Readers should not be misled by the title, referring to a journey through Chile. Certainly, this book is about Chile. And the first ten pages lay out the physical landscape, quoting the country's most famous poet Pablo Neruda, and referring the reader again to him for a soulful appreciation of the landscape:"To see my country with the heart, one must read Pablo Neruda...who in his verses immortalized the imposing landscapes, the aromas and dawns, the tenacious rain and dignified poverty, the stoicism and solitude.."
But this book is not a travelogue. Nor is it a deep historical or sociological analysis of Chile. Rather, it is an intensely personal and auto biographical view of the country through the eyes of one of its best known novelists, and partly from the vantage point of San Francisco, her adopted hometown in an adopted land.
The theme of displacement and identity recurs throughout the book, and very powerfully in the symoblism of the two September 11 dates which deeply marked the writer's life - the one in 1973 when her uncle Salvador Allende was overthrown and died in a violent CIA-backed military coup, and the other memorable date in 2001. Allende writes: "By a blood-chilling coincidence - histroic karma - the commandeered airplanes truck their U.S. targets on a Tuesday, Spetember 11, exactly the same day of the week and month - and at almost the same time in the morning - of the 1973 military coup in Chile, a terrorist act orchestrated by the CIA against a democracy."
If you have read House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, or other novels by Isabel Allende, this book will bring out many of these fictitious characters and place names in the context of a very real history and social setting.
Throughout the book, Allende seeks to present her view of what is the essence of Chile, often by contrasting it to other countries and tradtions. "African blood was never incorporated into Chilean stock which would have given us rhythm and beauty; neither was there, as there was in Argentina, significant Italian immigration, which would have made us extroverted, vain, and happy; there weren't enough Asians, as there were in Peru, to compensate for our solemnity, and spice up our cuisine."
Even without being a work of fiction, this book depicts Chilean history and society with literary license, and personal anecdotes. This might be frustrating for a reader looking for clear-cut and consistent factual presentation. At times, she even appears self-contradictory in presenting different anecdotes on the same subject. Writing of Chilean food habits, she says: "Most of the executives I know suffer from diabetes because they hold their business meetings at breakfast, lunch, and dinner." Later, she writes: "I never heard the word cholesterol mentioned. My parents, who are over eighty, consume ninety eggs, a quart of cream, a pound of butter, and four pounds of cheese per week. They're healthy and lively as little kids."
She similarly deals with subjects such as divorce, the role of women, and religion with anecdotes, although she occasionally sprinkles the discussion with oddly precise statistics: "Sociologists say that forty per cent of Chileans suffer from depression" or "71 percent of the population has been demanding [divorce] for a long time."
It is not easy to know whether to take some of her statements at face value, as for example in her discussion of religion. On one hand, she considers Chile "the most Catholic country in the world - more Catholic than Ireland, and certainly much more so than the Vatican." But she explains that this religious belief "has a lot more to do with fetishism and superstition than with mystic restiveness or theological enlightenment." Her discussion of beliefs in Chile regarding paranormal phenomena may give us some insight into the elements of mysticism and magical realism we find in her novels.
Readers who seek her views on Chilean politics may be surprised to find only one paragraph devoted to General Pinochet, of whom she is obviously and, unsurprisngly, contemptuous: "Admired by some, despised by others, feared by all, he was possibly the man in our history who has held the greatest power in his hands for the longest period of time."
I found one of the most engaging parts of this book the description of the author's literary career and the forces which shaped it. It is only at the very end of the book that the unknowing reader will find out that this book helped the author deal with a tremendous personal tragedy - the loss of her daughter.
If you enjoy Allende's novels or even Latin American fiction, more generally, this book provides some interesting insights from a deeply engaged writer.