PHANTOM PALACE "Phantom Palace" by Isabel Allende Isabel Allende's uncle is Salvador Allende, the president of Chile overthrown
by General Pinochet; the death of her uncle caused her to go into exile. And as your introduction notes, our story shows a strong influence of "Magic Realism" as does the next story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "Big Moma's Funeral." One of this week's Discussion Threads concerns these two stories and what is referred to as "Magical Realism." As you read this particular story, put on your irony glasses, for Allende writes with a bitter slant that becomes evident in the story's opening paragraph: When five centuries earlier the bold renegades from Spain with their bone-weary horses and armor candescent beneath an American sun stepped upon the shores of Quinaroa, Indians had been living and dying in that same place for several thousand years. (795.1) Thus the great irony and hubris in the notion that these men "discovered" this land. And note the attitude of superiority: they rename (recall Neruda's poem) places they cannot pronounce and perform their "arrogant ceremonies." And because this particular and ancient tribe was poor and not given to violence of any kind, they avoid confrontations with the "centaurs" (men on horses) and refuse to alter their ways: They had lived in peace since the dawn of time and were not eager to change their habits because of some crude strangers. (796.1) To avoid the invaders, they hide: Always in hiding, like shadows among the foliage, they survived for centuries, speaking in whispers and mobilizing by night. (796.1) They become, in effect, the lost tribe and part of the mythology of the country. These "invisible beings" come to represent a former independence, a simple beauty the colonial period pushed into the area's collective imagination. Consider, then, what they represent in this story, something lost and that might well be rediscovered, a simple beauty that remains in the landscape if one were only to look closely? As you read, give thought to the matter, for by the end of the story, the woman will merge with myth, as it were, and, ironically enough, discover her true identity by becoming invisible. In effect, throughout the short story, the author depicts reality as something of an illusion. The invisible Indians, however, provide a metaphor for a vibrant and joyful life that hovers as a possibility if, perhaps, people would dare to dream, to listen to the sea, indeed, in Pablo Neruda's poetry. The second paragraph introduces you to the collective "we" of the narration, the voice that fills you in on the details and sets the context. The voice describes the manner in which the colonial powers sucked the country dry:
Towards the end of the Great War there was a widely held notion that ours was a prosperous country, when in truth most of the inhabitants still squashed mud between their toes. (796.2) And while the powerful enjoyed great wealth and ease, the majority suffered and "drowsed in a centuries-long stupor" (796.2). The country obviously resembles Chile, with the references to the "cold blooded Andean" (797.4). But consider ways in which the author and the collective "we" offer, if you will, a parable about colonial power and its post-colonial effects. These effects find embodiment in El Benefactor, President for Life, His Excellency. As you read, try making a list of all the names this dictator assumes. Consider, too, the manner in which El Benefactor builds his kingdom based not on ancestral models but on European images; thus, for example, he builds his summer palace in San Jeronimo "in the style of European royalty" (796.3). And the city itself is like a European construction; indeed, the palace is built by imported Italian craftsmen. Everything is based on the outside model, the center in Europe from which meaning shines: The task of putting together that jigsaw puzzle lasted four years: flora and fauna were transmuted in the process, and the cost was equivalent to that of all the warships in the nation's fleet, but it was paid for punctually with the dark mineral that flowed from the earth. (797.4) And the palace is opened after and at tremendous cost to the entire nation on the "anniversary of the Glorious Ascent to Power" of the Great Benefactor. A train is even refitted to take the special guests to the celebration: The formally attired guests included members of the oldest aristocracy who, although they detested the cold- blooded Andean who had usurped the government, did not dare refuse his invitation. (797.4) In other words, all those who attend are members of the class the Europeans created, this new aristocracy that, in fact, Big Mama represents, with their huge tracks of land (hacienda) and grasp on power (industry, banks, etc.). El Benefactor himself is not all that interesting!! He has no human companionship to speak of, for he can trust no one: He believed that love was a dangerous weakness. (797.5) The celebration is characterized as an emblem of conspicuous and drunken consumption that serves absolutely no purpose: The most beautiful mulatto women in the Caribbean, dressed in sumptuous gowns created for the occasion, whirled through salons with officers who had never fought in a battle but whose chests were covered with medals (798.6). If you want an opera bouffe, the description of the degenerate celebration clearly offers one. The writer shows the meaningless consumption of the nation's resources to create spectacles of empty worth. After this extravaganza, the palace is seldom utilized; the leader stays only for short periods of time "for fear that a conspiracy might be hatched in his absence" (798.7.). Having usurped leadership, he suspects all others of doing the same.
