A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

The multi-award winning author is described on the book jacket as ‘a novelist, feminist and philanthropist’ who has so far written twenty- six  best selling books that have been translated into more than forty- two languages. She was born in Peru and then raised in Chile until she became a political refugee after the military coup of 1973 and is now an immigrant living in the USA.

This epic story is inspired by the real life experiences of Victor, a man who she came to know in Venezuela who told her about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and how he then came to be one of two thousand refugees who travelled to Chile to begin a new life. The first part of the book graphically describes the horrible bloodiness of the war and the terrible toll taken on so many. The sorrow is palpable:

‘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’.

I found this early section very difficult to read but was spurred on by wanting to find out what happened to the main characters.  Despite the fervour and bravery of the soldiers and others who were trying to smash the rise of fascism in the 1930s, their efforts seemed to be to no avail. They lost thousands of comrades, were forced to accept a bitter defeat and were then to flee for their lives across the inhospitable mountains. Many more died on the long journey. Those that made it to the French border realised that they were viewed there with hatred and suspicion. Thousands were imprisoned in barely habitable camps and then many perished from hunger, starvation, mistreatment and illnesses (this sounds horribly familiar). Victor was one of the fortunate ones who survived and put himself forward to be selected as a passenger with his wife, Roser and baby on an old cargo ship which had been commissioned by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to rescue some refugees in order to offer them a new life.

The long journey across the ocean to a new continent was daunting but also one of hope. But Chile was no promised land and the refugees had to face plenty of hostility in the early years. They had been painted as communist, lazy troublemakers who were criminally inclined and would damage the fabric of this conservative, very religious country.  Victor and his little family worked hard to assimilate into their new home with him completing his unfinished medical qualifications part time and working in a bar, whilst Roser started to gain a reputation as a talented pianist.  Life becomes even more hopeful for the refugees with the coalition of left-wing parties led by Salvador Allende eventually gaining power with the support of Neruda and many other optimistic and creative individuals. They know that it will never be easy to build a truly socialist society, but perhaps this time it might just work.  Of course, the reader has the uneasy knowledge that this experiment was going to end very badly yet again. I almost held my breath willing it to turn out differently, but I knew that the food shortages, falls in production, rampant inflation and the determination of international giants like the USA, along with relentless negative propaganda would wreak havoc. Disillusion and violence simmers everywhere. The president’s palace is bombed, the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet happens swiftly and brutally, and the pain begins once again.

The next part of the story tells about Victor’s time as a political prisoner in a concentration camp for eleven months . More unspeakable horrors, cruel torture and the execution of thousands seem to be ignored by the rest of the world. He survives once again and is eventually released after intervention by some useful diplomatic contacts of his wife. The family now needs to run away again to stay safe and spend several years as exiles living in Venezuela. Life becomes sweet again as they adapt to living in what sounds like a very hospitable country. Despite this – Victor longs to return to Spain, which he does after the death of Franco and then back again to Chile, which he also does many years later.

I have only touched on a few highlights of this complicated story which gave me such a vivid glimpse of some extraordinary characters and places. The various threads are woven together by the poetry of Neruda which is framed in the title and is also quoted at the beginning of every chapter:

‘Every being

Will have the right

To land and life

And that will be the bread of tomorrow’.

Although there is so much pain and despair along the way, it is also a story about learning to treasure what is good about humanity and to bask as often as possible in the comfort of having true friendships and a loving family, despite everything. How sad that the real Victor died aged 103, six days before the author could send him the final manuscript – but what a wonderful legacy dedicated to ‘ Victor Pey Casado and other navigators of hope’.    

I know so little history. This is despite having achieved a high grade in English and European History at A’ level many years ago where I was able to successfully replicate ‘facts’ that had been drilled into me, most of which content has completely vanished from my elderly head. I now find that fiction can be a less onerous way into learning about the complex machinations of politics and power and how these affected the lives of ordinary people. This is an example of a beautifully written, passionately told novel that will stay with me for a very long time.

Karen Argent

March 2020

This review was first published on The Letterpress Project website

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