A Dash of History

The 1930s saw the rise to prominence of several strongmen who has redefined a phase of modern history. They have altered the flow of history and their perversion towards violence led to several bloodsheds that would mark a dark period of history. In Germany, none is the wiser on the implications of Adolf Hitler’s ascension to the zenith of power. He started laying the groundworks for his dreams of reviving an Aryan republic. Over in Italy, the teeth of fascism came biting with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. In Spain, a new fascist was slowly inching towards absolute power. When the dusts of the recent Spanish Civil War settled, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was installed as the nation’s absolute leader.

In her latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende returned to her literary bread and butter by transporting her readers to 1930s Spain. The narrative commenced with the Dalmau family of Barcelona. An affluent family, the patriarch, Marcel Lluis, is a music professor while his wife, Carme is a teacher. They have two sons who were aiding the Republican Forces on the frontlines of the Civil War – Victor, a doctor, and Guillém a soldier who was still finding himself. The Dalmaus also stood as the surrogate parents to Roser Bruguera, a young piano prodigy. Before Guillém left for the frontlines, he and Roser grew a fondness for each other that inevitably evolved into a romantic relationship.

As General Franco’s forces stormed across Spain, he was challenging the communists and the government alike. As the entire nation was being ripped apart, the casualty count begun to skyrocket. It did not take long for the kiss of death to touch the Dalmau family. During the crucial battle of the Ebro, Guillém was killed. With Franco’s forces inching closer towards the Republican strongholds, Franco’s victory is becoming more certain. Spaniards, in fear of reprisal, started crossing the border to France to seek safety. Among them was Victor who vowed to get his mother and pregnant sister-in-law to safety.  

“My heart is broken, he told himself. It was at that moment he understood the profound meaning of that common phrase: he thought he heard the sound of glass breaking and felt that the essence of his being was pouring out until he was empty, with no memory of the past, no awareness of the present, no hope for the future.

~ Isabel Allende, A Long Petal of the Sea

Getting across proved no easy task and they had to employ the help of Victor’s Basque friend, Aitor Ibarra. During the exodus, the trio got separated but after some difficulty, they managed to reunite. Fleeing to France, however, did not afford the Spanish refugees the freedom and safety they sought after. Viewed as “undesirables” by the French authorities, the refugees were forced to either crowd in concentration camps or return to Spain. Their salvation came in the person of famous poet and future Nobel Laureate in Literature Pablo Neruda who lobbied for the transport of the refugees from the concentration camps of France to his home country of Chile.

And thus, sets sail the SS Winnipeg, the ship chartered by Neruda to ferry the refugees across the Atlantic. “That summer day, August 4, 1939, remained forever engraved on the minds of Victor Dalmau, Roser Bruguera, and the other two thousand or more Spaniards sailing toward that long, narrow South American country that clung o the mountains so as not to topple into the sea.” Despite some obstacles they encountered along the way, the ship with the Spanish exiles safely docked on September 3, 1939 in Chile. Over in Europe, the Second World War broke out.

The novel’s title, A Long Petal of the Sea, is an allusion to Allende and Neruda’s home nation of Chile. It was originally published in Spanish in 2019 as Largo pétalo de mar. It is a work of historical fiction bt it is wrapped in several layers. The first and preeminent layer pertains to the atrocities of war. War and insurgency were themes that were permeated all throughout the narrative. The story commenced with a war masterminded by General Franco. Upon leaving France, war broke out in the European continent. War and bloodshed, however, did not stop once the refugees reached Chile. Its consequences and influence found its way to reverberate to every corner of the country and of the world.

Despite the hubbub of war that silenced the voice of peace, the stream of positivity never ended flowing. Amidst the sea of darkness, beacons of hope shone through. As each layer of the narrative is unpeeled, what unravels are the different shapes and forms of hope. It maybe stifled but hope always springs eternal, especially during bleak times when we feel hopeless. It came in the form of Chile, Pablo Neruda and the SS Winnipeg. Acts of bravery, courage, and the will to survive were interspersed with the horrors of war, fascist ideologies, and dictatorship. There is also the undertone of a forbidden romance between lovers from different stations of society. The consequences of this romance gave the narrative an interesting complexion.

“That comrade of yours is too naïve by half. Chile is divided into irreconcilable groups, son. Friends are fighting, families are split down the middle; it’s impossible to talk to anyone who doesn’t think as you do. I don’t see many of my old friends anymore so that we won’t fight.”

