The latest novel by Isabel Allende is a family saga that depicts the modern history of Chile as well as the emergence and growth of Socialism in Europe and South America in the early 20th century.
Most widely read Spanish-language author
If you read widely, you will know the work of Isabel Allende – pronounced “A-yén-de” – [isaˈβel aˈʝende] (listen). Allende (who, in my head, I will always wrongly call “Al-len-de”) has written many famous, best-selling, critically acclaimed novels, two of which were made into American films. She writes all her novels in Spanish, and all of the twenty novels she has written since 1982 have been translated into English and more than thirty other languages. The translations into English must have been good for the novels to have retained the tone and spirit of Chile and Chilean, later American, Spanish, leading to Allende becoming known as “the world‘s most widely read Spanish-language author.”
Of all her novels, three, read in my younger days when I was more concerned with emotion and lyricism than technicalities, I remember as having been surpassingly good: The House of the Spirits (1982, original title: La casa de los espíritus), Of Love and Shadows (1985, original title: De amor y de sombra), and Eva Luna (1987).
I still have my ratty old copies of these books, which have survived countless purges of the home library. When I think of Allende’s novels, I think of places and locations that are described as evocatively as characters, of some degree of Magic Realism – though less than in the works of, for instance, Gabriel García Márquez, and of epoch-spanning family dramas and love stories.
Would it be as good as I remember?
But as I took up A long Petal of the Sea, her latest novel, I wondered whether my admiration for her writing would continue, now that I have read more works by South American authors, and none of hers for years.
I gave it a “cold eyes” reading, and did not research Allende or the reception of the novel beforehand. It turned out to be a saga all right, as much the modern history of Chile as a narrative about the emergence and growth of Socialism in Europe and South America in the early 20th century.
The title of the book is a reference to a description of Chile by the real Chilean poet-politician, Pablo Neruda, who is also a prominent character in the novel:
“…sailing toward that long, narrow South American country that clung to the mountains so as not to topple into the sea. None of them knew anything about Chile. years later, Neruda was to define it as a long petal of sea and wine and snow…with a belt of black and white foam…”
A Long Petal of the Sea, p. 113
A saga of Chilean families
The story starts during the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939), continues after the death in 1973 of the Socialist President of Chile, Salvador Guillermo Allende, and ends in 1994. Allende is in fact writing about a period of history and historical persons that are connected with her family: her father was a first cousin of President Salvador Allende. When she writes about the characters in the novel fleeing from Chile to Venezuela, after Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, she is in fact writing about her own life. She was 31 years old at the time, and in exactly the same position as the characters in the novel; a Chilean political refugee in Venezuela.
This partly explains why the pace of the novel is somewhat uneven. She concentrates on characters and events that are closest to her life. At times, she goes into great detail, focusing on one or two characters, their ideas, feelings, hardships, etc. Those parts are basically love stories. I do mean “love stories“, not romances, because she describes how people meet, fall in love, lose and find each other, and grow and mature in their love over many years. These are stories within the story, with the longest lasting one being about “Victor Dalmau”, a revolutionary and doctor, and “Roser”, a pianist – the protagonists in the story.
Then, by contrast, she skips the detail and in broad strokes describes the passing of entire generations or decades in a few lines or paragraphs. Some characters who feature in detail in multiple chapters, like “Ofelia del Solar”, a spoiled rich girl, eventually just disappear from the narrative, leaving the reader wondering about their significance. At other times, after chapter upon chapter of detailed descriptions, she relates in a few sentences a monumental occurrence, usually some amazing good fortune that strikes a character who no doubt deserves it due to their impeccable Socialist credentials. These inconsistencies are probably due to her focus on her family history, as well as by the time scale of the narrative – more than 50 years – but I found them irritating.
For example, this is how Allende describes Victor’s career in medicine, and his appeal to President Allende of Chile:
“Allende listened to the brief account Victor Dalmau gave him about war and exile, and guessed the rest. It took him a single phone call to get the School of Medicine to validate the courses Victor had taken in Spain and allow him to complete his studies in three years to obtain his professional diploma.”
