Isabel Allende’s latest novel marks a return to the time and setting of the book that jump-started her literary career, “The House of the Spirits,” but with far less supernatural elements and a more expansive engagement of revolution, exile and the determination of the human spirit.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” opens in 1938 at the height of the Spanish Civil War when Catalonia joins the fight against the Nationalist Party and its leader, Gen. Francisco Franco: “So much blood ran that the following year the peasants swore that when they pulled up their onions they were red, and that they found human teeth in their potatoes.”
Franco’s victory ends Catalonia’s self-government and ushers in a dictatorship that sends survivors on the defeated side into exile. This includes Victor Dalmau, a doctor in training whose unorthodox methods in the battlefield become legendary. When his soldier brother Guillem goes missing, he must care for the safety of their recently widowed mother Carme and Roser Bruguera, the young pianist taken in by his family. Once it’s revealed that Roser is Guillem’s lover and with child, their will to escape into France becomes fortified.
During the arduous journey the frail Carme vanishes willingly as an act of martyrdom, and Roser gives birth. But with the rise of the dictator from Germany and the looming threat of a second world war, France no longer appears to be the ideal refuge. Enter Pablo Neruda.
The French Communist Party and the Spanish Refugee Evacuation Service charter “the ship of hope,” the Winnipeg, to take 2,000 exiles to Chile. Enlisted to select “desirables” exclusively, Neruda takes creative license and welcomes artists and musicians, like the talented pianist Roser. But in order to board as a family, Victor and Roser must wed, entering into a platonic marriage that keeps them tied together but emotionally apart. The day the ship arrives to South America, the dreaded war begins in Europe and, “They knew in their hearts that they would never return to their homeland.”
Allende’s characterization of Neruda remains fixed throughout his appearances in the book: He is the venerable poet of the people. Allende opens each chapter with his verse in gratitude for writing those inspiring expressions of love and pride, particularly for Chile, which he called “the long petal of the sea.” Her handling of his role in the Winnipeg, a little-known historical fact, is endearing and a welcomed change after those detailed passages of Victor’s and Roser’s excruciating plights.
Victor repays the life-saving favor nine years later when, accused of treason, Neruda and his wife hide for two weeks with the Dalmau family until they can flee safely into exile. “Governments come and go, but poets remain,” Victor assures him, noting the unjust irony of the situation.
Besides Neruda, the second relevant historical figure is Salvador Allende, the author’s godfather and a first cousin of her father. The book’s timeline traces his rise from a doctor from Valparaíso to minister of health and co-founder of the Socialist Party, and finally, to his being “the first democratically elected Marxist head of state” in 1970. Three years later a coup d’état ends his life, which also seals Victor’s fate because not only was he Allende’s doctor, he was also his chess partner.
As Chile is now ruled by its own dictator, Augusto Pinochet, one outspoken refugee dares to utter what every other is thinking: “I just hope it doesn’t end badly like it did over there [in Spain].” Unfortunately for Victor, it does, and after his horrendous imprisonment in a concentration camp, he must confront the reality of a second exile, this time to Venezuela, where Roser has become a beloved celebrity.
Despite the prominence of historical events and that the protagonists are so intricately woven into them, the novel manages to develop the complicated bond between Victor and Roser. They converge and diverge for nearly 60 years, but each is able to flourish independently in their careers, starting from scratch and to pursue distinct love lives. A key plot point is Victor’s romance with Ofelia del Solar, a daughter in an influential family, which concerns Roser, who warns him, “We’re guests in this country, and if you get into trouble we’ll be deported.” Nonetheless, she consents to the affair, recognizing that their own marriage is a sham.
Victor’s obsession with Ofelia tests his loyalty to Roser, whom he has sworn to protect, but it also teaches him a valuable lesson about relationships. When she breaks up their clandestine arrangement Ofelia states that “nothing can grow in the shade of secrets,” words of wisdom that eventually turn the tide of his feelings for Roser.
The presence of the Del Solar family allows a familiar character to enter the stage. Senator Trueba makes a cameo by name only as an associate of Ofelia’s father. But shrewd readers will see the startling parallel between “The House of the Spirits” and “A Long Petal of the Sea.” In Allende’s earlier book, Esteban Trueba courts Rosa del Valle but ends up marrying her sister, Clara. In this novel, Roser marries Guillem’s brother, Victor. Both novels witness the eventual eye-opening of their flawed and aged male leads, except Victor is not a tyrant but a virtuous doctor, and his resourceful wife Roser has two voices (her own and her music) while Clara remained mostly passive and deliberately silent.
In this way, “A Long Petal of the Sea,” a page-turning story rich with history and surprising subplots that keep the novel unpredictable to the end, serves as a counterpoint and companion to Allende’s first novel. This time, though, she focuses on the lives of the downtrodden but no less heroic figures of war.
Translated by Nick Castor and Amanda Hopkinson
Ballantine Books: 336 pages; $28
González is a professor of English and director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark.