March 04, 1991 12:00 PM

by Isabel Allende

Gracefully spun off the Chilean-born Allende’s 1988 novel, Eva Luna, this collection of absorbing tales is an explicit homage to A Thousand and One Nights, transplanting Scheherazade’s sense of fable and magic to Latin America.

Eva herself, a modern-day troubadour whose TV-newscaster boyfriend seems to need her stories to distance himself from grim reality, appears only marginally in the action. But her attitude—a reverence for myth and history grounded in a feeling for the ironic-cynical present—is pervasive.

There is, for example, “Phantom Palace,” in which a Latin American dictator abducts a European ambassador’s wife, who ends up running off to live among Indians—Indians whose land was taken from them in the first place by European invaders hundreds of years before.

Many of the stories, though, have no political subtext, centering on women whose bittersweet belief in love stubbornly persists. In “Simple Maria.” a prostitute dies, longing—against all reasonable behavior—for the return of the irresponsible lover who had saved her from despair over the death of her son: “When she grew weary of waiting in vain and felt that her soul was covered with scales, she decided that it would be better to leave this world.”

Happy endings are few; Eva is optimistic but never romantic. She and perhaps Allende are not unlike Belisa, the poetic-practical heroine of one engaging story. Belisa, writes Allende, “made her living selling words…. Her prices were fair. For five centavos she delivered verses from memory, for seven she improved the quality of dreams, for nine she wrote love letters, for twelve she invented insults for irreconcilable enemies. She also sold stories, not fantasies but long, true stories she recited at one telling, never skipping a word. This is how she carried the news from one town to another.” (Atheneum, $18.95)

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