Review of A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (2019)

Sometimes books can be read almost by serendipity.

A selection of the media, both films and books, I have consumed recently have revolved around three themes: the Spanish Civil War (Homage to Catalonia), imperialism and neo colonialism (The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins) and the 1973 Coup in Chile (Chicago Boys). By selecting A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende, I inadvertently found a book that covered all three.

As I have only recently returned to reading with a zest I haven’t experienced since I was twelve, my knowledge of authors beyond the Anglosphere is limited due to my voluntary literary sabbatical. My college reading was dominated by whatever was on my parents’ bookshelf, sports books and the occasional tome recommended to me by friends. Since I have started reading as something that is both habitual and treasured, I have tried to find out about new authors from different geographical locales and historical epochs. I had heard the name Isabel Allende before due to having a cursory knowledge of her familial links to Salvador Allende, the president of Chile before he was overthrown in a bloody coup on September 11, 1973. I knew she was an author whose works had been rated highly. Call me a sheep if you will, but based on this reputation alone, I decided to read one of her novels.

A spontaneous search on the Kinokuniya website produced a range of options for me to select, so I just went with her most recent work without reading the particulars of the story. Thus, I found a story with a coincidental link to the previously read and watched titles I listed above.

A Long Petal of the Sea, a title that evokes a description of the shape of Chile, is the story of Victor Dalmau, his intended sister in law, Roser Bruguera, and their journey from the scarred carnage of the closing stages of the Spanish civil war to settling in Chile as refugees brought over on the SS Winnipeg; a French cargo ship organized by the yet to be Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda. The Winnipeg was to be converted to transport refugees from the advancing Nationalist army of Caudillo Francisco Franco to Valparaíso in Central Chile. Victor, an untrained field medic in the front line trenches, is born of a family with a partisan investment in the war. While his parents, Marcel and Carme, have sympathies for the Republicans, his brother, Guillem, is a volunteer trying to vainly hold off the inevitable collapse of what liberty they have left.

Upon Marcel’s death, it is decided that the family should flee. However, things are thrown awry in that Roser has fallen pregnant to Guillem, who has been obliterated in an explosion. With time being of the essence, Carme, a child bearing Roser, their Catalan friend Aitor Ibarra and eventually Victor make it across the Pyrenees to France, where they are given the opportunity to board the Winnipeg; a vessel in which family ties, moral character and vocational qualifications are given precedence. It is there that Victor and Roser make an uncomfortable decision to increase the likelihood of survival. And despite enjoying decades of contentment, community and joy, they are yet again confronted with history repeating itself in the ugly shadow of Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of the Chilean government.

A mural depicting Picasso’s ‘Guernica’: a timely reminder of the victims of the Spanish Civil War that Victor and Roser escape from.
Source: Wikimedia Commons Author: Winfried Weithofer

‘Long Petal’ is historical fiction in it’s most illuminating yet emotional sense. It is a concoction of fictional characters based on real life figures gleaned through extensive research, actual people such as Neruda and Allende (whom the author is the goddaughter of), and descriptions of the vitriol, violence and vindictiveness of a time when partisan loyalties and dehumanization of one’s brothers and sisters, neighbors and acquaintances and fellow citizen led to the horrors of Guernica and Estadio Chile and Estadio Nacional.

While confronted with such hardships, we are also submerged into the love story of Victor and Roser. Theirs is an unconventional relationship, but through it all, their strength, resilience and solidarity see them through the manifold twists and turns of their nearly 6o years together. Together, they discover so much of each other, in both physical and emotional senses, that they can subsequently find wonder in spite of the trauma and adversity they face. It masterfully demonstrates that the universal values that kept them together are immutable, enduring and timeless.

The pair make an interesting contrast. The moral convictions of Victor, his determination to protect Roser and her unborn child, his sense of social justice in wanting to work in areas where he is needed as opposed to merely profiting from his skills as a surgeon, his inherent decency in providing medical assistance to an abusive and boorish concentration camp prison governor after he is stricken by a heart attack make him a character worthy of paramount admiration. Roser, who enters our imagination as a young girl adopted from a negligent rural family and eventually becomes an accomplished pianist, is the pragmatic, determined and strong pillar of their partnership. However, both have made morally dubious, thorny and capricious choices throughout their lives. They are both inextricably human, and this allows the reader to fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other. Their bond spans a myriad of locations in both Europe, South America and it even witnesses a return to Spain after Franco dies. Despite the itinerant mode of their existence, theirs is a connection that ensures that location is not what is important to them. What is important is that they have each other.

