An abundance of joy … and feminism: Babel’s Isabel Allende

The very candid, funny, and intelligent Chilean author Isabel Allende ushered in a new era for the Babel series. Being the inaugural show at the event’s new headquarters of Kleinhans Music Hall, there were even more people in attendance, many additional students, and a lot more parking closer to the venue. It is interesting that out of the first eight speakers in the series’ two year existence, I have only come in twice without any knowledge of the story, whether from reading the book, seeing a theatrical version, or both. The first time was the premiere’s Orhan Pamuk, and the second tonight with Allende. Thankfully, like the previous instance, she ended up being more of a political activist, outspoken about her views, rather than someone looking to interpret her novel. She said she just “wasn’t in the mood for an academic conversation tonight,” and instead talked about joy, the one common emotion and state of being that is completely necessary despite these hard times making us forget its importance.

Allende is a very intelligent woman with a fantastic sense of humor. She had the audience eating right out of her hands with her quips, even taking a shot at our city with the line about how our economy was always dismal, “the rest of the country is just catching up”. While her jokes were funny, I couldn’t bring myself to be totally won over at first. The speech was scripted beforehand and read aloud as though one of her books. Each joke came out without so much as a smile, only a pause allowing for the inevitable laughter, and there was plenty. Fortunately, her timing and quick wit stayed in view during the Q&A, only this time she had to speak off the cuff, reacting to questions that were not read to her previously. I really wish she could have done this the whole night, because when she improvised for a laugh, her face lit up and she began to have fun with the moment. As someone who admits to not having a rigid structure when writing, a woman who allows her tales to evolve organically as she writes without a pre-devised outline, I’m surprised she came in with such a rigid, almost canned, speech.

But don’t take my disappointment as saying she failed. Her anecdotes and personality were definite winners. She could come across as a bit full of herself at times and her diatribes about feminism and how the machismo and testosterone of the world’s patriarchy were ruining humanity got old fast, (the same joke rephrased and told inside a new story doesn’t make it original again), but overall she was the consummate entertainer, playing the audience to perfection. Everything she said carried the underlying theme of how precious life is. With losing a daughter at 29 and then a step daughter a couple short years later, living through a governmental coup in her home country, and seeing her mother marry her love after 60 years just a week ago, (there is no divorce in Chile so her husband had to wait until his first wife died before being wed again), one would realize how tangential our existence is. “To live fully is a choice,” she says, “you can choose to love or kill love… choose the unbearable lightness of being or drown in pettiness”. Allende has most definitely chosen a world of joy; living with risk, but not fear.

She is a very practical woman, speaking of her work as just that. “It’s just a book,” she says, nothing more. All these students and scholars write theses about House of Spirits and what each part means metaphorically and in conjunction with others. One even wrote about what the true meaning of the dog was. She dispels any speculation though by saying “he is just a dog”. Admitting herself that she had no idea what the novel was about until seeing it on screen as a film, Allende was too close to the stories she wove. Beginning as a series of letters to her dying uncle, proving to him that she remembered each familial anecdote he ever told her, she began to mix her history with fiction, creating the Truebas family from the raw clay of her own. It was a perfect mirroring of her own talk tonight—one full of asides and stories, bringing in her own anecdotes to keep the message she believes in and expressed to us fresh and interesting. Even an audience member joined the fun by telling a tale himself about how he had recently wrote an Allende quote in the men’s room stall of a Williamsville restaurant. Yes, Buffalo loves Allende and she returned the favor, volunteering to sign whatever came her way after the event, spreading her infectious joy with the dreary citizens of the city who came out to be enlightened and uplifted.

Babel’s 08-09 season is now on sale. Buy your tickets today.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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