Isabel Allende: ‘In Chile, people are longing for a Bukele. I say to them: be careful, that’s how we got Pinochet’

The Chilean novelist spoke with EL PAÍS at her home in San Francisco about her latest book, ‘The Wind Knows My Name,’ which traces an arc from Nazi-controlled Europe to the drama of migrants who arrive in the United States

Isabel Allende
Chilean writer Isabel Allende at her home in San Francisco, United States.Lori Barra
Luis Pablo Beauregard

Isabel Allende’s office is a building filled with books.

For more than two decades, the Chilean author – born 80 years ago in Lima, Peru – has used a beautiful wooden Victorian house in the seaside town of Sausalito, north of San Francisco, as her center of operations. In several closets, there are stacks of the first editions of her novels, published in dozens of languages. The garage is also filled with hundreds of copies of the works that she has published over her 40-year career.

In the middle of this space, under the gable roof, there are dozens of folders covered with plastic. They protect the correspondence that Isabel Allende maintained for decades with her mother, Francisca Llona.

Allende works surrounded by her family. Her son, Nicolás, runs the office. Her daughter-in-law, Lori Barra, leads her foundation. The author writes her books at a rate of one every 18 months, on a huge iMac. Next to the computer is a photo of her daughter, Paula, who died at the age of 28 – the same image that appears on the cover of the first edition of one of her best-selling books, Paula, written in the aftermath of her daughter’s death. Behind the desk, on a white bookcase, are photos of parents, children and grandchildren, interspersed with images of Isabel Allende alongside figures such as Antonio Banderas, Barack Obama and Chilean President Gabriel Boric, among others.

The writer has just published The Wind Knows My Name, a novel that begins in Austria, during Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) in November of 1938. It then examines the massacre of nearly a thousand Salvadoran peasants perpetrated by the military regime in the 1980s, until the story finally reaches the United States under Donald Trump, where the disintegration of families was daily policy along the border. Allende became interested in this topic after her philanthropic organization came across the case of a Central American minor who arrived in the US.

The basement of the Sausalito house is now filled with first editions of the new novel. But Allende plays down the empire of letters that she has at home. “Just one fire and all of this goes away in the blink of an eye. There would be nothing left,” she notes. “This legacy is a very masculine thing,” she adds, with a touch of humor.

Question: How is life as you approach 81?

Answer: Fantastic. It has never been better. There’s a feeling of freedom. I’m done with the children, the grandchildren and my parents, so I don’t have major responsibilities beyond the dogs. And my husband.

Q. And regarding your work? Have you become interested in new topics? Have you abandoned others?

A. The themes and emotions are repeated in different books. I have written historical novels, memoir, nonfiction. There are certain topics that I’m passionate about: love, death, human relationships, loyalty, justice… and power with impunity, which is one of the things that terrifies me the most.

Isabel Allende
The writer Isabel Allende.Lori Barra

Q. You’ve dedicated your latest novel to immigration. It’s quite political at times...

A. It’s impossible to ignore the economic, social and political factors that determine the lives of the protagonists. In this case, without a doubt, the family separation policy was what determined the topic. When I found out about this policy, it hit me very hard, because through my foundation, we saw many such cases. One was of a little blind girl. It affected me terribly. She came [to the United States] with her four-year-old brother. They separated them from their mother, then they separated the children. It took eight months to reunite them. They then appeared before a judge: he deported them all to Mexico and they disappeared. We never heard from her again. [The story] stayed in my head, in my heart.

I began to think about how many times the same thing has happened before over the course of humanity. Of course, I remembered the kindertransport (the rescue of Jewish children from Nazi-controlled Europe to the UK after the Night of Broken Glass, shortly before World War II) and I made an arc between what happened then and now, where there’s also a racist factor.

Q. Why don’t you call Donald Trump by his name in the book?

A. Because the policy began before Trump and continued after him. It became official in the time of Trump. Also, I prefer not to name him because I don’t like him so much...

Q. Does the Germany of 1938 seem comparable to Trump’s America?

A. I don’t compare the Holocaust with any other situation. It was a systematic genocide of an entire people. There’s also another genocide in this book, that of El Mozote, when [El Salvador’s army] entered [the village] and killed everyone as an example, because they were Indigenous. There are so many things… it was easy to relate.

Why the title of the book? Because children are given a number at the [US-Mexico] border, so they don’t get lost in the system. Also, because some are so small that they don’t know their names, or they speak Mayan or another language [other than Spanish]. The Jews were given numbers and, here, the children are also given numbers. There’s an echo in this.

