This short story was written in 1989 by Isabel Allende and is one of the foremost examples of the realismo magico present in works written during El Boom Latinamericano. The story is set in a small Chilean village and explores the power of language from the perspective of a young girl named Belisa.
Belisa Crepusculario, the protagonist, was never given any name by her parents—thus, she named herself using the words “beauty” and “twilight”. She escaped her poor upbringing and traveled all across the country to sell words of many kinds from news to stories, to poems, and advice.
Since childhood, Belisa endured many hardships. When she was twelve, there was a drought where she lived. Her family didn’t survive, and she had to bury them by herself—she feared that her death was near as well, and embarked on a journey towards the sea hoping to save her life. When she finally reached a place with water, she first encountered words and their magical abilities by some twist of fate. She knew there were not a lot of honorable positions for her to work, so she chose to sell words. With the last dime she had, she brought a dictionary and learned how to read and write from a priest. ✍️
This changed her life, as people now lined up to listen to her speeches. Wherever she went she brought news from other parts of the country and would give people advice. She not only entertained but also helped people by giving secret words to end their suffering. In times of difficulty, these words helped their recipient cope with problems. Belisa lived a nomad life.
One day she was approached by El Mulato, a feared rebel, who forcefully carried her away to the leader of their rebel group. The leader, called the Colonel, demanded to see her because he required her services. He was the most feared man in the land, but he wanted to be respected and loved by people instead because he was planning on running for president. Belisa strangely felt sympathy for him when she saw the Colonel and wanted to help him. He asked her to write a compelling campaign speech for him, and Belisa agreed. In addition, she gave the Colonel two secret words even though he didn’t ask for them, before she left. 🤔
The Colonel used Belisa’s speech to win the hearts of the citizens, and he inspired people with his poetic delivery. The people believed that the Colonel was capable of leading the country toward a bright future. However, the Colonel soon became very restless because of the two words Belisa had given him—he repeated them all the time and was tormented by the effect they had on him. El Mulato noticed his leader’s distress and tracked down Belisa. He accused her of witchcraft, and demanded that she take back her words to end the Colonel’s suffering. Belisa came to look at the Colonel, and when their eyes met she approached him and held his hand. It was at that moment the colonel’s men knew—the Colonel will never be able to break free from that magic. He wasn’t possessed, he was just in love.
The readers never learn what the two words Belisa gave the Colonel were, but it is widely believed that the two words are “Te amo,” or “I love you.”
Allende’s use of realismo magico is the main element of this novela that ties the story to the overarching literary movement. Realismo magico embeds elements of magic into a realistic narrative in an attempt to alter the audience’s perceptions of space and time. ⌛
El Boom Latinamericano was a literary movement that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. As many Latin American countries experienced political upheaval during this time, the works put out by writers in these countries challenged existing conventions, especially ones that were rooted in European thought. Through magical realism, Latin American writers such as Isabel Allende challenged Western European rationalism.
Realismo magico was also a way for these writers to construct a new world around them, which also served an escapist purpose from the grim reality that surrounded them as many dictators cracked down on free thought during this time.
There are 3 main characters in this story:
Belisa Crepusculario: She escaped her poor upbringing and earns a living selling words to people. She gave herself her name from the Spanish words for “beauty” and “twilight”.
Colonel: A feared man and leader of a rebel group, but earns the faith of the people around him as he uses the words that Belisa gives him. As the story progresses, he falls more and more in love with her and appears to be possessed by her after she leaves him.
El Mulato: A rebel and one of the Colonel’s followers, who brings Belisa to him.
Isabel Allende is a Chilean-American writer, born in 1942. She is well known for using magical realism in her famous works. She is considered one of the most popular Spanish writers of all time and she has many awards, such as Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2010 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
With her imaginative and captivating storytelling, Allende has become one of the most celebrated and widely read Latin American authors of her generation. Her works have been praised for their vivid characters, imaginative use of magical realism, and exploration of important social and cultural issues, including gender equality and the experiences of women.
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia
Magical realism is one of the most prominent themes in this story, and is most visible in the idea that Belisa’s words have power, and she can manipulate people with them.
This is most visible when El Mulato says to the Colonel: "Te traje a esta bruja para que le devuelvas sus palabras" - “I brought you this witch so that you return her words”. Belisa’s words were believed to have such power that they possessed the Colonel for long after she was gone.
As the story progresses, transformation is most visible in the Colonel and how he acts toward others. Before he meets Belisa, he is a very strong leader with a very masculine image, but he only has the respect of his rebel group—he wants to be respected by the common people around him as well, which is why he seeks out Belisa.
However, Belisa changes him and the readers can see this in how the Colonel’s behavior changes—he gains the respect of the people around him after using the speech Belisa wrote, and the town deems him worthy of running for president and being their leader. This is the effect Belisa had on him: she made him seem more human. This is further seen in how the Colonel slowly starts to become possessed by her words after she leaves: he is in love, which is a very human feeling that was previously repressed in him and he never expressed outwardly.
The clear difference between the Colonel at the beginning of the novela vs. at the end is evidence of Belisa and her “power of words”.
Belisa didn't have many opportunities, and she gets a job where she doesn't lose her dignity and can adapt by selling her words. Especially after her family passes away, she is forced to fend for herself and adapt to the environment around her so that she can survive.
Two literary devices you should be familiar with in this text are:
Metáfora: “...iban hacia el sur siguiendo el espejismo del agua” - “...they went south following the mirage of the water”
Hipérbole: “...eran esas dos palabras que llevaba clavadas en el vientre.” - “... were those two words that he carried stuck in his belly.”
"Dos palabras" is considered to be a prime example of Allende's imaginative and captivating storytelling style, which has become one of the defining characteristics of her writing and has earned her a reputation as one of the most celebrated and widely read authors in the Latin American literary canon. Her works continue to be widely read and studied, and have been praised for their imaginative use of magical realism, memorable characters, and powerful explorations of important social and cultural issues.