In her novel La casa de los espíritus (Allende), Isabel Allende constructs, brick by brick, word by word, the interlocking spaces of mind and dwelling. The narrative—the intergenerational tale of the Trueba women—is a tapestry of interiors and exteriors, tangled together by time’s passage. The secondary meaning of ‘house/casa’, ‘a family including ancestors, descendants and kindred’ (“House”) creates a semantic ambiguity which neatly girds the novel’s thematic investigation of the relationship between people, houses, and the passing of time. The novel is deeply concerned with the relationship between the characters’ experience of time and their home, ‘la gran casa de la esquina’ [The Big House on the Corner]. Important to this relationship is the novel’s exploration of cultural orientations towards time. These orientations are described by chronemics: a discipline devised by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who proposed a taxonomy of cultural time, a way of talking about how different people experience and conceptualise temporality, creating a spectrum from ‘monochronicity’ to ‘polychronicity’ (West and Turner; Bruneau; Rifkin; Bradshaw and Szabadi; Tiemersma and Oosterling; Todd; Hall). Though they have been defined in various ways, monochronic societies conceptualise time as linear, moving forward in regular intervals in a straight line, independent of the events it encapsulates. Polychronic time, by contrast, is conceptualised as circular. Though time does not repeat itself, it does play out in cyclical patterns, and there is a holistic concept of the present moment as incorporating past and future, as well as multiple events from a multitude of individual perspectives.
Allende’s novel explores both polychronicity and monochronicity: a cultural encounter which is recreated in miniature within the microcosm of The Big House on the Corner. The house, with its amorphous architecture, dynamic connectivity, and capacity for endless renewal and expansion, creates a magical temporal space: a radical polychronicity, which presides over the cycles of the Trueba family. That is, until its defences are breached by the encroaching political forces, which inflict the inexorable march of linear time upon the building and its inhabitants. Despite the wealth of criticism on the role of The Big House in the novel, the spatial chronemics of La casa have not yet been analysed. I will deploy such an analysis to demonstrate that the role of The Big House in the novel is crucial to the polychronic temporality espoused by the novel.
The story follows the lives of three generations of the Trueba family: we first meet Clara, a precocious and spiritually endowed child who grows up to marry Esteban Trueba, eventually becoming the matriarch of their family home, The Big House on the Corner, which operates as an anchor for the rest of the narrative. In it, Clara gives birth to Blanca, who in turn has Alba, the youngest link in this intergenerational narrative, and, as we eventually discover, the narrator of the story. The Trueba family’s experience is deeply influenced by this house, and its shifting embodiments of different modes of time. For the majority of the novel, the house’s inhabitants feel time as polychronic: cyclical and fluid, shaped by events and relationships rather than uniform units of time. However, while the house is ‘dormant’, the relentless progress of monochronic time begins to control them: aging and entropy overtake the house and characters as time’s irrevocable linear trajectory makes itself felt. It isn’t until the reawakening of the house’s ‘spirit’ and its circular, holistic sense of time that Alba re-embodies the polychronic temporal mode, and passes through the next stage in her maturation, finding inner peace through acceptance of her self, family and society. Though polychronicity is figured as the natural state, La casa stages a nuanced examination of time-cultures. Other critics have noted the duality in Allende’s representation of time in the novel: Martin observes that the novel is ‘tied to a span of decades of writing and a structure that is at once linear and circular’ (Martin 43). In a brief note within his chapter on ‘nomenklatura’ and lineage in the novel, Richard McCallister mentions that ‘time is both linear, as seen in the Pedro García lineages (filiation), and circular, as in the case of Esteban Trueba (affiliation)’ (McCallister 30). I would like to build on these insights by emphasizing the connection between home and time in the novel through an analysis of the spatial chronemics underpinning the narrative structure and style.
Chronemics: polychronicity and monochronicity
In 1959, Edward Hall coined the terms polychronic and monochronic to describe two ends of the time-culture spectrum, the study of which would be later described as chronemics (Hall; Bruneau). As mentioned above, monochronic societies conceptualise time as linear (moving forward in a straight line) and unbounded (having no definite end). In contrast, polychronic societies conceptualise time as circular or cyclical. Under a polychronic conception, the divisions of time are linked to events and relationships, rather than uniform units of time like minutes or hours. According to ethnographers and anthropologists such as Hall, business researchers such as (Bluedorn), psychologists such as (Levine), neuroscientists such as Han and Pöppel, historians such as Rifkin and journalists like West and Turner, so-called Western societies (such as the UK, white Australia and America) are largely monochronic, largely as a result of modernisation, Newtonian physics, and industrialisation. As Todd points out, ‘time is not a singularity in any culture. Thus, even members of quintessentially monochronic cultures (or culture areas) move in and out of polychronic and monochronic moments’ (Todd 53). There is also ‘great individual difference’ (Todd 51). However, in the words of Levine, ‘while it may be careless to overgeneralize about the people from a single place, it would be naive to deny the existence of significant, overall differences between places and cultures’ (Levine xvii). In exploring both ends of the time-culture spectrum, La casa de los espíritus offers a dialectic of the complex sense of time experienced in a globalised world. However, ultimately, both La casa and Allende herself explicitly affirm a polychronic perception of time. In an interview on the novel, Allende says, ‘I also wanted to show that life goes in a circle, that events are intertwined, and that history repeats itself’ (Allende and Rodden 49). As my analysis will highlight, this conceptualisation underpins several aspects of La casa, which shows that, for the Trueba women, the authentic experience of time is one ‘ordered by events and not by chronological order’ (Allende 454).