Q. The book was born from the character of Anita.

A. I learned from the trauma of children at the border. One of the things is that they shut up and don’t speak. Others stop eating. Others make up an imaginary friend and only talk to him, or an imaginary animal. Some create an imaginary world where they meet their mom, dad, or grandmother

Q. Why were you interested in the El Mozote massacre?

A. I had to justify why people leave [Central America]. Today, they ask: “how is it possible that [the migrants] come, if they know that [the Border Patrol] can separate them from their children?” They come because they are desperate. No one leaves their country and leaves everything they are familiar with – their language, what they know – to venture elsewhere, unless they are truly desperate. People leave because of extreme violence, or extreme poverty.

Leticia’s character is based on a friend. Every morning, we have a cappuccino and walk the dog. She comes from El Salvador. She lives in a mobile home, 20 minutes from my house.

Q. Speaking of El Salvador, what do you think of President Nayib Bukele?

A. The 1980s were horrendous with the military dictatorship. Then came democracy, where the gangs and drug traffickers took over the country. Now, we have Bukele – an authoritarian government that has about 60,000 people in prison. And there is security. My friend has just returned from El Salvador and she told me that this is the first time that she can take a taxi without thinking that she’s going to be kidnapped. She dares to go out at night for the first time in decades. She says that people are very happy. I’m very afraid that people will exchange security for democracy. That can also happen in Chile at any time.

Q. Why?

A. In Chile, there’s a whole campaign to terrorize people. It’s true that there’s more insecurity than before… but compared to any other country, Chile isn’t particularly insecure. It’s a stable country, [with] many opportunities. There was no problem with immigrants until crime began. [Now], it turns out that several Venezuelans have been caught, so they get blamed. In Chile, people are longing for a Bukele. I say: be careful. That was Pinochet. There was security in those days. But the insecurity and terror came from the state – not from criminals who walk the street.

Q. Do you find that the same racism that we reproach the United States for also exists in Latin American countries?

A. I insist and I say it clearly: in Chile, we are very racist. There, we call it classism… but class is determined by color. The same goes for countries such as Brazil. Are you going to tell me that class isn’t determined by race there? Clearly it is! In Colombia, too. Who runs the country? Those of European descent.

Isabel Allende
The writer Isabel Allende.Lori Barra

Q. Exile has been one of your great literary themes. You write that, with this phenomenon, the past is erased.

A. That happened to me in Venezuela. I believed that I was someone in Chile because I had a television program, because I did theater… I published in magazines with great success and people knew me. [But then] I arrived in Venezuela and all that was erased. It didn’t help me. When I came to the United States, it was different, because I was already a writer and had three books published. I also came here because I fell in love with an American, not [because I was] following the American dream.

Q. You say that, thanks to the pandemic, you no longer feel obliged to go to book fairs or signings.

A. Before, it was so difficult to say no. Now, suddenly, it has been super easy. Firstly, because of age: nobody expects that an 80 or 81-year-old is going to trot around like a circus dog. I also learned that it’s not really necessary. The last book tour I did was in Europe – I went with my daughter-in-law, because we’re always together. We did 23 cities in 30 days by plane. We came back so sick in February of 2020 that I think I brought COVID into this country, truly.

Q. But don’t you lose contact with your readers?

A. If you look at my computer in the morning, you will see hundreds of messages. People – apart from telling me what they think about a book or something I’ve said – consult me as if I were some kind of oracle. A 25-year-old girl writes to me and tells me that she has a boyfriend who hits her. Not always, but it happens. And I tell her to get out of that relationship at once, because these things never end there, they escalate until they kill you. A week later, I receive a letter from the boyfriend! He tells me how dare I give his girlfriend advice, without having listened to the other side of the story. All kinds of things reach me… people who have lost a child, people who are looking for work or asking for money.

Q. Is it weird to become a stranger’s confidant?

A. I write about human relationships and emotions. These things are universal.

People connect with that… not so much with the story. There are books that I think are better, much better than others, where the story seems very powerful to me… and yet, people connect with a minor character. People tell me: “You changed my life.” I tell them that I didn’t change anything. I put into words what was already in you – what was in your mind and in your heart. Also, people who disagree with me don’t read my books. I’m preaching to the choir.

Q. Your son Nicolás says that he always answers the first email that someone sends him.

A. Always the first. Very rarely do I continue a correspondence, because there are thousands of messages. I answer the first email because I visualize it as someone who has reached out a hand.

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