When I asked some work colleagues in South America for recommendations on authors to represent Chile in my world literature project, the name most frequently mentioned was Isabel Allende. I duly bought The Infinite Plan, her fourth novel. It’s been lingering unread on the bookshelf for the last two years. The Spanish Literature Month readalong hosted by Winston’s Dad blog and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos, gave me the nudge I needed to actually open the pages.
It’s an ambitious novel that charts the progress to self awareness of Gregory Reeves. He’s the son of an itinerant preacher who claims that nothing in life is random but is governed by an infinite plan. It takes Gregory five decades to realize there is no plan; there is ‘just the strife of living’. Or maybe in his case it would be more apt to say the strife of surviving since Gregory is a man who seems to have more than his fair share of obstacles and calamities. As a child he is taken to live in a crowded Los Angeles barrio when his father is taken ill and is forced to abondon his ministry. As an outsider in a Latino world, he is a target for racial discrimination and sexual predatory behaviour. All that sustains Gregory is the friendship of of the Mexican Morales family, especially their daughter Carmen, and the caring love of an exotic midwife come fortune teller called Olga.
Gregory stumbles into two disastrous marraiges only to discover – far too late – that they resemble his mother, an ethereal figure who effectively separates from life in horror over the bombing of Hiroshimia. He’s an even more disastrous father. The only part of his adult life that seems to go well is his career as a wealthy lawyer, but even that turns out to have been built on rocky foundations.
This is a man who seems to court disaster. Instead of creating a character who evokes our sympathy, Allende’s narrative had the reverse effect for me with the exception of the hallucinatory effects Gregory suffers as an aftermath of his Vietnam war experience. I never felt drawn into his predicament so by the time we get to his breakdown and his redemption I was just wishing he would get the whole therapy and healing thing done with quickly.
There were moments when the writing was elegant and lyrical and I could glimpse the qualities that have made her such a well respected author. But one stylistic technique she employed proved irritating to an impossible degree. I don’t know what the correct terminology would be to describe this but the closest description I can get to is ‘foretelling’ or giving us some hints that the situation she is describing would change in the future. As an example, in the midst of a section explaining how Carmen developed a habit of wearing multicoloured ‘gypsy’ style clothes and began to gain success designing and making jewellrey the narrator suddenly breaks in with “but all this is in the future.”. I really couldn’t understand how this glimpse of the future added any value, in fact for me it became intensely irritating. I wanted to know more about the here and now, and wanted to let the story takes its course, not have all these hints dropped.
I also found the switch of narrative voices rather disconcerting. Most of the novel is told via a third party narrator but then would switch to first person narration from Gregory without any preamble. Not until the final pages do we learn that all the time he has been telling his life story to an unidentified person.
This could have been a great novel but the flaws were too many for me to class it as anything more than okay.