Authors: Isabel Allende
Notable Book of 1993
“Allende writes with passion and conviction. .Â .Â . Her new novel is ambitious in scope.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Written in the spare and simple, virtually reportorial style favored by classic American writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. .Â .Â . Allende's approach enables her to take a vast amount of America's collective experience and reduce it to human scale via the personal narratives of her characters.
“An ironic and romantic comedy, a compendium of American culture, family life, and war and love between the sexes.”
“Allende is a genius. .Â .Â . [She] has chosen a literary road closer to Theodore Dreiser or James T. Farrell.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Stunning. .Â .Â . [Allende] draws on her keen powers of observation and insight to make this new California milieu vivid. .Â .Â . It's a confident artist who is willing to experiment and change, while maintaining the highest standards. The result is rewarding, for Allende and her readers.”
“A beautifully told tragedy”
“A richly embroidered, ambitious tale .Â .Â . intensely imagined.”
“An artful blend of aching realism and provocative meditation.”
My thanks to life, for all it has given,
for all the laughter and tears I have lived. .Â .Â .
Violeta Parra, Chile
This novel is a work of fiction. The names, characters, and events portrayed are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to real events or actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I am alone, at dawn, on the mountaintop. Below, through the milky mist, I see the bodies of my friends. Some that have rolled down the slopes lie like disjointed red dolls; others are ashen statues surprised by the eternity of death. Stealthy shadows are climbing toward me. Silence. I wait. They approach. I fire against dark silhouettes in black pajamas, faceless ghosts. I feel the recoil of the machine gun; I grip it so tightly my hands burn as incandescent lines of fire cross through the sky, but there is no sound. The attackers have become transparent; they are not stopped by the bullets that pass right through them, they continue their implacable advance. I am surrounded. .Â .Â . Silence. .Â .Â .
My own scream wakes me, and I keep screaming, screaming. .Â .Â .
traveled the roads and byways of the West, unhurriedly and with no set itinerary, changing their route according to the whim of the moment, the premonitory sign of a flock of birds, the lure of an unknown name. The Reeveses interrupted their erratic pilgrimage wherever they were overcome by weariness or wherever they found someone disposed to buy their intangible merchandise. They sold hope. In this way they traveled up and down the desert, they crossed mountains, and one early morning they saw day break over a beach on the Pacific coast. Forty-some years later, during a long confession in which he reviewed his life and drew up an accounting of his errors and achievements, Gregory Reeves told me of his earliest memory: a boy of four, himself, urinating on a hilltop at sunset, the horizon stained red and amber by the last rays of the sun; at his back were the sharp peaks of the hills, and, below, a plain stretched farther than the eye could see. The warm liquid flows like some essence of body and spirit, each drop, as it sinks into the dirt, marking the territory with his signature. He prolongs the pleasure, playing with the stream, tracing a topaz-colored circle on the dust. He feels the perfect peace of the late afternoon; he is moved by the enormity of the world, pervaded with a sense of euphoria because he is part of this unblemished landscape filled with marvels, a boundless geography to be explored. Not far away, his family is waiting. All is well; for the first time he is aware of happiness: it is a moment he will never forget. At other times in his life, when confronted by the world's surprises, Gregory Reeves felt that wonder, that sensation of belonging to a splendid place where everything is possible and where each thing, from the most sublime to the most horrendous, has a reason for being, where nothing happens by chance and nothing is without purposeâa message his father, blazing with messianic fervor as a snake coiled about his feet, used to preach at the top of his lungs. And every time he had felt that glint of understanding, he remembered the sunset on the hill. His childhood had been an overly long period of confusion and darkness, except for those years of traveling with his family. His father, Charles Reeves, guided his small tribe by employing severe but clear-cut rules; all of them worked together, each fulfilling his duties: reward and punishment, cause and effect, a discipline based on a scale of immutable values. The father's eye was upon them like the eye of God. Their travels determined the fate of the Reeveses without altering their stability, because routines and standards were fixed. That was the only time in his life that Gregory had felt secure. The rage began later, after his father was gone and reality began, irreparably, to deteriorate.
