centers. People disappeared. There was no habeas corpus. They could arrest you for an indefinite time and you could disappear and there was no explanation for the fact that your body was never found. To this day, they have not been found.”

While living in Venezuela, Allende felt sick with nostalgia for her country and the family she left behind. And she was also in pain knowing that people — her friends and family — were dying in Chile. Writing, she says, helped her process her grief and begin to heal.

“There was this feeling of being wounded, of having lost a lot,” she said. “Writing The House of the Spirits was like an attempt to recover what I had lost, to bring it back to me. The idea of putting it in paper and writing the story is a way, of making it permanent, of saving it from oblivion. In that sense, it was very healing.”

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Chilean author Isabel Allende (right) in conversation with playwright Caridad Svich (Berkeley Arts and Design video)