Another historical trend that resonates strongly with me is the perception of refugees worldwide described within it. As I have written elsewhere, the response to the Tampa trying to enter Australian waters in 2001 is an episode that makes my heart wither and my indignation crackle for its craven appeals to nativism, cupidity and cynicism. Yet it is not isolated within the passage of time. In 1939, the St. Louis, a boat carrying 935 German Jews, was refused permission to land in Miami after firstly being rejected by Cuba. Upon being sent back to a smattering of countries throughout Europe, those who were resettled in countries such as Holland, Belgium and France were inevitably exposed to the naked cruelty of the Holocaust and their eventual deaths.

So it is with the Winnipeg in ‘Long Petal’. After initially being held in deplorable conditions in concentration camps in France where the death toll stretched into the thousands, they were then slandered by the metastatic demagoguery of a callous Chilean Right wing, a right wing that would ultimately be a catalyst of the 1973 coup when they realized their ends couldn’t be achieved by parliamentary means, as parasites, heathens, criminals and rapists whose existence was incongruous with societal cohesion. However, Neruda viewed them as an asset to a country that had recently been devastated by an earthquake in Chillán, that had killed tens of thousands. Similar to Germany’s magnanimity and compassion in the face of the flint hearted and bigoted when accepting roughly 800,000 Syrian refugees, the new arrivals blessed their nation of sanctuary with the skills they brought and the people that they were. The refugees that Neruda accompanied from Europe, and that populist Leftist President Pedro Aguirre Cerda embraced, included the historian Leopoldo Castedo, the book designer Mauricio Amster, the playwright and essayist José Ricardo Morales and the painters Roser Bru and José Balmes. In contrast to the abominable examples presented earlier, these cases demonstrate that when true leadership is shown, it is eminently possible to show that a compassionate, empathetic and humane refugee policy does more than burnish the balance in the account of human kindness of the nation hosting them. It also provides a flush of social, economic and human capital.

A mural of Victor Jara located in Barrio Brasil in Santiago Chile.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Author: Rec79

While there are multiple incidences that inspire hope within the book, the tales of hardship and defilement of the human spirit additionally reminded me why I fight as a human rights activist. ‘Long Petal’ introduced me to the life and music of Chilean folk singer, teacher, theatre director and socialist political activist, Victor Jara. While his inspirational life and music isn’t recounted in detail and the book only briefly touches on his atrocious murder, his defiance in the face of the fascist bastards who tried to strip him of the last inch of his spirit was a monument to both raw human courage and to solidarity with one’s comrades. His death was also a horrendous contradiction. It is inexcusable that a man whose music mostly focused on themes of love, peace and social justice was killed in such a vicious manner. While this was an unconscionable occurrence, my belief is that good historical fiction should educate but also pique the curiosity of its reader. If it has inspired them to explore further the themes it deals in, then it has truly succeeded.

It is for these reasons, ‘Long Petal’ swept over me like a warming wave of inspiration, remembrance and rejuvenation. The last two years of the pandemic, the defeat of the Sanders campaign and adoption of cautious and expedient centrism in the US, the vilification and marginalization of Jeremy Corbyn within the UK Labour Party, the overthrow of democracies in places ranging from Bolivia (since tentatively restored) to Myanmar (yet to be restored at all) and the attempted coup witnessed in the January 6th Capitol uprising had me feeling as futile as I have been in quite some time. However, ‘Long Petal’ was a timely reminder of why we fight for a better world and that a better way is possible. I am consequently grateful that I read it.

Further Reading:

‘A Long Petal Of The Sea’ Finds Love In A Time Of Chaos, NPR, 1/27/2020

  • The image used for this blog entry is of the SS Winnipeg, the refugee boated featured in the novel. It was taken with permission from Wikimedia Commons and it’s author, Agrupación Winnipeg.

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