How does one begin to speak about, much less teach, The House of the Spirits? It’s a novel full of action, romance, lust, violence, and, of course, ghosts. It’s also a novel completely grounded in the language, culture, and history of a whole other country, one that probably isn’t all that familiar to the average American student. Allende’s complicated novel, complete with intertwining family trees, pushes us to rethink the relationship between “American” and “Latin American.” In a time when the population of Latino-Americans is rising to even greater heights, Allende’s novel might be a lot less “difficult” or “foreign” than we think.
Take the topic of Chile’s sordid political past. Allende’s fictionalization of the events leading up to Chile’s 1973 military coup foregrounds all the things the “average” American hasn’t had to worry about in centuries: juntas, guerilla warfare, revolution. However, the political ties between Chile and the U.S. can cause us to pause and ponder our definitions of democracy.
Consider how the American government actually supported the conservative, military coup of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende. Now a historical fact, America’s tangled alliance with a repressive, political regime can compel us to think about, perhaps even sympathize with, for example, the roots of Miguel’s political discontent. Our shared political histories can also make us more aware of why the U.S. acts the way it does with other countries. Even as Allende shows us the political motivations of Chilean men in power, her novel begs us to reflect on how such motivations may not be isolated to just Chilean men. (There is a reason why she never explicitly names the time or place of her story.)