Friday, January 11, 2013

Finite Magic (Book Review of Isabel Allende's The Infinite Plan by Alison Ross)

Even though I learned Spanish while growing up in Texas and by studying in Spain twice, my infamous incapacity for consistency in just about anything has rendered my grasp of the language somewhat tenuous. Sure, I can still speak it colloquially, and my instinctive understanding of it persists, but when it comes to diligently practicing it, I plead indolence. Therefore, while I am certainly capable of reading books written in Spanish, I prefer not to. It's just too cerebrally cumbersome. 

But if you think about it, literary translations, while a necessary anathema, have the lamentable potential to really dilute the author's purpose, not to mention adversely alter the linguistic charms of the book in question. It's for this reason that guilt assails me whenever I read the scintillating scribblings of a Hispanic author like Isabel Allende in English. Hailing from Chile and the niece of martyred leader Salvador Allende, Allende has carved a nice niche for herself writing stunning stories in the magical realism genre. The novel under scrutiny, The Infinite Plan, is, in the final assessment, less "magical" than most of her other books, at least as far as plot points and characterizations. However, the language in the novel, for me at least, retains a mystical quality, because it marries an enigmatic eloquence with a reporter's straightforward style. "Magical Journalism," you could call it. 

Allende's tale takes place in the United States, rather than her usual setting of Latin America. Her novel narrates the story of Gregory Reeves, a caucasian character adrift among Chicanos in California. Reeves is the progeny of an itinerant preacher who sells the grandiose idea that life is governed by an infinite plan. His mother, on the other hand, is possessed of the Bahai faith, and so it's these somewhat conflicting, somewhat compatible spiritual philosophies, compounded by the Catholicism of his LA barrio, that that guide Reeves' journey through five decades of personal and cultural turbulence. 

The novel opens with Gregory's family, which in addition to his father includes his mother, his sister, and a family friend, traversing the United States in a van so his father can preach his infinite plan to paying patrons. Of course, the metaphysical gospel Mr. Reeves propagates is of a rather explicitly dubious genesis, but that does not dissuade the preacher from preaching it or the patrons from paying to hear it. Ultimately, the infinite plan serves as a salve to those suffering crushing quotidian travails, and subsequently brings bread to the table for the Reeves, and so it's as though the preacher and the patrons are locked ineluctably in a dance of their own devising. 

When Mr. Reeves falls ill, however, the family's vagabond existence must cease, and they must adopt a more traditional, less bohemian way of life. However, instead of inhabiting a neighborhood of kindred caucasians, the Reeves move to a Hispanic barrio in Los Angeles. This means they take on a sort of reverse-minority status, but also that they become enculturated in the Latino lifestyle. These anomalies will further influence and inform Gregory's voyage through life.  

Gregory's journey is marked by a sexual awakening with a much older woman while he is still in high school, his close friendship with the troubled Carmen, a bohemian lifestyle in Berkeley, an horrific tour of duty in Vietnam, two failed marriages, and alcoholism. By the end of the novel, Gregory becomes aware of how his life has sculpted its own infinite plan, as it were, and his wanderings have mirrored his earlier nomadic existence with his family. 

Major themes in Allende's somewhat sprawling story include religion, discrimination, and patriarchy, all viewed through a decidedly liberal lens. As gifted as Allende is at telling such a titillating tale, however, it seems to suffer a bit from the dearth of her patented magical realism touches. Lines such as "loneliness had eroded her face" are all too infrequent in this novel, and such flamboyant flourishes might have elevated a finitely great novel into an infinite masterpiece. 

No comments: