Eva Luna: character over plot in a South American setting

by Max Glowacki, Canford School Year 13 student

Eva Luna (1988) is one of Isabel Allende’s earliest works, and perfectly shows off her abilities as a writer. It’s not only enthralling for its characters but also as a showcase of the cultures Allende had experienced. It uses the magical realism techniques she picked up from García Márquez, as well as picaresque characterisation, to make a captivating novel and a fantastic window into South American life.

This novel demonstrates clearly the importance of people in a story and wastes no time by launching straight into the titular character’s origins, beginning with her mother, Consuelo. Unlike works by García Márquez such as Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada or Del Amor y Otros Demonios, the novel does not start by grounding itself in reality, either with a prologue or simple narration. Instead, in Eva Luna we are treated to a precursory 11journey through Consuelo’s life with the aim of acquainting us with the characters’ stories, not the world they inhabit.

The character of Eva is deeply explored, and develops as the book progresses.  The novel is a bildungsroman, not only for Eva, but also, as will be discussed later, for Rolf Carlé. It is through witnessing this character development that we side with these people throughout the novel. We understand Eva’s motivations for freeing the inmates from the prison near Agua Santa, we appreciate her love for Riad Halabí, we sympathise with her during her mistreatment by her various patrones, and we can celebrate with her when she finally falls in love with Rolf and begins a new life. Most of all, we can learn to understand her actions even if they break the law or may hurt others. This is the picaresque characterisation of Eva that allows us to sympathise with her when she acts in a childish or mischievous manner. An example is when she attacks her patrona and (in her mind at least) scalps her. Although the action itself may seem wrong, we understand that the patrona ‘deserved it’. While this way of thinking may seem childish, we can support the action because Eva herself is a child. We therefore experience the world through her eyes, and we learn to think in the same way she does.

The importance of character becomes more apparent with each passing chapter, as Allende takes time out from the story to describe the personalities of each individual in the novel. Whereas the professor could easily be the cold, distant master in other novels, here we are treated to an exploration of his personality: we understand that he does have a tenderness to him, a soft spot that is simply masked by his constant and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. It allows us to, if not like the character, then at least sympathise with him because he has his priorities and will not deviate from them, even in the face of charging guardias.

A character like Riad Halabí is a perfect example of character development.  We not only get to know him through his interaction with Eva, but we also get to explore his backstory. He’s developed from an outsider in Agua Santa to a complex character with a personality and motivations directly influenced by his history. Even Zulema, his unlikeable wife, gets the same treatment by Allende, and by understanding her story we are allowed to empathise with a typically antagonistic character.

Finally, the most important character in the story, apart from Eva herself, is the man she ends up with: Rolf Carlé. Allende tells his story throughout the novel in parallel with Eva’s. We never spend too much time reading about one before the other one’s life comes back into play. Their lives develop in tandem and it’s evident, as the story unfolds, that these two will eventually end up together. However, Allende’s aim isn’t to surprise us at the end with this. Instead, she uses Rolf’s story in the novel principally to show that everyone is important somehow, whether they be a young boy from war-torn Europe or a near-feral girl from the unknown South America. These two people could be anyone, and the focus on them in the novel once again reinforces the importance of character 12over plot. This is demonstrated by Rolf enjoying WWII despite all the bloodshed because he could finally lead a good life with his family. He is also shown to be kind and gentle by his effort to care for his mentally challenged sister. When Rolf leaves Europe because of the guilt he feels over his father’s death (a murder he didn’t even commit), he has been developed into a protagonist that, like Eva, we understand and support.

The only character in the book that isn’t fleshed out is Eva’s own father. We only really know that Consuelo gave Eva the name of his tribe, Children of the Moon, or Luna. This demonstrates how Eva’s father in not important to her character (as directly stated by the mother when she gives birth). The natives, such as Eva’s father, form an integral part of the nature of this vague country, as their reclusive nature means that they embody the unexplored and wild nature of it. The Summer Palace of El Benefactor is the best example of them in the novel, where the natives slowly creep in and take it over. When the palace becomes overgrown and overrun, what was a foreign and out of place edifice invading the private space of the natives in their jungle becomes a part of the landscape. The people and plants further symbolise the wild nature of the continent and demonstrate how, given time and left to themselves, the man-made structures of the colonisers will return to an untameable, uncivilised state.

Eva Luna is a unique novel with unique characters. It takes some of the most famous and effective literary techniques to create a memorable story and provides us with a grounded perspective of South American culture and history while simultaneously presenting a whole new world for us to explore through the characters. It is a fantastic way to understand better Hispanic culture and explore the aspects of life so important to Allende.  Above all, it’s a very entertaining read.