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Isabel Allende: A Profile

TUESDAY 21st October 2003

"Writing comes from a quest for identity. I write because I want to know from where I come." Isabel Allende and her homeland, Chile, each has a history rich in hope, despair, colour and passion. The author's new book, My Invented Country, describes a life in a land as magically real as any of her celebrated tales.

Nomadic childhood

Born in Peru in 1942, young Isabel's nomadic childhood fuelled the flames of her burning imagination. Her father had abandoned the family, her mother had married a travelling diplomat, and Allende was raised in Santiago, mostly by her grandparents. Even then, "a great aunt sprouted the wings of a saint; sugar bowls moved across tables with no human hand". The stuff of her novels would come easily.

Allende's adult life was divided into two very separate parts, before and after 11 September 1973. On that day, Salvador Allende, Isabel's father's cousin and Chile's Marxist leader, was deposed in a coup that saw his own death - called suicide by military forces, murder by others - within government buildings.

This personal and national trauma forced Isabel into subversive resistance to the ensuing Pinochet regime. After two years of helping people around her escape the country, Allende herself took her family to Venezuela, where they spent 13 years.

Magical realism

Previously in Chile, she had been a "bad journalist, too involved" and a television presenter. In exile, she became an author. Allende's first novel, The House of the Spirits was an international bestseller and established her alongside such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, weaving elements of fantasy into everyday life and causing her audience to gasp and wonder about what really is possible.

Since then, her books, including Eva Luna and Daughter of Fortune and always begun on 8 January, have increased her popularity and sealed a very emotional bond with her readership. In particular, Paula, Allende's account of her own daughter's illness and death, shares the depth of her grief, but also the humour and spiritual revelation that can transcend it.

The House of the Spirits came from "the desire to recover everything I had lost in Chile". Now, the author's latest book describes a country where "the truth is emerging and that is the beginning of healing". As for her own identity, Isabel Allende still searches, occasionally finding "particles of truth, small crystals that fit in the palm of one hand and justify my passage through this world".