From the New York Times bestselling author of The House of the Spirits, this epic novel spanning decades and crossing continents follows two young people as they flee the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in search of a place to call home.
“Isabel Allende is a legend and this might be her finest book yet.”—J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Saints for All Occasions
Portrait Of: Isabel Allende
Pablo Neruda Saved Thousands of War Refugees. Isabel Allende Imagines Two of Them. NYT
A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA
By Isabel Allende
In January of 1939, after three and a half years of devastating civil war, Francisco Franco defeated Spain’s Republican army at Barcelona, clinching a dictatorship that would last for nearly a half-century and displacing hundreds of thousands of soldiers, activists and Republican supporters. Many fled across the Pyrenees into France thinking they’d escaped the worst, only to find themselves behind barbed wire in concentration camps like Argèles-sur-Mer, “half-dead from cold and hunger.”
Though the larger world seemed as blind to Spain’s displaced population as they’d been to the war itself, the Chilean diplomat and poet Pablo Neruda lobbied to save over 2,000 of the refugees, as many as could fit on a nine-ton cargo ship called the Winnipeg, bound for political asylum. Neruda’s far-reaching humanist act calls to mind Oskar Schindler, and is the little-known kernel of history at the heart of Isabel Allende’s 17th novel, “A Long Petal of the Sea.” Allende, we learn from her author’s note, first heard about Neruda’s “ship of hope” in her childhood, when it caught in her memory and remained there for 40 years. Now she has deftly woven fact and fiction, history and memory, to create one of the most richly imagined portrayals of the Spanish Civil War to date, and one of the strongest and most affecting works in her long career.
Spanning generations and continents, the novel follows an unforgettable pair of exiles granted passage on the Winnipeg: Victor Dalmau, an auxiliary medic in the war, and Roser Bruguera, a young woman carrying the child of Victor’s brother Guillem, missing in action. As the special consul for Spanish emigration, Neruda has been ordered to select candidates clinically, rejecting radicals and any candidates who are overly political or intellectual. His compassion becomes the stronger factor, however, an unexpected blessing for Victor and Roser, who manage to impress the poet with their selflessness and commitment to save the child at any cost.
[ Read an excerpt from “A Long Petal of the Sea.” ]
Victor and Roser marry, a bond that has nothing to do with romantic love, but something far richer and more reliable. As they begin their lives over again with nothing in Santiago, Chile, their partnership grows into deep friendship and emotional symbiosis. Only together, they realize, can they endure what they’ve lost and recover a sense of purpose.
Allende herself is no stranger to exile. Driven from Chile to Venezuela in the 1970s, during the reign of Augusto Pinochet when her name appeared on “wanted” lists, she lived in Venezuela for 13 years to survive. It was there that she began writing “The House of Spirits,” her debut novel and perhaps her best-known work of fiction. Without that displacement, Allende has said, she might never have become a writer.
Civil war can be “a hurricane that destroys a lot in its path,” as one of the characters tells us. But it can also be a powerful force of transformation — both for individuals and for nations. Allende’s personal experience may have served to broaden her perspective and sensitivity when it comes to complex politics and ideologies. Either way, she shows a deft hand and tremendous poise here, creating a story that feels true as well as consequential.
In “A Long Petal of the Sea,” as in much of Allende’s fiction, there is the sense that every human life is an odyssey, and that how and where we connect creates the fabric of our existence: the source of our humanity. If what happens to us — the axis of our fate — is nearly always beyond our control, stubbornly unchangeable, we can still choose what we cleave to and fight for, refusing to be vanquished. This is true belonging, and how we build a world.
SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile, like numerous other countries, has been debating whether to welcome migrants — mostly from Haiti, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela — or to keep them out. Although only half a million immigrants live in this nation of 17.7 million, right-wing politicians have stoked anti-immigrant sentiment, opposed the increased rates of immigration in the past decade and directed bile especially against Haitian immigrants.
Immigration was a major issue in elections here in November and December. The winner was Sebastián Piñera, a 68-year-old center-right billionaire who was president from 2010 to 2014 and will take over in March. Mr. Piñera blamed immigrants for delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime. He benefited from the support of José Antonio Kast, a far-right politician who has been campaigning to build physical barriers along the borders with Peru and Bolivia to stop immigrants.
Chileans aren’t alone in witnessing growing xenophobia and nativism, but we would do well to remember our own history, which offers a model for how to act when we are confronted with strangers seeking sanctuary.
On Aug. 4, 1939, the Winnipeg set sail for Chile from the French port of Pauillac with more than 2,000 refugees who had fled their Spanish homeland.