The soldier had begun the march in the morning, with his knapsack on his back, but by early afternoon he was already sorry he had not taken the bus. He had set out whistling contentedly, but as the hours passed he felt the strain in his back, and his song became sprinkled with curses. It was his first furlough following a year of service in the Pacific, and he was returning home with the aftereffects of a bout with malaria, a scar on his belly, and as poor as he had always been. He had draped his shirt over a branch to improvise some shade; he was sweating, and his skin gleamed like a dark mirror. He intended to take advantage of every second of his two weeks' liberty and spend the nights playing pool with his friends and dancing with the girls who had answered his letters, then sleep like a log and wake to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and his mother's pancakes, the only appetizing dish from her kitchenâeverything else smelled like burned rubber, but who was going to complain about the culinary abilities of the most beautiful woman for a hundred miles around, a living legend, with the elongated bones of a fine sculpture and the yellow eyes of a leopard. After hours without sign of a soul in this lonely countryside, he heard a motor coughing behind him; in the distance he could just make out the hazy outlines of a truck shuddering like an animated mirage in the reverberating light. He waited for it to come closer, hoping to hitch a ride, but as it approached he changed his mind; he was startled by the eccentric apparition, a pile of tin painted in insolent colors and loaded to overflowing with household goods crowned with a chicken coop, a dog tied with a rope, and, attached to the roof of the cab, a loudspeaker and a sign in large letters, reading
THE INFINITE PLAN
. He stepped back to let it pass, then watched it come to a halt a few meters farther on, where a woman with tomato-red hair leaned from a window and beckoned him to join them. He was hesitant to take this as a blessing; cautiously, he walked toward the truck, calculating that he could not possibly ride in the cab, which already contained three adults and two children, and would require an acrobat's skill to clamber onto the load in the rear. The door opened and the driver jumped out.
“Charles Reeves,” he announced with courtesy, but also with unmistakable authority.
“Benedict, sir .Â .Â . King Benedict,” the young man replied, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“We're a little crowded, as you can see, but if five can fit, so can six.”
The other passengers had also jumped down. The woman with the red curls started off in the direction of some bushes, followed by a little girl of about six, who to save time was pulling down her underpants as she went, while her younger brother, half hidden behind the second woman, stuck out his tongue at the stranger. Charles Reeves lowered a ladder from the side of the truck, scrambled over the bundles with agility, and untied the dog, who leapt fearlessly from the top and began to run around, sniffing at weeds.
“The children like to ride behind, but it's dangerous; they can't stay there alone. Olga and you can go with them. We'll put Oliver up front so he doesn't bother you; he's still a pup, but he's as snappish as an old dog,” and Charles Reeves signaled the soldier to climb aboard.
King Benedict tossed his knapsack atop the mound of goods and utensils and followed it up, then held out his arms to receive the boy, whom Reeves had lifted above his head, a skinny child with prominent ears and an irresistible smile that made his face seem all teeth. When the woman and the girl returned, they, too, climbed on the back; the man and the other woman got into the cab, and the truck started off again.
“My name is Olga, and these two are Judy and Gregory,” said the woman with the impossible hair, settling her skirts as she divided apples and crackers. “Don't sit on that box. The boa's in there, and we don't want to block the air holes,” she added.
Young Gregory had stopped sticking out his tongue as soon as he realized that the traveler was fresh from the war. A reverent expression replaced the impudent faces, and he besieged the passenger with questions about combat airplanes until he fell victim to drowsiness. The soldier then attempted a conversation with the redhead, but she replied with monosyllables, and he didn't want to press her. He began to hum an old song, darting glances from the corner of his eye at the mysterious box until everyone else had fallen asleep on the pile of bundles; then he could observe them at will. The children's hair was so blond it was nearly white, and in profile their pale eyes appeared sightless; in contrast, the woman had the olive complexion of some Mediterranean peoples. The top buttons of her blouse were unfastened; drops of sweat dampened the neckline and then trickled in a slow thread down the crevice between her breasts. She had lifted one arm to cradle her head on a large box, revealing dark hair in her armpit and a wet stain on the cloth. Benedict looked away, fearful of being caught staring and having his curiosity misinterpreted; until now these folks had been friendly, overly friendly, he thought, but you never could be sure with whites. He deduced that the two children belonged to the couple, although, judging from their apparent ages, the Reeveses could as easily be the grandparents. He reinspected the contents of the load and concluded that the strange entourage was not moving, as he had first thought, but lived permanently in this house-on-wheels. He observed that they were carrying one drum containing several gallons of water and another with fuel, and he wondered how they obtained gasoline, which had been rationed for some time now because of the war. Everything was in meticulous order: utensils and tools hung from pegs and hooks; suitcases were contained in precisely dimensioned compartments; nothing was loose, every bundle was marked, and there were several boxes filled with books. Soon the heat and rocking of the journey overcame him, and he fell asleep against the chicken coop. He awakened at midafternoon as he felt the truck come to a stop. The boy's body across his legs weighed almost nothing, but immobility had cramped his muscles, and his throat felt dry. For a few moments he did not know where he was. He pulled his flask of whiskey from his pocket and took a long pull to clear his mind. The woman and the two children were covered with dust, and sweat carved furrows down their cheeks and neck. Charles Reeves had pulled off the road beneath a grove of trees, the only shade in all this desolation. They would camp there to let the motor cool, he explained to the soldier, who by this time was feeling more at ease, and the next day they would take him home. Benedict was beginning to like this strange family. Reeves and Olga lowered a couple of rolls of canvas from the truck and set up two ragged campaign tents, while the other woman, who introduced herself as Nora Reeves, started a meal on a cumbersome kerosene stove; her daughter, Judy, helped her, while the boy, with the dog at his heels, looked for firewood.