A Long Petal of the Sea, p. 143
These few lines sum up Victor’s fast track to becoming a qualified doctor, after he had acted as a self-taught “doctor” on the battlefields of Spain in the Civil War, where he had taken a few courses, but hid his lack of qualifications and gave himself the title of “doctor”, experience mattering more than education at that time.
His career as physician to the poor and downtrodden of Chile is interrupted by a long stint in detention after the death of President Allende. Starved, sick, and traumatized, Victor gets out of the death camp by (obviously) saving the life of the camp commander. Then, as if that’s all nothing much, Saint Victor, as I came to call him in my head, quickly gets back to business. Again Allende describes this in just one sentence:
In my opinion, these resolutions are not convincing or fitting for many of the escalating dramas in every chapter. They are just dealt with too perfunctorily.
In praise of Socialism
However, the characters are just focal points for what is mostly a passionate paean to Socialism. Socialists save the protagonists when they flee from Spain to France, to Chile. Socialism is what gives the main protagonist, Victor Dalmau, the chance to turn into a super-hero with mythical surgical skills and a heart purer than Chilean mountain air. Socialist beliefs drive another hero of the story, the real-life poet, Pablo Neruda, to save Roser, Victor and hundreds of other refugees from war-ravaged Spain, and give them a new home in Chile.
In general, Allende describes Republicanism, and the Socialist economic growth, peace, stability, workers’ rights and immigrant programs of Chile, particularly during the time that Allende is in office, as overwhelmingly positive – the creation of worker’s paradise. And vice versa: the regimes of the Nationalists, Fascists and militarists like General Francisco Franco in Spain, and General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, are described as being very bad people. She writes about Santiago as being clean, orderly, heavily policed, and as subdued as death, after the fall of Allende. She spends time on the torture, death, mistreatment, and terror inflicted on the citizens of those countries by governments opposed to the “ordinary workers”.
As a result, I was not particularly moved by much the narrative. Interested yes, carried along by, certainly. I have to say, though, that Allende describes the last moments between Victor and Roser beautifully; tenderly, sadly and evocatively. It is almost as if she were were depicting a poem by Neruda:
“As she did every night, she nestled in the crook of his arm and let herself be rocked and lulled to sleep. It was dark already. Victor lifted off the cat, picked up Roser carefully so as not to wake her, and carried her to bed. She weighed almost nothing. The dogs followed him.”
A Long Petal of the Sea, p. 286
An open ending
I worked through the novel without anticipating a grand climax, since every chapter had contained many discrete sub-plots. The novel ends in an open-ended way with Roser’s death, and Victor contemplates his life after 80 years of age. Life goes on, people muddle through, engaging with and crossing paths with others, and “sailing on, on until the end”, as Allende writes. Reading the novel was a bit like that, trundling along, sailing on, until the end.
The question is, was the journey worth it? For me, yes, because I rediscovered the poetry of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, which starts every chapter.
Neruda was an amazingly prolific, successful, and well-loved poet – and still is – and he really does have a poem for every occasion, feeling and stage of life. There is a quote from his poetry at the start of every chapter, which captures quite beautifully the essence of the events that follow. His love poems, the best collected in 100 Love Sonnets, are beautiful, and if you were to read them and cannot find at least one which moves you, you’d better check your pulse because you may have lost your heart.
He was also a real-life hero, who chartered and personally arranged for the refugees from the Spanish Civil War to sail to a new life in Chile on the old French cargo ship, the “SS Winnipeg”. That discovery amused me, Winnipeg being a city smack in the middle of Canada, on the prairies of Manitoba, as far away as you can get from the ocean to the east and west.
Even if you skip parts of all of A long Petal of the Sea, do read Neruda’s poetry. It will give you a real sense of the soul of Chile and its people. Below is a verse from his Sonnet XVII – those last two lines, my goodness, aren’t they just sublime?
"I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams."
A note about the format of this post and others like it
WordPress’s block format for publishing makes it possible to place text over suitable images, which makes for lovely eye candy. However, some readers, depending on their operating systems and the search engine they use, might not be able to see those images. So, to be fair, each quote is given as text as well as in the form of a pretty text overlay. See? Method in the madness.