La casa de los espíritus and magical realism
La casa has been described as a magical realist novel, a literary mode which, according to Eduardo Gonzalez, ‘operates in resistance to forms of rationality and domination’ (González 999). This generic context is important for the present analysis of the novel’s spatial chronemics: the narrative’s endorsement of polychronicity disrupts the Western conceptualisation of linear clock time, developed through the social and economic contexts of industrialisation, scientific developments of the Enlightenment, and the logic of progress embedded in Eurocentric modernisation. In La casa, the novel’s cyclical temporality works against what Max Weber (1918) terms the ‘disenchantment of the world’, which describes the bureaucratic, modernized, and science-oriented Western society. Although a debated literary mode, according to Faris, magical realism has a number of characteristics: magical elements; a detailed focus on the phenomenal world, epistemological uncertainty; the merging of different realms; and disturbances in ‘received ideas about time, space, and identity’ (7). The latter will be the focus of this article, as I argue that the narrative disrupts dominant ideas of linear time, merges the domains of time and space, and in doing so illustrates their role in the formation of identity. An analysis of spatial chronemics shows that time culture in the narrative is bound up with the Big House on the Corner, both of which have profound influence on the protagonist-narrator, Alba.
The magical house carries its own sense of time, one marked by cycle patterning, radical fluidity, and disregard for the intransigent march of ‘clock time’. The various physical and psychological influences that the house wields over its inhabitants mean that Alba grows up with this polychronic temporality. This connection between home and polychronicity is also enacted in García Márquez’s classic of Latin American magic realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude (a generic antecedent to Allende’s La casa, with which a comparison is almost ‘inevitable’ (Allende and Rodden 46). The Buendía family of Marquez’s novel, too, live in a magically expanding home which creates a space of radical cycles. Indeed, the relationship between Allende and Márquez’s novel represents its own textual cycle or ethic of iterability: as Antoni describes, ‘all writing in the [magical realism] genre would seem, in the end, a rewriting of this novel [100 Years of Solitude]’ (Antoni). Marcos and Mendez-Faith also note this, observing that La casa’s ‘fourteen chapters of the family dynasty of the Trueba family over the span of more than half a century of individual and collective stories mentally conjure other novelistic sagas and locate this work inside a generic tradition’ (Marcos and Méndez-Faith 79). Yet as Antoni explains, this relationship is not one of mere repetition, but reinvention, as Allende’s work uses Márquez’s language ‘as a means to discover her own language’, (Antoni) echoing here the descriptions of polychronicity which see new cycles not as repetitions but as renewals. Indeed, as the following will explicate, La casa’s complex exploration of both ends of the spectrum of temporal orientations, and the social critique that this offers, is one of the aspects that Allende’s narrative builds onto Márquez’s story.
Like La casa, Marquez’s novel is also an intergenerational tale marked by distinct cycles—clearly symbolised by the recursive naming of characters within the extended Buendía family. This is echoed in the naming of La casa’s female lineage: Nívea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba. Alba’s name is, as Clara explains, ‘the last of a chain of luminous words that express the same thing’ (278). According to Swanson, this light imagery implies a matrilineal form of knowledge building, as each daughter’s worldview is informed by her mother’s (Swanson 156), in a rejection of Eurocentric, patriarchal knowledge structures. Alba’s light is, however, dimmed as after the death of her grandmother, Clara, the house goes into a period of mourning, and the forces which protected it from the outside world begin to break down. The Trueba family disintegrates, and global political forces enter the house, both through the political opportunism of Alba’s grandfather, and her own political activism. The house loses its radical polychronicity, and enters into a period of radical monochronicity, afflicted by the linear progress of standardized clock time, almost entirely succumbing to entropy. Its inhabitants soon synchronize with this new sense of temporal progression, a shift evident both diegetically and linguistically in the text. It isn’t until the house’s ‘rebirth’ late in the novel that it re-joins its natural polychronicity, which has profound ramifications for Alba and her sense of belonging both within her country and her home. To demonstrate this trajectory, the following analysis will explore the shifting temporal dynamics of the novel, and the spatial and cultural forces which shape them.
The Temporality of The Big House on the Corner
As in the childhood home of Clara, a previous iteration of the novel’s magically polychronic houses, within the walls of The Big House was ‘un mundo de historias asombrosas, de silencios tranquilos, donde el tiempo no se marcaba con relojes ni calendarios y donde los objetos tenían vida propia… [y] el pasado y el futuro eran parte de la misma cosa’ [a world of shadowy histories, calm silences, where time was not marked with clocks nor calendars and where objects had their own life… [and] the past and the future were part of the same thing] (94). The house exists outside of linear chronology, creating a space cut off from the relentless succession of events occurring outside its walls: ‘En los tiempos en que Clara estaba viva, cuando Alba era todavía una nina, la gran casa de la esquina era un mundo cerrado, donde ella creció protegida hasta de sus propias pesadillas.’ [In the time that Clara was alive, when Alba was still a child, the big house on the corner was a closed world, where she grew up protected even from her own nightmares] (281). This shut-off world ‘provoc[ó] un estado de emergencia y sobresalto en las leyes de la física y la lógica’ [provok[ed] a sense of emergency and shock in the laws of physics and logic] (282), allowing a space where the normal laws of time are almost irrelevant. Inside the house’s walls, clocks are not inanimate objects of time-keeping but sentient beings who can alter their position at will. Responding to the footsteps of the house’s animating spirit, ‘echaban a andar los relojes’ [the clocks began to wind themselves] (140). Like the chronicles of family history that Clara writes into her notebooks, the house’s sense of time is ‘separados por acontecimientos y no orden cronólogico’ [separated by events and not by chronological order] (454), rejecting Western linearity in favour of a socio-emotionally based time which continuously loops back around in recurring patterns. As García-Johnson notes with tellingly biological terminology, the house is ‘born and reborn’ (García-Johnson 190), both linked to and mirroring the ‘matricircularity’ (Martinez 293) of the family’s intergenerational tale.
