By Ana Mendoza
MADRID – Chilean-American author Isabel Allende explores the topic of slavery in her new novel, a subject she says is as important as ever because “there have never been more slaves in the world as there are now.”
“There are 27 million people who currently live in slavery, people retained against their will and forced to work without remuneration, especially in southeast Asia,” Allende said Wednesday in an interview with Efe shortly before presenting her new novel in Spain.
“La isla bajo el mar” (The Island Below the Sea), which is set at the end of the 18th century and features a mixed-race, female protagonist who was sold at the age of 9 to the owner of a big sugar plantation on the island of Hispaniola, became an immediate bestseller following its release two weeks ago.
In response, Plaza Janes, which is publishing the novel across the Spanish-speaking world, has doubled the work’s print run from 150,000 to 300,000.
Allende, who is no longer suffering from the stomach ailment that bothered her while writing the novel, said she tried to recreate the abuses committed against slaves on the Saint-Domingue colony, France’s wealthiest.
“I spent two years convinced I had cancer. I went from one doctor to another and no one could cure me. When I finished the book, the symptoms went away and so far (they haven’t returned),” she added.
“There were a half-million slaves (on that French colony) and it was cheaper to work them to death for four or five years than take care of them,” said the world’s best-selling author writing in Spanish, with 51 million copies sold.
Allende has created a series of unforgettable female characters starting with her debut novel, “La casa de los espiritus” (The House of the Spirits), and Zarite – the slave who fights to win her freedom in “La isla bajo el mar” – figures to take her rightful place among that group.
“I don’t know where Zarite came from. As incredible as it sounds, I’d say she appeared to me, that I dreamed her,” said the author of “Hija de la fortuna” (Daughter of Fortune), “Retrato en sepia” (Portrait in Sepia), “Afrodita” (Aphrodite) and “Paula” (Paula), among other titles.
“Of all the characters I’ve created, Zarite for me is the one I most feel existed. I see her fully. She’s tall, slim, strong, with an elegant neck and hands, with high cheekbones, sleepy eyes. I could even say how she smells, I feel her within me,” Allende said.
An avowed feminist and defender of women’s rights, the 67-year-old Allende said the female protagonists of her works “resemble Zarite to a lesser or greater degree. All are women who are born under circumstances of oppression or isolation and who manage to overcome them through tremendous effort and thanks to other women.”
The slave rebellion that resulted in the creation of Haiti “was the only successful slave revolt in history,” she said.
Many lives were lost and not only among the blacks. “It was terrible even for Napoleon’s army. The emperor who had brought Europe to its knees sent 30,000 men to Saint-Domingue, but they were defeated by illness, the climate and the fighting of (the rebellious slaves).”
Following the revolt, the characters in the novel travel to New Orleans, a city that Allende said has “fascinated” her since her second novel, “El zorro” (Zorro). The “French flavor” in that capital is due to “the 10,000 French refugees who arrived there fleeing from Haiti,” the author said.
The ending of “La isla bajo el mar” is open-ended and some readers have speculated about the possibility of a sequel, but Allende says the novel is finished and that she hopes she “doesn’t have to revisit such a terrible topic.” EFE