A character in Isabel Allende’s new novel, says “There will always be pain, but suffering is optional.” This thought runs through A Long Petal Of The Sea, as its main characters survive horrific ordeals and heartbreak.
The historical novels spans half a century and goes from the violent oppression of Franco’s Spain to the equally tyrannical Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile (which the author lived through), with the great poet Pablo Neruda as a powerful link.
The Dalmau family lives in pre-WWII Spain, when General Franco’s brutal dictatorship has thrown the country into a bloody civil war. The older son Giullem is killed in battle, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend Roser. The younger son, Victor, a doctor, manages to get his resourceful friend Aitor Ibarra to help his mother Carme and Roser cross the border to France, where thousands die of hunger, illness and despair, in terrible detention centres.
When Victor and Roser are reunited, he has to marry her so that they can travel to Chile, on the ship the Winnipeg that poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda has arranged to take 2000 refugees to his native country.
They work hard to make a home in Chile and raise Roser’s son Marcel, and, after a tragic romantic episode with Ofelia, the daughter of a Chilean aristocrat, Victor and Roser have a stable and loving marriage. Ofelia’s subplot joins up with the story later, but actually it was quite unnecessary. Then Pinochet’s rise and arrest of suspected leftists forces Victor (who is imprisoned and tortured) and Roser to flee to Venezuela, where the missing Carme miraculously turns up.
Allende’s chronicle has so much ground to cover, and so many stories to tell, that the novel acquires a breathlessly rushed tone, with minimal dialogue; key episodes are hastily dispensed with. However, the story is so compelling, her compassion for her characters so overwhelming, that she makes the reader care for even the supporting characters, like Ofelia’s devoted fiancé Matias, and a Red Cross nurse Elizabeth, who helps the family in unexpected ways.
The book is based on real characters, Pablo Neruda did help Spanish refugees sail to Chile on the Winnipeg, Victor Dalmau was a doctor who escaped Franco’s Spain. Perhaps, if Allende had trimmed the subplots and concentrated on the main characters, the upheavals they went through – tragic as well as joyous—would not have been flattened into quick checklists.
What the reader gets is an overview of history, and how ordinary people find in themselves the strength to survive the turmoil caused by a few power hungry leaders. There is also a caution built; it doesn’t take much for a country to descend into chaos, for men to turn into savages, and for people to denounce their friends and neighbours. In the dark hell of a concentration camp, Victor Dalmau saves the life of its sadistic head, proving that a good person’s essential humanism is what keeps the world sane when collective madness descends.
A Long Petal Of The Sea
By Isabel Allende
Translated by Nick Caister & Amanda Hopkinson