In this part of the narrative, dates and months are not mentioned: discourse and story time are organised by cycles, from generational to seasonal and daily cycles: ‘En esa época la casa de los Trueba tenía casi todos los cuartos ocupados y diariamente se ponía la mesa para la familia, los invitados, y un puesto de sobra para quien pudiera llegar sin anunciarse’ [During this time, daily the table was set for the family, the guests, and a place leftover for whoever might arrive without notice] (282); guests ‘constantemente aparecían, desaparecían y reaparecían’ [constantly appear, disappear and reappear] (284); family members are born and die, with the comfort that the present moment is in constant dialogue with both the past and future. As Martinez notes, there is an implicit ‘cyclical understanding of reality’ (Martinez 293). For example, while in labour with Alba, Blanca runs away from her husband, back to her family home, The Big House. Although her arrival was unannounced, she finds Clara calmly waiting for her, putting the finishing touches on a dress for her future granddaughter. When Clara dies, Alba ‘no perdió la calma’ [did not lose her calm] (305), understanding that death is not a permanent goodbye. Indeed, as Serrano explains, the novel ‘present[s] a continuum between life and death that makes passing away less finite’ (Serrano 41). As the following will show, the Big House on the Corner is crucial in constructing this understanding of time’s continuum. In the narrative world, the house enables a space within which polychronicity can reign: ‘El lugar estaba siempre en penumbra, preservado del uso del tiempo, como una pirámide sellada’ [The place was always in penumbra, preserved from time’s march, like a sealed pyramid] (285). As the comparison to this ancient formation intimates, the physical structure of The Big House is crucial to its resistance to time’s destructive force.
Physical Structure of The Big House on the Corner
There are homologies between the house’s geometry and its temporality. The house’s experience of time exists outside of linear chronology, part of infinite recurring cycles, an extreme connectedness where the past, future and present are in constant communication. This sense of infiniteness and holistic connectivity has, for the house, both temporal and architectural aspects: it embodies the infinite through the unending circularity of its structures, rendered in descriptions of the spiral staircases (‘una escalera de caracol’ (300)), the loops of corridors and hallways and the circular portholes connecting the rooms (corredores torcidos y ojos de buey que comunicaban los cuartos para hablarse a la hora de la siesta’ (105)). The Big House expands, seemingly organically, from its original blueprint into a Borgesian, labyrinthine infiniteness, the house growing
protuberancias y adherencias, de múltiples escaleras torcidas que conducían a lugares vagos, de torreones, de ventanucos que no se abrían, de puertas suspendidas en el vacío, de corredores torcidos y ojos de buey que comunicaban los cuartos.
protuberances and adhesions, with multiple twisted staircases that led to indeterminate places, towers, windows that didn’t open, doors suspended in space, twisting hallways and portholes that linked the living quarters. (105)
The structure transcends physical laws: it is a place where someone can enter and become entirely lost, then suddenly find themselves in the place where they began. As Parker observes, ‘the very house that [Esteban, Alba’s grandfather] built has become a type of inwardly growing and outwardly expanding … One thing is no longer separable from another, rooms no longer confine or isolate’ (Parker 40). As well as expanding, the house repeats its own self-image in miniature—a domestic mise en abyme—through the little cubby houses that Alba constructs in its back rooms out of the mysterious flotsam and jetsam that lies around: ‘Todo le servía a Alba para construir casitas en los rinconces.’ [all served Alba as she constructed miniature houses in the corners] (285). Indeed, the house’s generativity is seemingly biological: Allende herself has stated that the house’s basement is a womb, an anthropomorphism echoed by many critics. García-Johnson states, ‘the basement is… the womb… the most intimate of spaces, the space where life (and text, in the cases of Clara and Alba) is created’ (García-Johnson 190). In this way, the house seems to participate in the reproductive cycles of biological life.
The house’s magical capacity for generation, iteration and expansion produce ‘an unending history’ (453). In this it bears similarity to the Buendía house in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Allende’s, García Márquez’s novel blurs the distinction between the family Houses (genealogical lines) and family houses (architectural structures). Both La casa and One Hundred Years of Solitude attest to a prevailing polychronic time: Foreman speaks of ‘the historical form found in García Márquez, where time is measured not by dates but by generations of unlikely length; cyclical time is at odds with linear time’ (Foreman 329). This position outside of linear chronology, with time dictated by events rather than a standardized calendar, is reflected in García-Marquez’s novel—as it is in Allende’s—through the fantastical architecture of the family house. The Buendía house, like the Trueba house, has mutable boundaries which grow with the increase of inhabitants:
Ursula [matriarch of the Buendía family], realising that the house had become full of people… undertook the enlargement of the house. She had a formal parlour for visits built, another one that was more comfortable and cool for daily use, a dining room… nine bedrooms… a long porch… had the kitchen enlarged… the granary was torn down and another twice as large built… She had baths built in the courtyard… and in the rear a large stable, a fenced-in chicken yard, a shed… an aviary… [etc] (Márquez 62).
