By YVONNE FRENCH
Chilean novelist Isabel Allende spoke before an overflow crowd in the Mumford Room on Sept. 15, the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month. The crowd was so large it spilled over into the foyer, where two TV monitors were set up. Many ended up sitting on the floor. Long lines of people waited for Ms. Allende to sign books before and after the talk, which she gave in English.
Ms. Allende talked about how she came to write Paula (HarperCollins, 1995), her only nonfiction work. It is about her daughter, who died in 1992 of porphyria, a disease whose symptoms include extreme sensitivity to light. King George III also was a victim of this largely hereditary disease.
The earthy humor and self-deprecating machisma of the author kept the talk from becoming maudlin. Between tales of administering to her ailing daughter, she described work on her next book of nonfiction, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. It is a book about sex and food, mostly aphrodisiac.
"This is a masculine phenomenon. In every culture since the beginning of time, man has looked for aphrodisiacs. What does that tell you? The item is usually limp!"
In the one-hour talk, she stayed true to its title, "Stories and Dreams." "Stories are like dreams. They follow their own rules. Stories are to humankind what dreams are to individuals. If we are awakened, we suffer."
She discussed how she uses dreams in writing. She keeps a notebook on the night table next to her bed and writes down what happens in her dreams.
"In my dreams, if a child cries with the voice of an old man, I check the book I am writing, maybe there is a character with the wrong voice. If the child is in a maze, I check the plot. Maybe it is too confusing."
Ms. Allende also said many of her dreams have been prophetic. "Before Paula became sick in Madrid in 1991, and went into a coma, I had an unusual dream about her." In the book, she writes directly to Paula:
"You were standing in the center of a hollow tower, something like a grain silo filled with hundreds of fluttering doves. Memé's [Paula's grandmother's] voice was saying, 'Paula is dead.' You began to rise off the ground. I ran to catch you by the belt of your coat but you pulled me with you, and we floated like feathers, circling upward. ... I was determined to hold you back, nothing would take you from me. Overhead was a small opening through which I could see a blue sky with one perfect white cloud, like a Magritte painting, and then I understood, horrified, that you would be able to pass through but the aperture was too narrow for me."
Returning to the subject of writing, she said she got her experience with "magical realism" from her grandmother, who claimed to be clairvoyant and telekinetic. Ms. Allende said she witnessed her grandmother using mental power to move a sugar bowl across a table. The author took the opportunity to give a good-natured jibe to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who popularized for contemporary American readers a surrealistic style that combines with an aura of reality. The magical-realist classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude is the best novel written in Latin America in 100 years, maybe ever. ... After seven books, I think I write better."
Ms. Allende brought some people in the audience to tears when she movingly discussed her daughter's long decline. Paula had been recently married when the disease manifested itself. Honeymooning in Scotland, she awoke one night to write a letter, which she put in an envelope marked "to be opened when I die." When it became clear that Paula would never emerge from her coma, Ms. Allende took the sealed envelope from a box of her grandmother's relics and read "I would not want to remain trapped in my body. ... Please do not be sad. I am closer to you than I was before. We spirits can only help those who are happy."
After Paula's death, Ms. Allende would walk to her office in Sausalito, Calif., light a candle in front of Paula's photograph, turn on the computer and cry. Some days she did not write at all, other days the sentences flowed. Eventually, she had 400 pages, which became the book she named after her daughter. "I have had awesome feedback. In Paula, readers seem to find a space where they can confront their own fears and hopes."
Ms. Allende is the niece of Socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende, who committed suicide after a military coup in 1973. She is the author of The House of Spirits (Knopf, 1985), Of Love and Shadows (Knopf, 1987), Eva Luna (Knopf, 1988), The Stories of Eva Luna (Bantam, 1992), The Infinite Plan (HarperCollins, 1993) and Paula. The talk was sponsored by the Hispanic Division, the Poetry and Literature Center and the Embassy of Chile.