~ Isabel Allende, A Long Petal of the Sea

One of the focus of the narrative is the unorthodox relationship between Roser and Victor. They started as brothers and sisters in the Dalmau household before they became in-laws. Drastic times call for drastic measures; refugees cannot board SS Winnipeg unless they are officially married. Victor then married his sister-in-law. Victor’s quick wit earned him Neruda’s admiration and his friendship. The absence of romantic love in their union was resounding but filial love was overflowing to the seams. The newlyweds stayed together in Chile to look after Roser and Guillém’s son, Marcel. Victor assumed the role of a father and made it his responsibility to look after his nephew.

The novel also explored seminal and timely subjects such as displacement and the struggles of establishing ones’ self in a foreign country. The refugee crisis depicted in the narrative echoes the same crisis that has gripped many countries in the contemporary. In Chile, the Spanish refugees settled themselves in a land which was at the same time familiar and unfamiliar. However, the similarities ended where the language barrier was overcome. The new settlers had to grapple with a nation that was apprehensive about welcoming them. Despite the discrimination, they managed to establish their own niche in their adopted country. In dichotomy to how most of their peers were received, the entry of the Dalmaus into Chilean society was hastened by their friendship with the upper class Solar family. All throughout the narrative, the fate of the two families intersected in different and interesting ways.

On the backdrop, Allende painted a very evocative portrait of the history of Chile. She navigated the colorful and tumultuous contemporary history of her nation with authority. Accentuating the narrative are anecdotes of Pablo Neruda; the author’s uncle and duly-elected Chilean Salvador Allende; and the regime of Augusto Pinochet, who installed himself as the president of Chile after forcefully ousting Allende. Details of these and other important and pivotal historical events were finely and carefully woven into the tapestry of the novel. Another prominent historical figure that was incorporated into the story is Elisabeth Eidenbenz. She was a teacher and a nurse who founded the Mother of Elne. During the wars that gripped Europe between 1939 and 1944, she helped save about 600 children.

The plot, however, suffered from a case of stasis. Allende captured strong, realistic, and vivid images of the Spanish Civil War, complimenting it with a dynamic story, but it was ultimately bogged down by the repetitions of scenes in the novel’s last two-thirds. Nevertheless, Allende’s prose stood tall. Over her lengthy career, she has proven herself capable of crafting and writing quality historical fiction. Her uncanny ability was demonstrated in A Long Petal of the Sea. Her storytelling is lush. She complimented her storytelling by populating it with riveting and fully-realized characters. Their values make them standout. The women, especially, were empowered and their voices were audible all throughout the story.

“Their longstanding friendship turned into a deeper complicity in which there was no room for secrets, suspicion, or offense; they started from the principle that they would never hurt each other and that if this happened, it would be unintentional. They protected each other, which made their present hardships and the ghosts of the past bearable.”

~ Isabel Allende, A Long Petal of the Sea

Parts-historical fiction, parts-family saga, A Long Petal of the Sea is a resounding victory of Isabel Allende’s powerful prose. It is a novel that covers a vast ground, accented with rich and evocative images of war and the ensuing consequences. It is about fascist regimes and dictators but it is also, above all, about love in all its forms. It is about Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera. The novel also resonated with profound subjects as its exploration of the refugee crisis is a mirror of the same crisis that is prevalent in all corners of today’s world. In A Long Petal of the Sea, Allende was also paying a fitting homage to Chile. These rich elements were cleverly and carefully woven by Allende into a compelling and magnificent tapestry that transcends time.

Ratings

79%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

Isabel Allende earned a fan in me after I read her debut novel, The House of the Spirits. Incorporating elements of history and magical realism in her colossal work, it was easily one of my all-time favorite reads. However, despite my favorable experience with my first Allende novel, none of her other works seem to interest me but when I learned that she was releasing a translated version of her latest novel, I didn’t hesitate in adding the book to my (ever expanding) reading list. A Long Petal of the Sea ended up one of many “new works” that I read in 2020, a hallmark year. I did like how Allende incorporates history in her novels. It was through her works that I learn more about the colorful and troubled history of Chile. However, unlike The House of the Spirits suffered from moments of stasis and repetitions. Nonetheless, it was a riveting and powerful portrayal of one phase of the modern history of both the world and of Chile.

Book Specs

Author: Isabel Allende
Translator(s): Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 318
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

In the late 1930s, civil war grips Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee, in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the tow must unite in a marriage neither of them desires.

Together with two thousand other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” As unlikely partners, they embrace their exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war. Starting over on a new continent, Roser and Victor face trial after trial. But they will also find joy as they await the day when they might go home. Through it all, their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going. Destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world, Roser and Victor will find that home might have been closer than they thought all along.

A masterful work of historical fiction about hope, exile and belonging, A Long Petal of the Sea shows Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.

About the Author

To learn more about Isabel Allende, please click here.