Isabelle Allende’s novel, Island Beneath the Sea, is a timeless tale about the nature of power and how even the most powerless of people — a fictional 18th Century African slave woman named Zarité or even me or you — can become powerful in unexpected ways.
Power is explored in many of its different manifestations. The power of money. The power of violence. The power of social status. The power of popular opinion. The power of appearance. The power of addiction. The power of optimism. And most importantly, the power of love.
Many of the characters I see symbolizing a type of power:
Toulouse Valmorain – Power of money;
Prosper Cambray – Power of violence;
Hortense Guizot – Power of social status;
Violette Boisier – Power of appearance;
Maurice – Power of optimism;
Zarité – Power of love.
Island Beneath the Sea is a historical novel set in the Caribbean and New Orleans against the backdrop of 18th Century world changes such as the US war of Independence, the French Revolution and the massive slave revolt that turned Santo Domingo into the country of Haiti.
During the first part of the book, I felt a mixture of emotions. The story of slavery and the excesses of the slave owners repulsed me. Yet, at the same time the story drew me in with the complex humanity that Isabel Allende finds in each of her characters. Just like in life, everyone thinks he or she is the good guy.
Isabel has said, “With relatives like mine I don’t need to use my imagination, they alone provide all the material I need for my novels . . . . Many of my relatives have been the models for the characters in my books, like my grandparents who became Esteban Trueba and Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits.”
Writing characters inspired by people and experiences in ones own life follows the traditional dictum to “write what you know.” Let’s pause to look at another great writer — Ernest Hemingway. Shrapnel hit Hemingway’s knee in World War One. He knew what that feels like. So, when his characters were wounded in war, they were often wounded in the same way as Hemingway. He could truthfully write, “I knew I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin.”
Keeping with this tradition, Isabel Allende’s grandfather seems to not only have become Esteban Trueba in The House of the Spirits, but to have also become the character Toulouse Valmorain in Island Beneath the Sea. Both Trueba (in Chile) and Valmorain (in Santo Domingo) are large land-owners who inherited their property that was neglected by the generation before them. The land was worked by slaves (indigenous peons in Chiles and African slaves in Santo Domingo). They both considered it acceptable behavior to rape girl slaves when they reached puberty and fathered a number of illegitimate mixed-race children. They both considered themselves to be model plantation or hacienda owners, because they treated their slaves better than their neighboring land barons treated their slaves. Both characters reveal love and tenderness to legitimate child descendents.
Valmorain in Island Beneath the Sea fascinated me. It was intriguing to be able to peer inside the mind of this sugar plantation slave owner — to see his self-justification. Indeed, a whole society supported his belief system that what he was doing was good, just and even divine. It helps me to understand what might be going on in the minds of people in positions of power in any age, anywhere.
The title, Island Beneath the Sea, refers to an Afro-Caribbean belief in a paradisiacal afterworld. The novel also reveals the power-structure’s self-serving religious beliefs that equality is to be found only in heaven. But the protagonist, Zarité, is convinced that equality can be achieved in the here and the now. Even through the most daunting of trials she holds on to this dream, this conviction of her heart.
In an interview, Allende said that she writes to entertain the reader. I find meaning deeper than mere entertainment in Allende’s work. Like Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda has said — reading great literature makes it possible to learn from the lives of many different people, and not just from our own limited direct experience. I read novels seeking those life lessons. In Allende’s work I find not only entertainment, but also great wisdom. I believe that Isabel Allende is a living treasure of humanity.
After finishing reading The Island Beneath the Sea I felt grounded, confident and filled with hope for the future.