Chapter 9 - Little Alba
This chapter focuses on the birth and childhood of Blanca's daughter, Alba. She is born feet-first in "the big house on the corner" moments after Blanca barrels through the door and directly into the room Clara has been preparing for her. She is born under the best possible astrological conditions, much to her grandmother's delight. Blanca names her Alba, or "dawn," when Clara refuses to have the child named after her for superstitious reasons. She has her great aunt Rosa's dark green hair and Pedro Tercero García's black "old man's eyes." Her legal father, Jean de Satigny, disappears completely from the Truebas' lives. Alba is told that her father was a noble aristocrat who died in the desert, and she dreams of his death frequently until the day when, as an adult, she goes to identify Jean de Satigny's corpse in the morgue. Other than the lie about her father's identity, Alba is brought up in a very straightforward manner by the whole household. She has a special kinship with her uncle Jaime, and is the only person granted access to his library. During her childhood, she witnesses Amanda's departure and watches Clara sharpening her spiritual abilities. Alba has no formal education, but is extremely smart and learns quickly. Despite himself, Esteban Trueba loves his granddaughter passionately.
Meanwhile, Nícolas's wanderings take him on a pilgrimage to India. He returns an emaciated vegan who refuses to wear clothing and spends all his time writing a huge spiritual treatise. The published treatise is a failure, although Nícolas gains a fair number of followers, including Alba. He teaches her his ascetic ways until Esteban orders him to stop. As for Esteban, he derives all his joy from Alba while his relationships with all the other family members disintegrate. Blanca hits the peak of her beauty, and men begin to court her and lavish attention on Alba. A Jewish man and Holocaust survivor known as The King of the Pressure Cookers comes closest to winning Blanca, but Esteban frightens him off. One day, Blanca dresses her daughter finely and takes her to a garden, where she meets Pedro Tercero, whom she does not know is her real father. Thereafter, Blanca goes alone to see him on weekends. Other than her continuing romance with Pedro Tercero, she has a hard life. Then one day, after a visit from a friend with a mentally disabled grandson, Blanca begins a weekly pottery class for "mongoloids," which she finds exhausting but rewarding.
As for Alba, "the most important person in the house and the strongest presence in her life" is Clara. At the age of six, her life is marked by her first encounter with Esteban García. He arrives at the main house of Tres Marías during one of Esteban Trueba and Alba's visits. Alba comes upon him as he burns with hatred, surveying the grandeur that he feels is rightfully his as a grandson of the patrÃ³n. He is aroused by Alba, and he places her hand on his erect penis. He is startled when she knows the word "penis" from her Uncle Jaime's anatomy books, and jumps away from her just before Esteban Trueba arrives. Esteban García asks the patron for a recommendation to the police academy and a government subsidy for his education. Remembering how he cheated Esteban García out of his reward as a child, the patrÃ³n grants his request. As the young man leaves, the patron asks him why his name is Esteban, and Esteban García replies, "Because of you, sir." Esteban Trueba has no idea that the young man is his illegitimate grandson and hates him passionately. Clara dies on Alba's seventh birthday, after making all the necessary preparations. She has decided to die, and no one can stop her. Esteban is wracked with pain as Clara dies, and the rest of the household is equally distraught. Only little Alba is calm, believing her grandmother's earlier explanations that death is "just a change" and nothing to fear or mourn. Clara dies with little Alba holding her hand.
Chapter 10 - The Epoch of Decline
This chapter opens from the perspective of Esteban, who tells us that he is almost ninety and still convinced that he is shrinking, although doctors think he is imagining it. When Clara died, he recalls, he was inconsolable, although he felt that the two of them were finally at peace with one another. He also understood that Clara had died simply because she had fulfilled her purpose on Earth, and had "escaped to another dimension." He lay with her on the bed one last time and prepared her for the funeral. Clara was buried along with Nívea's head, which had been long forgotten in the basement. He designed a mausoleum for himself with statues of Clara and Rosa, the two loves of his life. Esteban says that at first he wanted to die as soon as possible, but soon realized that "Clara the clearest" was still with him.
As the chapter's title suggests, Clara's death begins a period of decline in the Trueba family's history. Overnight, Esteban Trueba turns into a shrunken old man constantly wearing mourning clothes, and begins carrying Clara's false teeth in a little bag around his neck. The house and garden go to ruin, and there are no more visitors - human or otherwise. Only Clara's room remains intact, which is where the narrator found Clara's "notebooks that bore witness to life" and constructed the family's story from them out of pure fascination. Jaime continues helping the poor while Nícolas organizes the I.U.N., the Institute for Union with Nothingness, and teaches a growing number of disciples. When the press catches hold of the fact that the Senator's son is leading such an endeavor, they try to use it to smear Esteban Trueba's name. One day, Esteban finds Alba meditating with her head shaved like the rest of Nícolas's disciples. He marches over to the I.U.N., where he has thugs destroy all of the furniture. In response, Nícolas leads his followers to the gates of Congress, where they stage a peaceful protest culminating in his lying naked in the street. Esteban Trueba falls into a swoon that almost kills him. When he comes to, he sends Nícolas out of the country, although he provides him with enough money to live comfortably. Nícolas ends up continuing his mission in North America, where he becomes rich and gains wide respect for his spiritual endeavors.
Esteban Trueba enrolls Alba in a British school because he is convinced that she will have to make a living "like a man." Alba does not take easily to formal education, but manages to endure it for the ten years she attends the school. After Clara's death she becomes closer to Blanca, but emulates Clara by recording events in a notebook. After Esteban Trueba's mausoleum is complete, he enlists Jaime's help to steal Rosa the Beautiful's corpse so that he can bury it alongside Clara's.
