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Cuentos de Eva Luna (The Stories of Eva Luna) is South American writer Isabel Allende’s love letter to One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights). Published in 1989 as a sequel to the novel Eva Luna, Cuentos de Eva Luna makes the almighty storyteller Scheherazade a figure who traverses cultures.

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Through her own narrator, Eva Luna, Allende channels the almost-mystical and feminine power of Scheherazade, who relies on her wits to prolong her life, cleverly keeping her murderous husband-king entertained with wondrous stories. As literary scholar Samuel Amago, who completed an extensive study of Allende’s short story collection, notes,

Similar to the Thousand and One Nights, Cuentos de Eva Luna is a work that exists only in itself, as the stories are insulated from the referential world by two frames: first by the quotations from the Thousand and One Nights that begin and end the collection, then by the larger frame of the love story shared by Rolf Carle and Eva Luna.

With this base material in mind, it’s not surprising that the first story Eva Luna tells her own lover (who, thankfully, is just a curious filmmaker and not a murderous king) is that of Belisa Crepusculario, a traveling scribe who earns her living with words. Hired by an ambitious Colonel to write a moving political speech, Belisa offers a bizarre bonus to her unsuspecting client: two magic words, which she whispers into his ear. Hence the story’s title “Dos Palabras,” or “Two Words.”

Headshot of Peruvian-born writer Isabel Allende, Stockholm, Sweden, October 10, 1973.
Isabel Allende, 1973. Getty

No one but the Colonel hears Belisa’s gifted words. Not even the readers, which adds a lingering sense of mystery to the story. What exactly did Belisa whisper, and why aren’t readers allowed to hear it?

What’s known within the context of the story is that the words, once spoken or thought of, carry the power of a spell. While on campaign, a remembrance of the two words is enough to send the Colonel spiraling into bouts of dizziness and confusion, alarming his underlings and fascinating readers. A widely accepted theory is that they are “Te amo,” Spanish for “I love you.” It’s also been speculated that Belisa whispered her own name into the Colonel’s ear so that he would never stop thinking of her, whatever the distance between them. The words aren’t revealed at the end of the story, though it’s heavily implied that they ultimately unite the destinies of the Colonel and Belisa.

Allende has yet to reveal the words of enchantment. Whatever she intended them to be, no one can contest the central message of the story: the power of words is unmatchable, capable of rendering dramatic change, like a sweeping storm, both for the individual and the masses. Belisa chose two words to alter a single man’s life, and Allende crafted each word of her story to deliberately leave readers reeling. As Allende herself insisted in a 1994 interview with Jan Goggans for Writing on the Edge,

[T]here is something magic in the storytelling. You tap into another world. The story becomes whole when you tap into the collective story, when other people’s stories become part of the writing, and you know that it’s not your story only.

There are two words this writer can confidently use to describe Allende’s The Stories of Eva Luna: “Read this.”

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Marvels & Tales, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2017), pp. 239–260
Wayne State University Press
Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 28, No. 56 (July-December 2000), pp. 43–60
Latin American Literary Review
Writing on the Edge, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Fall 1994), pp. 127–142
Regents of the University of California, on behalf of its Davis University Writing Program