Members of the Buendía and Trueba families are explicitly described as, like their houses, existing outside of standard chronology, their age not defined by calendars or clocks. The Nana of the Trueba family, while living in the Big House on the Corner, is described as ageless: ‘se habia convertido en una mujer sin edad, que conservaba intacta la fortaleza de su juventud’ [she had become a woman without age, that conserved intact all the strength of her youth] (93). Clara Trueba is also unnaturally youthful, with ‘la ilusión de extrema juventud’ [the illusion of extreme youth] (297). In this the women bear resemblance to the matriarch of the Buendía family, Ursula, who presides over the construction and extension of the family house over many, many years, with ‘a kind of supernatural vitality’ (Márquez 168). The preternatural youth of these women mirrors that of their rejuvenating homes, rejecting linear chronology.
The effects of this temporality on not only the house’s inhabitants but on the novel itself become clearer as Alba is revealed to be both the protagonist and narrator of the story. Alba’s narrative idiom shows the link between past, present and future held by a polychronic concept of circular, recurring time: the narration is filled with temporal deictic shifts, parallel timelines, digressions and connections, echoes of past moments and foreshadowing of future ones. The order of narrative is often interrupted by temporal shifts into the future, introduced by adverbial phrases such as ‘mucho tiempo despúes’ [much later] (282, 279, 312), ‘eso no fue hasta mucho más tarde’ [that was not until much later] (140, 201), or ‘años más tarde’ [years later] (140, 297). The reader is often taken on a long tangent, detailing some event or development in a character’s life, only to be told ‘pero todo eso ocurrió mucho después’ [but all this occurred much later] (281). Prolepses often follow fluidly from accounts of Alba’s younger years. For example, during a story about Alba’s childhood understanding of her mother’s life, the perspective switches to an older, more mature Alba, to ‘años después, cuando Alba tuvo edad para analizar ese aspecto de la vida de su madre’ [years later, when Alba was old enough to analyse that aspect of her mother’s life] (294). While reading about Alba’s relationship with her grandfather, we are told that ‘al final de su vida, cuando los noventa años lo habían convirtido en un viejo arbol, retorcido y frágil, Esteben Trueba recordaría esos momentos con su nieta como los mejores en su existencia.’ [at the end of his life, when his ninety years had converted him into an old tree, twisted and fragile, Esteban Trueba would remember these moments with his granddaughter as the best in his life] (290). Premonitions are frequent, as the future visibly manifests itself in the present. For example, aspects of Alba’s birth—which, significantly, takes place inside the Big House on the Corner—augur her future. She was born feet first, ‘lo cual es signo de buena suerte’ [which is a sign of good luck] (277). In a significant monologue which I will return to later in my analysis, towards the end of the novel, Alba reflects on this connection between past, present and future, the ‘relación entre los acontecimientos’ [relation between events] (453). She laments that ‘creemos en la ficción del tiempo, en el presente, el pasado y el future’ [we believe in the fiction of time, in the present, the past and future], concluding that ‘todo ocurre simultáneamente’ [everything happens simultaneously] (453). Though she is only able to consciously reflect on this concept of time after experiencing the twists and turns of her life, this mode of experiencing time has imbued her life since an early age, growing up in the magical polychronicity of The Big House.
As well as shifts in discourse time and deictic positioning, the narrative style represents the non-linearity of the time in which Alba grows up in other ways. As Richardson writes, several aspects of literary texture—syntax, rhythm, morphological patterns, etc.—can reveal ‘the relationship between spatiality and symbolic expression’ (Richardson 1). Here once again the conflation of spatiality and temporality becomes visible. There is an almost geometrical imprecision to the syntax of Alba’s narration, with its endless coordinating conjunctions, embedded clauses, multiple digressions and tense shifts. Clauses are continuously added onto and inside sentences, much as the architecture of the house is mishmash of ‘protuberances’, ‘adhesions’ and ‘connections’, suggesting the significance of the house for the development of the time-sense of the narrative. Evidence of this parallel is found in descriptions of the house:
No podía saber que aquella mansión solemne, cúbica, compacta y oronda, colocada como un sombrero en su verde y geométrico contorno, acabaría llenándose de protuberancias y adherencias, de múltiples escaleras torcidas que conducían a lugares vagos, de torreones, de ventanucos que no se abrían, de puertas suspendidas en el vacío, de corredores torcidos y ojos de buey que comunicaban los cuartos para hablarse a la hora de la siesta, de acuerdo a la inspiración de Clara, que cada vez que necesitara instalar un nuevo huésped, mandaría fabricar otra habitación en cualquier parte y si los espíritus le indicaban que había un tesoro oculto o un cadáver insepulto en las fundaciones, echaría abajo un muro, hasta dejar la mansión convertida en un laberinto encantado imposible de limpiar, que desafiaba numerosas leyes urbanísticas y municipales. (105)
[Esteban] could not have known that that solemn, cubic, compact and round mansion, placed like a hat in its green and geometric contours, would end up filled with protuberances and add-ons, of multiple twisting staircases that led to unknown places, of towers, of hatches that didn’t open, of doors suspended in space, or twisting hallways and portholes that linked the bedrooms to allow communication during the hour of siesta, in accordance with the inspiration of Clara, who, each time that it was necessary to house a new guest, would order the construction of another room in whatever part of the house and if the spirits indicated that there was a hidden treasure or a body buried in the foundations, would have a wall torn down, until the mansion became an enchanted labyrinth impossible to clean, that defied numerous urban and municipal laws.