At this juncture, "the invisible Indians slowly returned to occupy their territory" (798.7). Pay attention here to the use of the possessive pronoun "their." In other words, the land returns to the real owners after centuries of silent waiting. In House Made of Dawn, a novel by N. Scott Momaday, the author presents a form of what might be called passive resistance. The grandfather in the novel embodies hope and stability. He has taken a Spanish name and practices both Christian and Pueblo religions: Their invaders were a long time in conquering them; and now, after four centuries of Christianity, they still pray in Tanoann to the old deities of the earth and sky and make their living from the things that are and have always been within their reach; while in the discrimination of pride they acquire from heir conquerors only the luxury of example. They have assumed the names and the gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls; and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long out waiting. (58) In effect, the people have become somewhat invisible, hiding as they do their identities. You might see a connection between the two, though Allende utilizes myths and legends in her fiction to achieve a similar result: The remainder of the mansion was left unguarded, in the possession of the incorporeal Indians who had divided the rooms with invisible lines and taken up residence there like mischievous spirits. They had survived the passage of history, adapting to changes when they were inevitable, and when necessary taking refuge in a dimension of their own. (799.8) Momaday's Pueblo and Allende's Indians share a great deal. As the web sites about Isabel Allende attest, she is considered one of the great advocates of feminism in Latin America; and while not the single most significant theme of the story, the role of the woman remains somewhat central, connected with the themes of alienation and abrogation. You might consider, for example, that Marcia Lieberman resembles the Indians very, very much; among other things, her husband "was scarcely aware of her existence; he noticed her only when she was not there. He thought of her as a loyal partner, but he had never been even slightly curious about her feelings." (799.9) Thus the woman in this very patriarchal relationship resembles the poor Indians in the context of colonization: again, the powerful and the powerless--and the invisible. Unlike her husband who "detested that country" (799.9), moreover, Marcia studies Spanish and familiarizes herself with the geography, the flora and the fauna--she falls in love with the country. While the leader despises the husband, his eyes fastened on Maria "like an indecent caress" (800.11); and she clearly notices and is repelled somewhat: But the dictator's eyes, clouded by age and the exercise of so much cruelty, still held a gleam of power that held her frozen in her chair. (800.11) The author characterizes the president for life as a Lothario, a womanizer and seducer. But he looks like "a dreary great grandfather" (800.12) when he approaches her for a secret rendezvous--why would she go? "And my husband?" Marcia managed to ask in a whisper-thin voice. "Your husband does not exist, my child. Now only you and I exist," the President for Life replied as he led her to his black Packard." (801.14) Why might she go with and stay with the old man, who could hardly be more repulsive!
