Paradise Found ... in Two Worlds

By Dorn, Georgette M. | Americas (English Edition), May-June 1991 | Go to article overview

Paradise Found ... in Two Worlds

Dorn, Georgette M., Americas (English Edition)

ELENA CASTEDO has had to adapt to more than a few different surroundings. She was born in Barcelona, Spain, exiled with her family in France after the Spanish Civil War, and brought up in Chile. As an adult, Castedo has lived all over the world.

After a tragic first marriage in the United States, Castedo was widowed with two children and no means of support. During the difficult years that followed, she and the children lived in rented rooms or in condemned houses and moved from coast to coast. They searched the trash for old furniture and other necessities and bought clothes for a few cents at church charity sales. Castedo had no professional qualifications or college degree, and the jobs she held were barely enough to support the family. She worked as a door-to-door saleswoman, a private teacher of Spanish, a model, a day-care center attendant, a social worker and an electric appliance demonstrator.

Through good fortune and a fighting spirit, Castedo came into contact with people who opened doors for her in the academic community, helping her secure grants for study and research. While supporting her children, she earned a master's degree in Hispanic American literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she also won awards as the best humanities student. Next came a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from Harvard University, followed by work as a consultant in cultural affairs, a teacher of literature at a number of universities, and the directorship of the Inter-American Bibliography Review, published by the Organization of American States.

All lovers of literature wonder how a literary success comes about. In Castedo's case, she claims to be the one most surprised. After her basic problems were solved, knowing she could pay for her children's college education and secure in a stable second marriage, she decided to do what she had always dreamed of: write fiction. Although she fantasized that someday her books would grace library shelves and even appear on reading lists in literature courses, she never expected that her first novel, Paradise, would be a huge and immediate success. As noted in the Spanish newspaper El Tiempo, "critical response has been overwhelmingly positive." One reviewer after another in Chile, the United States and Spain heaped lavish praise on Paradise and treated its publication as a major event. When asked about what influenced her work, Castedo says that she grew up steeped in Spanish literature, from the classics El Lazarillo de Tormes, and El Buscon and Cervantes to the stylists of the Generation of '98. Chilean and other Latin American literary traditions also left their makr. She read the authors "required" in her generation: Flaubert, Proust, Gide, and Camus. In Spanish translation she absorbed Hesse, Mann, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Ibsen, and Tagore, and after learning English, there were the British and North American authors to catch up on. She turned to more contemporary authors only after her own style was fairly well formed.

In "Mi libro favorito" (my favorite book), a literary column in the Spanish newspaper Diario 16, Castedo says: "Don Quijote continues to be my favorite book. The self-awareness of twentieth century literature, the avant-garde, Joyce, Kafka, characters blending into reality like those of Pirandello and Agapito Perez--all that arrived more than 300 years after Don Quijote which explores all of these different levels of reality." In a similar column of the Spanish newspaper El Sol, Castedo expalins, "I believe in a vital thread, the inner change experienced by the characters stemming from what happens in their lives in the time of the novel, although some secondary character--a useful contrast--may have a bullet-proof inner self that refuses to change one iota. Some readers of Paradise will be content with external incident. Others, interested in the character's inner development, will follow how the narrator tests their assumptions from chapter to chapter, finally leading to her own theory of life. …

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