This is a literary manifestation of the radical space/time that the house embodies: as McLaughlin states, ‘Allende oversteps that frontier, the neat ordered universe of temporality and conventional language structure’ (McLaughlin 211). In this way the novel shows literature’s ability to explore, in various ways, how language codifies temporal experience.
During this epoch in the Trueba family, the narration shows various other linguistic reflexes of polychronic time. The prevailing temporal frames of reference reflect that time-units in a polychronic culture are variable and dependent on the events they encapsulate (Han and Pöppel 128). This resonates with Clara and Alba’s organisation of the family history, ‘separated by events and not by chronological order’ (454). Time in The Big House is seen as relative to events, echoing linguist Evan’s description of a relational, continuous chronology where ‘two events are being sequenced with respect to one another,’ divided by earlier/later rather than the absolute future/past (Evans 7). Developments in the house and in the lives of the inhabitants are recounted in relation to each other: ‘Apenas… estuvo lista la gran casa de la esquina, Esteban Trueba y Clara del Valle se casaron en una discreta ceremonia.’ [Just as… the big house on the corner was finished, Esteban Trueba and Clara del Valle were married in a modest ceremony] (107). Births, deaths, arrivals and departures are all temporally positioned in relation to each other: these are the markers of time, rather than months or years.
The repetition of motifs also creates this cyclical, recurring sense of time. For example the repeating theme in the name of the Trueba women, or the fantastic beasts which are embroidered, moulded and painted by three generations of the family—Aunt Rosa, Blanca and Alba (respectively). There is also repetition of several key phrases, such as ‘many years later’ (as above), or ‘separated by events and not chronological order’ (454, 304); and much of the first and last pages of the novel. A particularly significant recurring phrase shows the connection between the Trueba family and their houses: in Clara’s childhood home, ‘el pasado y el futuro eran parte de la misma cosa y la realidad del presente era un caleidoscopio de espejos desordenados.’ [the past and the future were part of the same thing and reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of broken mirrors] (94). This imagery of her grandmother’s house recurs in descriptions of Alba’s self-development: in the basement of The Big House, Alba ‘miró en los mil pedazos rotos del espejo… ella vio transformarse su rostro en el caleidoscopio del espejo y aceptó al fin que era la más bella de todo el universo’ [looked into the thousand pieces of broken mirror… she saw her face transform in the kaleidoscope of the mirror and accepted at last that it was the most beautiful of all the universe] (348). This poetically expresses not only the iterative aspect of time in the novel, but the deep continuity between the Trueba family and the spaces which they inhabit.
However, these happy years of the house’s life, with its radical polychronicity, do not last forever. The series of cycles is interrupted after Alba’s grandmother, Clara, dies, and the house is, for the first time, opened to the forces of the outside world.
A New Phase in The Big House on the Corner
As many critics have noted, Clara’s death signals the fracturing of both the family and the country in which they live (widely thought to be a fictionalised Chile), in an instance of parallel between familial and political systems in the narrative (Cooper). After Clara dies, the house goes into a state of mourning dormancy, deprived of ‘los espíritus, los huéspedes y aquella luminosa alegría que estaba siempre presente.’ [the spirits, the guests, and that luminous happiness that were always present] (310). Within the novel, During this time, the magical polychronicity of the house is lost, replaced by an exaggerated monochronic time sense which relentlessly progresses forward. With significant word choice, Alba says, ‘la muerte de Clara trastornó por completo la vida de la gran casa de la esquina. Los tiempos cambiaron.’ [the death of Clara completely upended the life of the Big House on the Corner. The times changed] (310). Through these blunt, clipped lines, Alba not only recognises that the vitality, the life force of The Big House has changed, but that this new state explicitly affects the house’s sense of time. As we come to see over the following pages, this new temporality is bound by the inflexibility of linear clock time: a monochronicity dictated by uniform units is now imposed upon the house, replacing the holistic polychronicity of a time relative to relationships and events. The shift is evident in the temporal frames of reference used by the characters: they become stationary spectators of time’s inexorable movement, helplessly observing, ‘Se avecinan tiempos muy malos’ [Very bad times are coming] (349); ‘Se avecinan tiempos atroces’ [atrocious times are coming] (382). From this point on, events begin to accelerate towards the overthrowal of the political system and the break up of the family.