In love, El Benefactor convinces the woman's husband that he should leave the country-and he does, fearing a bullet in the brain. And she in fact stays: "In fact, she had fallen prey to compassion" (801.16). Is the fact that this wrinkled and for the most part impotent old thing pays attention TO HER enough to give her a sense at least of identity? When the old man embraced her, anxiously, his eyes watering with humiliation because his manhood did not respond as it once had, she undertook, patiently and with good will, to restore his pride. And thus after several attempts the poor man succeeded in passing through the gates and lingering a few brief instants in the proffered warm gardens, collapsing immediately thereafter with his heart filled with foam. (801.16) The love making about which the narrator pokes considerable fun cannot be very satisfying for the woman. But asked to stay, she does: because she was moved by the aged caudillo's loneliness, and because the alternative of returning to her husband seemed less interesting than the challenge of slipping past the iron fence this man had lived behind for eighty years. (801.18) Well Marcia has her reasons for staying. But while she will get away from her husband, her plans to open up, as it were, the president meets with little success. On the other hand, and despite the fact that she longs to escape the new confines, the dictator "provided her with all the things she loved: music, books, animals. Marcia passed the hours in a world of her own, every day more detached from reality" (802.19). On the other hand, does the world the president represents depict reality? The story uses magical realism to break down traditional meanings and asks difficult questions. For example, is there not another way of looking at the world than through the notions of reality that receive such emphasis? Why, in addition, must the material she reads in the books be considered unreal? What, finally, determines what is the reality of the situation? Why not believe in invisible Indians? Who says that they and what they represent are only figments of the imagination? What makes the lover real in "You're My Horse in the Night"? Does it matter if the man is dead or not? Does her dream keep what he died for alive and, in a very important sense, real? In many respects, this story plays on notions not only of ways in which the dominant power structures might well represent illusions but also on the difference between unreality and possibility. These connections are confirmed by Marcia's slipping into the world of the imagination where she discovers herself. After so many years of neglect, of course, the opulent palace is in awful disrepair; however, the place captures Marcia's imagination: Marcia never stopped smiling; she had the face of a woman recovering what was rightfully hers. (803.21) Consider what gives Marcia a stake in this place. How does she resemble the invisible Indians, a connection the author implies early on in the narrative? Indeed, Marcia's coming alive does not escape the leader's gaze, and he soaks in, vampire like, this renewed zest: He frolicked with her like a young lover, he fed her bits of the delicious flesh of wild mangoes, with his own hands he bathed her in herbal infusions, and he made her laugh by serenading her beneath her window. (803.22)
Perhaps this influence might well have renewed the man's life--everything is possible in this other dimension! But he is repelled by his own weakness and leaves her at the palace, pretty much alone, because she presents a great danger: she was the only person who could make him forget his power (804.22). She is therefore dangerous to him, for he cannot quit the world of power, his reality. The situation hardly leaves Marcia in despair: Marcia felt truly free for the first time in her life. (804.24). She will dwell with kindred spirits and become one of them because she wants to and they see in her a kindred spirit: Undeceived by Marcia Lieberman's fair skin and marvelous curly hair, they recognized her as one of their own but they had not dared materialize in her presence because of the habit of centuries of clandestinely. (804.24) And there she dwells in peace and never alone, for she has about her her books, her painting, and her friends. The death of El Benefactor only increases her resolve to stay: She quickly discarded the idea, however, because here was nothing outside the snarl of the surrounding jungle that interested her. Her life passed peacefully among the Indians; she was absorbed in the greenness, clothed only in a tunic, her hair cut short, her body adorned with tattoos and feathers. She was utterly happy. (805.25) And she will remain with the Indians, for no one can find the Palace--which the new government wants to turn into an Academy of Art; one wonders who determines what makes something Art, But no one can find the place: Details about the Palace were misplaced in people's memories and the municipal archives; the notion of its existence became gossip for old women; reports were swallowed up in the bureaucracy and, since the nation had more urgent problems, the project of the Academy of Art was tabled. (805.26) The the palace and its inhabitants dwell in the imagination perhaps to become substantial at sometime in the future. The narrative does not embrace without qualification the goodness of the new democracy that follows the dictatorship. And the story suggests that people have forgotten about the dictatorship: and nothing remained of the long history of dictators but a few pages in scholarly books (805.26). One must wonder which "reality" might return, the wonderful world the Indians represent or that other world people seem to have forgotten, that of repression. Thus the story does not present an unmitigated happy ending, for the woman who discovers herself must inhabit a virtual world--one, nonetheless and however, pregnant with possibility. But the dictators await just around the historical bend. Note, too, the breakdown of opposites: dictatorship/democracy; male/female (she cuts her hair and assumes control); civilization/ jungle. You could create a longer list, if you give the matter further thought--the breakdown of opposites presents new possibilities. As with so much of the literature, this story asks difficult questions but offers no certain conclusions.