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House Of Spirits And Le Testament Fran Ais English Literature Essay

In this essay I will discuss the role of storytelling in Isabelle Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Andrei Makine’s Le Testament Français. I will show how the two novels share similar characteristics, such as the use of storytelling to establish and defend an identity. I will then describe the differences between the narrative viewpoints, such as the swapping of the perceived narrator and the use of the third person within The House of the Spirits and the single, first person narration used in Le Testament Français.

Storytelling is the art of conveying the imagery and emotion of events through the use of words and sounds to create an oral history. In forming this oral history individuals have the opportunity to pass on wisdom through generations. An oral storyteller can also become an audience to their own tale, providing a medium in which to establish and protect the ideas and feelings of greatest importance to their identity.

I will now discuss the role of storytelling in the two novels using this central concept of preserving identity. In The House of the Spirits there are multiple narrators. There are three distinct narrative voices in the novel, the predominant being the voice of Alba as she tells the stories of her grandmother, grandfather and the women in her family’s earlier generations. Alba uses storytelling as a technique to preserve her own identity and create a reason for survival as she is raped, imprisoned and tortured at the hands of police. Her role is defined as a person defying forces that would sever her link to her family and beliefs across time. From her grandmother Clara’s notebooks she tells the stories of her family “It was my grandfather who had the idea that we should write this story. “That way you’ll be able to take your roots with you if you ever have to leave, my dear”” (Allende, 1986, p488). Alba appears to equate ‘leaving’ with death and defends her right to live through her self-imposed task of storytelling.

Clara is another of the narrative voices, herself a storyteller who uses her tales to give others a connection to the spirit world. She communicates with this world as she protects herself from the physical world of violence and control that she lives in. With her gifts she is able to retain her independence from her husband and use her storytelling powers to help others. At one point Clara imposes silence on herself after witnessing a rape. Her deliberate loss of the power of speech, and therefore oral storytelling ability, helps her to maintain an identity as a young woman who wants to be separated from violence.

Both Clara and granddaughter Alba survive with their identities intact through the use of written storytelling. Clara had records of her life and as she prepared to die “She put her papers in order, and salvaged her notebooks that bore witness to life from the hidden corners of the house. She tied them up with coloured ribbons, arranging them according to events and not in chronological order, for the one thing she had forgotten to record was the dates, and in her final haste she decided she could not waste time looking them up.” (Allende, 1986, p330). It is to these texts that Alba turns as she prepares to survive.

The narrator in Le Testament Français finds himself in constant internal conflict due to the stories his grandmother Charlotte tells him. She describes a time of prosperity in France which is unattainable in Soviet Russia where he lives. She challenges his sense of himself as her version of Russian history differs so greatly from the ‘facts’ he is taught in the 1960’s Soviet approved schooling. When the narrator retells the stories to his school mates his is taunted and teased for his obsession with France. In response he casts off hopes of friendship and forms a bond with another loner in lieu of broader acceptance by his peers. The relationship is not true friendship but provides both with satisfaction and the opportunity to keep their self worth intact. The inconsistency between the environment of Charlotte’s stories and the reality of a harsh life in Russia angers the teenage narrator as he longs to touch the child-like ‘magic’ of the stories. After his mother’s death the narrator is placed in the care of an aunt. She also takes the role of storyteller and the narrator awakens to the violence and unforgiving living conditions in Soviet Russia. He attempts to reconcile the two versions of history told by his older female family members. As a consequence he reconciles his fractured self, saying “This country is monstrous! Evil, torture, suffering and self-mutilation are the favourite pastimes of its inhabitants. And yet I love it? I love it for its absurdity”. (Makine, 2007, p161) It is at this point that the narrator begins to identify with Soviet Russia as he accepts a life at odds with his early beliefs. The narrator again entertains his classmates with information he has gathered regarding France. This time, as all of the characters have matured, his “Frenchness” is not mocked and his storytelling becomes valued, helping the narrator strengthen his self esteem. The power of storytelling to generate a continuous or discontinuous persona for an audience is well illustrated in Le Testament Français. The narrator struggles to maintain his individuality throughout the book as he relies on external sources of truth to create his landscape and personal history. At the end of the book the narrator sets out to find the words to tell his grandmother’s story, which becomes the cyclic beginning of the book, the beginning of the loop. “What I now understood was that, ever since my childhood, Charlotte’s Atlantis had enabled me to glimpse the mysterious consonance of eternal moments. Without my knowing it, they had traced the pattern of another life, invisible, inadmissible, alongside my own.” (Makine, 2007, p244). Storytelling is the thread that links the key characters into the alternative versions of history, highlighting the importance of oral history to cultural continuity in times of extreme hardship, such as the Soviet rule of Russia.

I can draw the parallels between both books into two sentences. Both novels employ the technique of storytelling to illustrate identities for the central characters and as the instigator of conflict for these characters as they try to defend their identity within their social and physical environment. Storytelling is used as a technique for healing and self-preservation by the characters in the novels, as a tool to defy overpowering forces, to retain a sense of identity in the harshest conditions of prison and torture or personal trauma such as rape.

Now I will consider the narrative viewpoints of the two novels. Allende uses a third person narrative style, common to many novels. The third person viewpoint alleviates the reader’s distress at the violent events impacting the characters. The use of two of the key third person voices, Clara’s and Alba’s, is interrupted by the voice of Esteban Trueba who uses the first person. This contrast allows the reader to consider that Trueba’s emotional outbursts, documented by the women, are not just those of a violent, controlling man. He may have some compassion which he struggles with internally. “I looked around and noticed many new faces at Tres Marías. My old friends had either died or gone away. I had lost my wife and my daughter. My contact with my sons was minimal.” (Allende, 1986, p235) We are implored by Trueba to side with him, through the use of the personal pronoun, deliberately bringing the reader closer to his violence. The narrative viewpoint also introduces the motif of the names of the female characters – Clara, Blanca, Alba, all being related to light and lightness of colour and the men simply being numbered, Pedro the first, second and third.

In contrast Makine uses the first person as the predominant viewpoint for his central character. We eventually find he has a first name in a single reference towards the end of the novel as his grandmother speaks in French, “You know, Alyosha, sometimes it seems to me that I understand nothing about the life of this country. Yes, that I am still a foreigner. After living here for almost half a century.” (Makine, 2007, p206) Using the first person mode creates a single point of view. The opportunity for the reader to view events, thoughts and emotions from other viewpoints is minimised, giving the central character the leverage to describe his fortunes and misfortunes from an entirely sympathetic perspective.

In summary storytelling is deployed as a successful technique in both The House of the Spirits and Le Testament Français to retain, build, defend and preserve identity. The novels use storytelling viewpoints in different ways to ensure that the reader is drawn in as a witness and participant in the discovery of hope amid a backdrop of conflict, violence and despair. I believe the authors are showing that the preservation of storytelling as a literary technique, used in both the oral and written forms, greatly enhances the message being conveyed as the reader becomes more personally involved.

Word count: 1551

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