The central break in the narrative is the political coup, widely understood to represent Pinochet’s dictatorship, an event which both in the narrative and real life is partly faciliated by international forces (in real life, Kissinger and the U.S.'s role in Pinochet’s takeover; in the novel, the foreigners that conspire with Esteban Trueba and the conservatives to overthrow the unnamed president). The present temporal analysis intertwines with the novel’s geopolitical commentary: the influence of foreign, Western forces destabilizes both the country and the magical polychronic cycles of the Big House. Chronology is no longer cyclical but marches forward endlessly: suddenly, the signs of entropy and aging appear everywhere in The Big House on the Corner. The imposition of this new law of time is physically manifested: the house’s boundaries shrink and solidify. Its add-ons rooms and extensions, which previously shifted to fit the people and events that happened within it, are now closed off. The house is reduced to real world architecture: its labyrinth truncated, the back rooms abandoned, locked or no longer entered. For example, Alba’s grandfather ‘cerró los salones y occupó solo la biblioteca’ [closed the rooms and occupied only the library] (317). After her death, ‘la habitación de Clara permaneció cerrada con llave’ [Clara’s bedroom remained locked] (329). The narration repeatedly emphasises ‘el abandono de los cuartos traseros, donde nadie entraba’ [the abandonment of the back rooms, where noone entered] (329). The house is now bounded by spatial—and temporal—boundaries. Paradoxically, this represents the infiltration of the outside world, the house no longer ‘a miniature kingdom’ or ‘closed world’ (282). This change is noted by Rojas: ‘A la muerte de Clara, la casa se abre definitivamente al mundo y Alba, la última de la saga, es la que se lanza a ese nuevo espacio ominoso.’ [upon Clara’s death, the house opened definitively to the world and Alba, the last of the saga, is thrown into this new ominous space] (Rojas 918). Just as Chilean society is being shaped by intervening Western forces—as La casa explicitly notes in its detailing of the political collusion between Esteban and foreign political powers—the house is now infiltrated by a Westernised time culture. Rather than a world of its own, the house is now open to the outside world, where ‘los acontecimientos estaban precipitándose y el país estaba jalonado por las luchas ideológicas’ [events were hurtling forwards, and the country was divided by ideological struggles] (378).
Like the polychronic temporality which came before, this monochronicity is hyperbolised, with the forward march of time that is now imposed on the house more dramatic than in real life. It is not simply an abstract concept of time but an extreme day to day reality for the house’s inhabitants. The entropy and decay that accompanies linearly progressing time seems accelerated, and The Big House on the Corner falls into disrepair. This begins to happen very swiftly: ‘Alba noto el deterioro desde los primeros días.’ [Alba noted the deterioration from the first days] (310); ‘abrieron grietas en las murallas y astillaron las puertas… En el transcurso de los anos siguientes la casa se convirtió en una ruina.’ [Cracks opened in the murals on the walls, the doors were chipped and splintered… Over the following years, the house became a ruin] (311). Time’s markers are everywhere, from ‘telearanas’ [cobwebs] and ‘polvo’ [dust] (312) to rotting plants: ‘las flores que se marchitaron en los jarrones, impregnando el aire con un olor dulzón y nauseabundo, donde permanecieron hasta secarse, se deshojaron, se cayeron y quedaron sólo unos tallos mustios que nadie retiró’ [the flowers shrivelled in their vases, impregnating the air with a sickly, nauseating sweetness, where they stayed until they dried, lost their petals and became withered stalks that no one threw away] (311). The inhabitants lament the ‘casarón destartalado y oscuro, casi vacío y cruzado por las corrientes del aire, en que había degenerado el mansión del anteano’ [rickety, dark house, almost empty and run through with currents of air, into which had degenerated the mansion of yesteryear] (318) which their home has become. This is not simply due to neglect—Alba’s mother Blanca, in particular, ‘luchó contra el estropicio y la decadencia con la ferocidad de una leon, pero era evidente que perdería la pelea contra el avance del deterioro’ [fought against the damage and decay with the ferocity of a lion, but it was evident that she would lose the fight against the advance of the deterioration] (317). Nor does the house follow a natural course of deterioration: within only a few years, the garden’s pergolas have rotted and broken down, the curtains have decayed and fallen from their hangers, the statues are entirely covered by moss, dead leaves and bird excrement (311–312). Time’s march wreaks not only material decay, but emotional and psychological degeneration. The house is described as living entity that had suddenly and terribly aged: ‘La gran casa de la esquina estaba más triste y vieja de lo que yo podía recordar’ [The Big House on the Corner was more sad and old than I could remember] (444); ‘las cortinas se desprendieron de sus ganchos y colgaron como enaguas de anciano’ [the curtains came loose from their hooks and hung like the petticoats of an old woman] (311). The furniture loses its magical animation, becomes lifeless: ‘Los muebles pisoteados de Alba que jugaba a las casitas se transformaron en cadávers, con los resortes al aire’ [The trampled furniture Alba had played with in her cubby houses transformed into cadavers, their springs open to the air] (312). This change from the ever-renewing cycles of polychronicity to a monodirectional and inexorably advancing experience of time drastically changes life for The Big House on the Corner.
There are also subtle changes in the temporal tenor of the narrative style, which become more pronounced as time goes on in this new phase of The Big House on the Corner. Overall, there is a subtle shortening of syntax: the flowing arabesques of embedded clauses truncate slightly or are less common. For example, during the previous phase of the house, a sample page (283) contains sentences of five to seven clauses on average. One hundred pages later (383), during the darker period of The Big House on the Corner after the death of Clara and the imposition of monochronic time, contains sentences of largely two to four clauses. This change is most notable in descriptions of the house: relative to the earlier elaborate descriptions, this syntax is choppy and abrupt:
En el transcurso de los años siguientes la casa se convirtió en una ruina. Nadie volvío ocuparse del jardín, para regarlo o para limpiarlo, hasta que pareció tragado por el olvido, los párajos y la mala yerba. Las estatuas ciegas y las fuentes cantarinas se taparon de hojas secas, excremento de pájaro y musgo. Las pérgolas, rotas y sucias, sirvieron de refugio a los bichos y de basuerero a los vecinos.
