Violeta by Isabel Allende, Ballantine Books, 2022

In Isabel Allende’s last book, ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ (reviewed in an earlier blog), she favored a style of writing that used a great deal of first person narrative instead of dialogue.  In her latest book, ‘Violeta’ she goes even further in this direction.  The book is written from the point of view of the main character, Violeta, in the form of a journal or letter to her grandson Camilo.  Violeta, nearing one hundred years of age, recounts her own life experiences in an attempt to provide Camilo with context about the mother he never knew and the country he wants to reform.

The tragedy of South American politics is never far from Chilean born Allende’s works.  Like Africa, the countries of South America have never been able to shake off the legacy of brutal European conquests and exploitive colonial rule.  Even when revolutions swept the European overlords away, there remained a rigid economic hierarchy in which a tiny proportion of the population own most of a country’s land, resources and power.  Post-colonial interests are heavily invested in this status quo, making huge profits with help from the oligarchs.   Western economic interests take a dim view of idealistic socialists when they are elected on a platform of land and wealth re-distribution.  America, not alone in the west, has a dismal record of tacitly or overtly supporting coups that bring the oligarchies back into power with their brutal dictatorships, hit lists and death squads.  Perhaps there’s some cynicism at work when America builds a wall to keep out refugees from these places, but that’s a different story.

Allende has seen it all in Chile, one of the many South American countries that have suffered through the atrocities of military coups in the wake of democratically elected socialists.  Her character Violeta comes from one of the oligarch families, impoverished in the great depression when her father’s shady business empire falls apart.  She discovers the harsh realities of living as one of the poor, but has strength of character, luck and a magic touch for business. 

Violetta starts by marrying into a well-to-do rural German immigrant family.  Her husband is a gentle and noble fellow, but without the passion that Violetta craves.  She abandons him and runs off with the athletic and handsome Julian Bravo, an adventurer who embodies the archetype of the South American machismo male.  Violetta’s first husband won’t give her a divorce, which suits Julian quite nicely.  Their relationship is long and stormy.  It doesn’t matter if he cheats on her, squanders her money or beats her senseless – they make up with hot sex and she forgives him everything. 

Much against Julian’s wishes, Violeta gives Julian a son, Juan Martin.  Juan Martin turns out to be a quiet and studious child with a social conscience – everything Julian holds in contempt and despises – he writes off his son as useless.  When his daughter Nieves is born, the pattern is much different.  Nieves is a bold and reckless girl of mercurial passions and the darling of her father.  Unfortunately her path leads to fast living, drug addiction, prostitution and broken relationships, despite her father’s every attempt to rescue her from depravity and death.

Violetta eventually seeks help and is able to distance herself from Julian and then starts to unravel the truth behind his shady business dealings – drug running for Mafioso and supplying the right wing generals in staging their coup. 

Allende’s passion is to tell the story of what happens when democracies are overthrown by dictatorships – the tragedy of Chile; of South America.  She puts Violetta in a place where she can see into both camps.  The machinations of the generals seen through Julian’s business dealings and the brutal realities of the dictatorship through the effects it has on her socialist leaning son, Juan Martin.  He barely manages to escape South America, never to return.  Violetta finds solace in unexpected romances and her ties with Nieves’ son Camilo.

The memoire style of writing seems to work for Allende and the book offers satisfaction to those who admire her writing.

TL:DR – For me, this is a more successful book than ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’, combining an interesting life history and a historical cautionary tale.


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