Esteban Trueba gains great respect and also ridicule as the country's champion of conservatism and an enemy of Marxism. Pedro Tercero becomes a famous folk singer. Blanca and Pedro Tercero's relationship is limited to weekend visits, although they are each other's true loves. Alba is never told that Pedro Tercero is her real father even though they spend memorable times together - not even when she and Blanca bury Jean de Satigny's body. Esteban Trueba visits the Christopher Columbus brothel, where he again sleeps with Transito Soto. Afterwards, the prostitute consoles him while he weeps with grief for Clara.
Alba's birth revives the Trueba family. Alba is not only born under the luckiest astrological conditions, but feet first, as though ready to "hit the ground running" in life. Indeed, she is a very gifted child and is given many different tools to deal with life's experiences by the various people living in "the big house on the corner." She is a perfect balance between her Uncle Jaime's academic contributions, her Uncle Nícolas's anti-materialism and endurance training, her grandfather Esteban's rare love, and most importantly, her grandmother Clara's teachings about the spiritual world. Ironically, Alba's mother is the person who plays the smallest part in raising her. In this way, Blanca breaks the generations-old tradition of developing the strongest possible bond between mother and daughter. In accordance with the novel's link between motherhood and spirituality, this is not surprising: Blanca is not very spiritual and, accordingly, not very motherly.
Chapter 9 highlights the contrast between two types of passion: love and hate. Esteban is more accustomed to hatred, but he cannot help but love little Alba. He places all the faith he saw dashed by his children in his young granddaughter. Esteban has a habit of injuring those closest to him, such as Clara and Blanca, yet he does not lay a hand on Alba. Even though Alba represents a new "dawn" for the Trueba family, she still cannot change or escape its pattern of mingling love with suffering. While Esteban Trueba does not visit any of his customary violence upon her, she becomes the target of Esteban García's revenge from an early age. As Alba explains later, Esteban García visits his hatred of Esteban Trueba upon Alba because of fate. Trueba raped Pancha García two generations earlier, unknowingly setting in motion Alba's own future pain, and Trueba's vicarious suffering.
Clara's death marks the Trueba family's slow descent into infamy and ruin. Clara is quite literally the family's "clear light," illuminating their futures and filling their lives with joy and excitement. Once her nurturing presence is gone, Esteban's destructive presence takes over, and thus begins the "epoch of decline." In this chapter, Allende takes a moment to highlight the contrast between the unlikely couple of Esteban and Clara. She uses each person's effect on plants to symbolize their effect on the people around them. When Esteban enters a room, the flowers and plants in it wither, whereas Clara makes them thrive. When she dies, so do the plants. If flowers represent not only people but also the joy and fullness of life, these things too disappear along with Clara. At the end of Chapter 10, we begin to see that Esteban is no exception: in Clara's absence, he begins to wither both literally and spiritually. He is convinced he is shrinking, and is unable to keep up his former, domineering persona. We see the latter of these two effects most clearly during Esteban's visit to Transito Soto. He is in what should be a powerful position, paying a woman to please him sexually, and yet he dissolves into a helpless boy who needs to be rocked at Transito's bosom.
True to her belief in the existence of other dimensions, Clara approaches her death calmly and without fear. She tells Alba that death is "just a change" and not to fear it. However, she will later reappear in spirit form to urge her granddaughter to cheat death and continue living. The way Esteban reacts to Clara's death highlights more clearly the essential difference between them. Whereas Clara views life and death as two parts of something larger, Esteban understands them in a conventional way. He makes his view evident by constructing the mausoleum with his two loves' likenesses sculpted from stone. Up to this point, Esteban has seen life and death as things, concrete and definite as the stone itself. The construction of the mausoleum another example of Esteban's materialism; he wants to be surrounded by opulence even in death, and even at the price of disrespecting Rosa by exhuming her corpse.
Despite his enduring materialism, Esteban finds himself becoming more spiritual in the wake of Clara's death. While he formerly considered the existence of the spiritual world nonsense, Esteban now believes that Clara's spirit remains nearby. Indeed, he even begins to see her spirit roaming the rooms of "the big house on the corner." Clara's spirit brings Esteban comfort. However, there is also a repentant element in his newfound spirituality. Of all the objects Clara left behind, Esteban chooses to wear her teeth around his neck. They are reminders of his former cruelty as much as they are reminders of her. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner wears the Albatross around his neck as a mark of his irreverence towards the spiritual world. Even after the Albatross drops into the sea, the Ancient Mariner still bears its weight symbolically - his error haunts him. Esteban wears Clara's teeth around his neck as if acknowledging his own errors. Just as the Ancient Mariner is never free of the memory of the Albatross, Esteban is never free of the memory of Clara. The essential difference is that Esteban considers Clara's haunting a blessing instead of a curse.
Despite his small spiritual awakening, Esteban Trueba remains a materialistic and practical man. For example, his need to protect his own career eclipses his love for Nícolas. Instead of negotiating with his son and trying to understand his choices, he discourages Nícolas until the latter tries to publicly shame him. Esteban is still selfish enough to send his own son into exile. However, as he did with Férula, he gives Nícolas enough money to live comfortably. In another gesture, Esteban Trueba puts Alba through a strict formal education. Even though such an education is not what Alba wants and not necessarily what is best for her, Esteban's intentions are good. He wants to make Alba strong, practical, and self-sufficient like he is, because he believes that these qualities are the keys to a good life. As he has in the past with Clara, Rosa, and Férula, Esteban shows what love he has for Nícolas and Alba in a material way.