Latin American authors are hot on the trail of colonial-era feminists these days. Earlier this year, Laura Esquivel unearthed in her novel Malinche the strong and spiritual side of the Mexican indigenous woman who became Hernan Cortez's translator and lover. Now comes Isabel Allende with Ines of My Soul, the fictionalized story of the woman who, alongside the hidalgo Pedro de Valdivia, conquered Chile for the Spanish.
Portraits of strong women are nothing new for Allende, but in Ines' real history - 1507 to 1580 - the Chilean storyteller finds an unusual cache of material. This is a woman whose zest for living was out of synch with her era.
For one, she marries the handsome bon vivant Juan de Malaga only because she really, really likes him in the bedroom. Juan, although a vain man who "decked himself out like a chulo and spent like an hidalgo," had an extraordinary ability to make her happy in that department.
But the one time Juan lifts a fist to her, she swings her iron skillet at his head and leaves him with a welt. Juan takes off to seek fame and fortune in the New World, a quest Ines doesn't begrudge him.
Although, unlike Juan, she doubts there is a city of gold or fountain of youth in the Americas, she begins to plot her own escape, suspecting that "there was something even more prized to be found there: freedom."
"Wouldn't it be better to face the perils of the sea and savage lands rather than grow old and die without having lived?" she reasons.
She embarks on the trip with her 15-year-old niece Constanza, chosen by the family because she is its healthiest member and could best withstand the perils of the voyage. At first a timid girl who wants to be a nun, Constanza evolves, as this is no boring tale of conquest but one laden with Allende's typically piquant sex scenes and more lurid tales of betrayal and adventure than a telenovela script.
Most of the storyline is true, and Allende is said to have spent four years researching Ines' story. But ultimately it is Allende's imagination that delivers the enchantment, whether she's writing about the restless young Ines or the aging matriarch who does not "recognize the grandmother with a crown of white hair who looks back at me."
Allende spins a bit of the old magical realism with references to girls who during Holy Week "levitate, emit the fragrance of roses or sprout wings" - and by charging the ghost of Juan de Malaga with aiding a sword-packing Ines in the killing of seven caciques, thereby saving the city of Santiago.
The book is exquisitely translated by Margaret Sayers Paden, who delivers a lyrical match to Allende's luminous vocabulary in Spanish.
The only shortcoming is that, except for some references early on to the cleanliness of the indigenous population vs. the Spaniards, there is not much from the other side of the conquista story beyond the Spaniards' view of them as savages. There are no revealing accounts of the Incas or Mapuches, who, Ines notes, carry on with several wives and judge women by their ability to assist with chores.
It is Ines' beloved Pedro de Valdivia, one of Francisco Pizarro's trusted officers and the man who will betray her in more ways than one, who speaks the novel's title at a definitive moment in Ines' life in the New World.
"And you? What do you want, Pedro?"
"To found Chile with you," he replied without a second thought.
"Then that is what we will do."
"That we will do, Ines of my soul."
The two wage a ruthless war against the fierce Mapuches in the south, and the lesser known indigenous Chileans in Santiago, led by chief Michimalonko. The historic battles are well-told, as seen through Ines' perspective, but it is in the matching of a historical timeline with the intimacy of the conquistadors' lives that Allende spins a fabulous tale, just as Esquivel did in Malinche. Considerably better than her recent novels, Zorro and the national bestseller Daughter of Fortune, this is one work Allende fans should not miss.
Ines of My Soul
By Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Paden
HarperCollins, 336 pages, $25.95