Over the following years the house became a ruin. Noone went into the garden to water or prune it, until it seemed entirely swallowed by neglect, birds and weeds. The blind statues and the bubbling fountains became clogged with dry leaves, bird excrement and moss. The pergolas, broken and dirty, became a refuge for bugs and the trash of neighbours. (311)
In a final symbol of the house’s vulnerability to the outside world, Alba is kidnapped from within its once safe walls and taken prisoner. Here, too, there is a parallel between house and inhabitant: just as Alba is taken by the military and sexually violated, the house is also violated, its boundaries penetrated by troops who force their way in: ‘…irrumpir en su casa, al amparo del toque de queda, una docena de hombres sin unifromes, armados hasta los dientes’ [a dozen soldiers without uniforms, armed to the teeth, burst into the house under the cover of curfew] (420). Both Alba and the narrative time are confined, no longer able to move freely through the years but moored to the linearly progressing present. During her imprisonment, the narrative discourse aligns closely with story time—rather than skipping forward years between paragraphs and chapters, the reader sees Alba’s almost daily perspective: being taken and imprisoned (425); her first violation at the hands of Esteban García (429); developing relationships with the fellow prisoners (432); García’s rejection of her and her imprisonment in the perrera, or doghouse, a horrific cell ‘like a tomb’ (433) without room to stand, sit or even stretch, where Alba battles despair and psychosis until her release, a few days later (435).
As Dominique Moran, a researcher in carceral geography, explains, the context of the prison changes the experience of time in several ways. Prisons are places where the temporal dimension continues to move—seconds, minutes, and days pass— but the spatial dimension remains fixed and enclosed. In spatial terms, the perrera in which Alba is held, whose impenetrable and fixed walls are designed to enclose and confine, is figured as a counterpoint to The Big House, which is not only massive but radically expanding and porous to guests and family. Unlike the infinite recursions of The Big House on the Corner, Alba’s time in the prison is rigidly controlled: prisoners are ‘bounded both spatially by physical walls, and also by time-space walls on all sides’ (Moran 309). On the one hand, this creates within Alba an extreme attention to linear time: ‘cacluló que había transcurrido toda la noche y una buena parte del día siguiente’ [she calculated that a whole night and a good part of the next day had passed] (426). This maps onto real-life experiences of prisoners, who describe being ‘acutely aware of clock time… breaking down the days into hours, minutes and seconds’ (Moran 311). Yet, as Moran’s analysis reveals, the extreme regularity of time while incarcerated, the sameness of the moments, also collapses time, causing ‘inmates to view their sentences as time not moving on’ (Moran 310). Similarly, the longer Alba spends in the cell, the more her sense of time collapses: ‘Así estuvo varias horas, tal vez días’ [She was there for several hours, maybe days] (428); ‘Trató de llevar la cuenta de los días transcurridos desde su detención, pero la soledad, la oscuridad y el miedo le trastornaron el tiempo y le dislocaron el espacio’ [She tried to keep count of the days since her detention, but the solitude, the darkness, and the fear disrupted time and dislocated space] (428). Alba is not only shut off from the outside world, but also from time’s passage, an experience which threatens to destabilise her sense of self.
The Re-Awakening of The Big House on the Corner
When Alba finally returns to the house, there is a sense of another cycle beginning, the reawakening of the house’s spirit and its own special tempo. The manner of inhabiting the house changes: the family realises that ‘había que ocupar la casa enteramente y empezar a hacer una vida normal’ [they had to occupy the house wholly and begin to lead a normal life] (451). Through material, domestic care, as well as emotionally communicating with the house and ‘refurbishing’ the memories that it holds, the house’s spirit revives, and it once more embodies the magical polychronic time of its early years. This is not only brought about by Alba’s return, but also a deliberate act to resurrect the house from its state of dormancy, to renew the family ties and reseal the boundaries between house and outside world.
Mi abuelo contrató una empresa especializada que la recorrió desde el techo hasta el sótano pasando máquinas pulidoras, limpiando cristales, pintando y desinfectando, hasta que quedó habitable. … Después nos tomamos del brazo, mi abuelo y yo, y recorrimos la casa, deteniéndonos en cada lugar para recordar el pasado y saludar a los imperceptibles fantasmas de otras épocas, que a pesar de tantos altibajos, persisten en sus puestos.
My grandfather contracted a special company that went over the house, from roof to basement, polishing, cleaning the crystal-wear, painting and disinfecting, until the house become habitable… Afterwards, we took each other arm in arm, my grandfather and I, and walked through the length of the house, stopping in each place to remember the past and greet the imperceptible spirits and ghosts of other eras, that despite so many ups and downs, still persist. (451)
We can see here the importance of embodied action, a form of physical care which restores the material and psychological dimenions of the house, as well as its inhabitants. This mode of ‘fully’ occupying the house reveals the cycles of temporality layered within the house like a palimpsest, the past and its ‘spirits and ghosts’ existing concurrently with the present. Due to this spiritual awakening of the house, the unrelenting progress of the monochronic period is halted, as illustrated in the reversal of the inhabitants’ rapid ageing:
Nos abrazamos apretadamente por un tiempo muy largo, susurrando abuelo, Alba, Alba, abuelo, nos besamos y cuando él vio mi mano se echó a llorar y maldecir y a dar bastonazos a los muebles, como lo hacía antes, y yo me reí, porque no estaba tan viejo ni tan acabado como me pareció al principio.
