Politics and Fantasy in South America

NATIVE Chilean Isabel Allende's third novel, Eva Luna, takes us away from the military dictatorship and riot police of her previous works and into a world where guerrilla fighters, African saints and women who sleep in coffins dominate.

Eva Luna

Isabel Allende

Alfred Knopf, $18.95

No less political than Allende's last two novels, which decry the military dictatorship in the author's native land, Eva Luna protests abuses of power and corruption in a South American nation which one takes to be Venezuela. But her political commentary takes a different, more subtle tack here.

Allende's novel focuses on the upward mobility of those from relatively low classes in Venezuela to become respected members of the country's elite. It also focuses on the corruption rampant within the military regimes and even the ensuing democracy that replaces it--to little effect.

The political commentary, however, is incorporated into the plot and the characters' lives themselves. There are no sections that blatantly castigate the existing regimes. But by emphasizing the theme of individual success, the novel has a strong optimistic undercurrent.

ALLENDE'S novel focuses on the story of Eva Luna, whose name, she says, means "I am life". A natural narrator, she tells us that she was conceived as part of a cure for a native Indian who was poisoned by a snake bite. As her parents are dead, her story centers on her life in the capital city, presumably Caracas, where she works as a domestic servant. Her only companions are her adopted grandmother, Elvira, who sleeps in a coffin every night to avoid spending extra money on a bed, and her godmother, whose head, Eva says, is addled with rum and African saints.

The first half of the novel, in fact, centers on Eva's moving from job to job in an upwardly mobile search for a normal employer who will treat her humanely. Initially a slave to the minister of the interior, who requires her to shave him every morning while he sits on his velvet-covered toilet, Eva moves to the home of a Yugoslavian potter. She teaches her the secret of creating images out of Universal Matter--a conglomeration of bread dough, dental cement and magic.

But the idyll does not last. Unfairly accused of killing one of her employers, Eva runs away and joins the Venezuelan underworld, a change that affects the direction of her life and the theme of the novel.

When Eva makes contact with members of the underworld in the capital city she becomes a committed leftist, and the novel takes on, for the first time, a decidedly political tenor.

She becomes close friends with a number of characters who bear grudges toward the existing regime for previous abuses, yet have managed to raise themselves to positions of social prominence. Among these are Mimi, formerly Melisso, a transvestite, who with the help of hormones and breast implants becomes the most respected actress in the country, using her friendship with government officials to influence politics.

Eva also becomes friendly with Huberto Naranjo, a street urchin turned guerrilla fighter who commands vast troops of men dedicated to the overthrow of the government.

It is through her friendships with Naranjo and with Rolf Carle, an Austrian photojournalist, that Eva becomes involved in a guerrilla uprising. And it is Carle who further convinces Eva to use her skills as a storyteller to expose the government's corruption.

Allende's political commentary through Eva's screenplay, which eventually turns into a television show, is the strongest portion of the novel. Eva's work mirrors that of the book--both are ficitonalized efforts to portray political realities. But in Eva Luna, allegory is no escape from censorship. The government attempts to censor the show, which portrays the government's participation in brothels, fake uprisings and hit squads. Eva becomes embroiled in a foul scenario of bribing, violence and censorship as the military attempts to coerce her to change the events of her show.

THE novel's language mimics the magical realism and elaborate metaphors of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda and effectively conjures up images of a land and people still bound by magic and ancient gods. Her metaphors are imaginative and often poetic. And the characters are at times fantastical, ranging from professional embalmers who travel around in wheel-chairs to silent Indians who disappear into the jungle at the blink of an eye.

By contrast, her portrayal of political and military events bears the stamp of an eyewitness account.

Still, the novel as a whole has neither the sweep nor the intensity of one by Marquez or Neruda. The plot cannot bear the burden of such complex language. While the best of Latin American fiction is often ambiguous, Allende's novel is too often simply confusing.

For instance, at the end of the novel the military police summon Eva to the government headquarters to expose her anti-political activities. General Rodri-quez reveals that the government knows everything about Eva's complicity in the guerrilla affairs, but suggests that she can be redeemed if she will reveal the identities of the guerrillas in charge. His evil laugh implies that he intends to imprison the soldiers forever, but at the same time he suggests he will legalize the Communist Party and offer its members places in Congress.

It remains unclear whether Allende is cynical about Latin American government in general or hopeful that democracy can be liberating. And this confusion calls into question the purpose of telling Eva's story.

IF Allende is unwilling to have faith in the government, or any government, then centering on the individual triumphs of Eva would impart an important, if not entirely orginal, lesson: that fate lies ultimately in each person's hands. But if we are to believe that hope lies in a democratic government taking power, then why all the fuss about Eva, and why such a conscious effort by Allende to avoid discussing politics directly?

As it is, the novel leaves one with the distinct impression that Allende, who has struggled in all her novels to sort out conflicts between individuals and politics, has failed to resolve this tension.