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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Our Invented Countries

Thanks to Barbara's well-planned guidance, our discussion of My Invented Country, by Isabel Allende, was different from usual, or should I say more different than usual. Our discussions are always different! This time, instead of digging into the book, we talked about our own memories. Barbara, who nominated My Invented Country and led our discussion, asked us whether we had a place or time in our past that was a nostalgic home for us in the same way that Allende's "invented" Chile was for her. This sparked a wonderful sharing of memories!

The memories of places that triggered nostalgic feelings for us had one thing in common, or at least almost all of them did: a sense of freedom. The memories were of childhood wanderings and explorations. Some of us remembered life in a small town, where we felt at home and could go out on foot or bicycle and go to homes of relatives or friends. Some of us lived in places where all or a large percentage of people knew each other. Since the memories tended to be from childhood, they probably involved some of each person's first tastes of freedom and independence. It seems natural to have enjoyed these feelings as a young preteen. Do modern kids get any freedom at those special ages? If not, do they miss getting those feelings, or do they just get them later, when they start going out on their own during their mid or late teens? I suppose it is the latter, as the human spirit does enjoy feelings of freedom at various junctures.

Some of us had experienced going back to places of nostalgia, in some cases many years after leaving them. We agreed that the old aphorism "You can never go home again" has a lot of truth in these cases. The place seems different to us even if it hasn't changed. Going back is likely to result in the understanding that our memories of a place and time are subjective. When we reached this conclusion in our discussion, we felt that we had reached the same place that Allende had in her writing: the place where we realized that our memories of a place represent an invented country! Pam suggested that Allende's social commentary and all of what she seemed to represent as factual were subjective views. We went on to entertain the possibility that Allende knew this and that this was the reason she called the book My Invented Country. I thought that was an excellent thought and interpretation, as well as admirable thinking on Allende's part!

The more "usual" parts of the discussion touched on some of the details of the memoir, and of course, critiquing! We discussed Allende's claims that Chileans are more aware of class than race, but we noticed that the upper classes as described by Allende tended to be those people who had lighter colored skin, with the Europeans holding the top social rankings. Some of us found the book to be too choppy. Rather than taking us in to a historical time and place and keeping us there until finishing the story, as do Allende's wonderful novels, this book seemed to take us in occasionally but then spit us out, back to our reality, as a new, unrelated topic was suddenly introduced. Someone suggested that Allende did this on purpose, ie, she wrote in the choppy manner to imitate the way the memory tends to work. Others of us felt that she just wrote the book quickly and didn't edit it to make it flow better.

In my humble opinion, the discussion was better than the book! I have read and thoroughly enjoyed at least 3 of Isabel Allende's novels, but I was disappointed in My Invented Country. The book group discussion made the reading seem much more worthwhile, due to both the interesting personal anecdotes among the group and also the insights that were offered. This was one of those cases where I wouldn't have read the book if it weren't for the book club, and where I was ever so glad I attended the discussion!

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