We hugged tightly for a long time, whispering grandfather, Alba, Alba, grandfather, we kissed and when he saw my hand he began crying and swearing, dealing blows to the furniture as he used to do before, and I laughed, because he wasn’t as old or as finished as he’d first seemed. (my italics) (444)
Alba senses, here, that the natural temporality of the house has rejuvenated her grandfather. She goes on to acknowledge the rebirth of this polychronic temporality within herself. Switching into first person and present tense for the first time, in the final pages of the novel Alba observes,
En algunos momentos tengo la sensación de que esto ya lo he vivido y que he escrito estas mismas palabras, pero comprendo que no soy yo, sino otra mujer, que anotó en sus cuadernos para que yo me sirviera de ellos. Escribo, ella escribió, que la memoria es frágil y el transcurso de una vida es muy breve y sucede todo tan deprisa, que no alcanzamos a ver la relación entre los acontecimientos, no podemos medir la consecuencia de los actos, creemos en la ficción del tiempo, en el presente, el pasado y el future, pero puede ser también que todo ocurre simultáneamente.
At times I have the sensation that I have already lived and already written these same words, though I understand that it is not I, but another woman, that recorded down in her notebooks so that I could use them. I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the course of a life is very brief and everything happens so quickly that we aren’t able to see the relation between events, we can’t measure the consequences of our actions, we believe in the fiction of time, in the present, the past and future, but it could be that everything occurs simultaneously. (453)
In this passage, the slippage between different narrative instances (Genette’s term for the context of the act of narration), between first and third person, present and past tense, speaks to the radical connectivity between temporal cycles within polychronicity. Notably, it is only after re-establishing her relationship with The Big House on the Corner that Alba is able to clarify her philosophy of time. In feeling that she embodies both herself and the women before her in the Trueba line, consciously rejecting asymmetrical time with its rigid distinctions of past/present/future, Alba acknowledges the cyclical patterns and holistic perspective of polychronicity. This is important for her own self-identity: as Levine explains, ‘a culture’s sense of time has profound consequences for an individual’s psychological, physical and emotional well-being’ (Levine 3). The re-internalisation of this radical circularity of time is seen both through Alba’s personal musings, and also structurally, as Alba uncovers the notes of family history written by her grandmother, and recasts them into the novel that we are now reading, creating a meta-circularity which comes to a head in the mirroring of the first and last line of the novel so that beginning and end merge and repeat. 'Barrabás llegó a la familia por vía marítima…’ (11, 454).
In the act of rewriting, Alba creates a palimpsestic history which embodies holistic polychronicity, the present moment encapsulating past and future cycles. Once again, the narrative discourse begins skipping back and forth through the years, weaving together the generational cycles. In the last pages, the reader learns of the child growing inside Alba, the death of her grandfather Esteban, and then is returned to the beginning of grandmother Clara’s life in the final line. Alba’s rewriting, or perhaps re-cycling, is a metafictional comment on the position of the novel within its literary tradition. According to Coddou, La casa’s ties to García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is part of the novel’s ethic of circularity: ‘every text is absorption and replica of other text(s)’ (7). La casa is ‘bound to a series of other stories’ (Coddou 7), an instalment in a chain of literary works. This form of, in Rodrigo Cánovas’ terms, ‘literary cannibalism’ (Cánovas 37), is metafictionally recreated in La casa as Alba transforms not only Clara’s notebooks but her mother’s letters, the recounts of her grandfather, administrational record books, portraits, and official documents from the building of The Big House on the Corner into the novel La casa de los espíritus (453). This, for Alba, is a time of new generation, in both senses of the word. Living within the Big House and its circular, polychronic temporality, Alba generates a new cycle, giving birth to this novel while housing new life inside her.
As Parker says, ‘the magical realist nature of these works, that is, the treatment of the extraordinary, the magical, and the absurd as normal aspects of everyday living… opens up phenomenological concerns that are not as easily or openly explored in works of realist fiction’ (Parker 12). Like a ‘kaleidoscope of mirrors’, La casa de los espíritus’ fantastical rendering of reality offers new insights into how our experience of time is embedded in our spatial and cultural surroundings: our homes. In exploring both ends of the time-culture spectrum, La casa de los espíritus offers a dialectic of the complex sense of time experienced in a Chile influenced by a globalised world, and demonstrates how time, place and space can work together in shaping a life, a family and a novel.
I will focus my analysis on Alba, who, as the narrator of the story, is the clearest candidate for the ‘subject of conception’, to use the phrase of Rundquist, to whom to attribute the subjective experience of time represented in the novel (Rundqist draws here from Fowler’s concept of mind style (Fowler 103)). Importantly, this subject of conception, in La casa, is multiple: not only does Alba, as the daughter of Blanca and granddaughter of Clara, carry the blood and attributes of these women, but also the narrative which she is writing is partly constructed of old documents from her female antecedents. Although the second home of the family, Las Tres Marias, also plays a significant role in the narrative, Alba herself only experiences The Big House on the corner, and as the titular ‘house of the spirits’, in which the narrative begins and ends, this property, I argue, is the most influential in terms of the temporality of the storyworld.
Roughly translating to Snow-white, Clear, White and (Latin) White
Indeed, according to The Sydney Review, García Márquez had intended to call his classic novel The House, indicating the importance between family and their dwelling.