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Inez of My Heart, by Isabel Allende.

September 9, 2012

Inez of My Heart, by Isabel Allende.  HarperCollins, 2007

A sweeping historical novel of the conquest of Chile seen through the eyes of a woman, mistress to one Spanish leader and later wife of another.

Chilean author, Isabel Allende, has told the story of the Spanish conquest of Chile through the eyes of Inez Suarez, a real historical figure, as if she were writing her story shortly before her death.  Inez initially came to the “New World” from her home in Spain after being deserted by her first husband.  She made her living by sewing and cooking until she met the Pedro de Valdivia, a military leader of the Spanish.  Although he had a wife back in Spain, they became lovers and she accompanied him on the expedition which he led to conquer Chile.  Together they established Santiago from which he served as governor.  In the face of Indian wars and hardships, she played a key role in the establishment of the town.  After ten years together, his rivals forced him to desert her, and she married Rodrigo de Quinoa who would become the next governor.  Although she had loved Valdivia, she found more happiness in the thirty years she lived as his wife while she continued working actively establishing churches, schools, and hospitals in the city.

In writing this historical novel, Allende faced the challenges we have previously discussed for those undertaking the genre.  She smoothly melds what can be known with what can be imagined, making a special effort to include women’s role in establishing colonies, a topic Inez complains is typically ignored by historians.  With little knowledge of the history of Chile or Spanish conquests, I could not identify the line between fact and fiction.   I sometimes felt the account was driven more by historical evidence than by any plot she had devised.  Private, intimate scenes were balanced by public accounts of wars and military affairs taken from the historical records.  In addition, Inez was the subject of legend as well as record.  At times, she warns us that everything in the records is not true.

In addition to bridging the divide between historians and novelists, Allende values her Spanish heritage as well as being sensitive to current understandings of the destruction colonization caused.  Inez was part of the Spaniard’s conquest of South America.  She was proud of her lover who led the expeditions in Chile, but she does not countenance his brutality.  At times she tries to stop him, but she is seldom successful.  She knows that nothing learned through torture can be assumed to be true.  She realizes that the cruelty of the Spanish to those living in the region will be repaid in kind. “After such horrors, we cannot expect mercy from the Mapuche.  Cruelty engenders more cruelty, in an endless cycle.”  While she grieves the loss of Spaniards whom she has loved, she cannot hate those who killed them. “They are my enemies, but I admire them because if I were in their place, I would die fighting for my land, just as they are doing.”  In the end she realizes that she and the other Spaniards can never understand the Indigenous people and their love of freedom.   Yet Inez does not reject the Indians that she knows as servants and friends, and her accounts of battles always include the sacrifices of the native people who fought on the side of the Spanish.

Inez was also proud of being a strong, capable woman.  Her life is structured around the men who loved, but she is never totally dependent on them.  She is willing to be critical of them and of men generally.  She credited her wealth to the careful management of the lands given her, rejecting the idea sleeping with the commander had made her rich.  She believed that it was the women who took the temporary bases established by the men and made them into viable communities.  Her own role as the wife of Spanish governors was as the community “mother.”  But she knew that men did not always appreciate women who were strong and courageous.

Bold women are a threat to a world that is badly out of balance, in favor of men. That is why they work so hard to mistreat us and destroy us.  But remember that bold women are like cockroaches; step on one and others come running from the corners.

Inez was not a feminist, but she valued her womanhood and found ways to take care of herself.

Allende is a favorite author of mine and I pick up any of her books that I see and haven’t read knowing I will enjoy them.  I certainly enjoyed this one, although, like her other later works, it lacked the flashes of glory that characterized her first few.

I recommend this book to those who share my appreciation for Allende or those who curious about the role of woman in colonization.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 12, 2012 12:14 pm

    A fine review

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