‘A Long Petal of the Sea’: Isabel Allende Writes of Revolution, Refugees, and Enduring Romance

If you’ve ever been swept away by Isabel Allende’s epic blend of history, family, and spirits, there may be more to it than just her magnificent prose. Allende is deeply spiritual and has followed a ritual for nearly four decades whenever she starts a new book.

“On January 8, 1981, I was living in Venezuela and I received a phone call that my beloved grandfather was dying. I began a letter for him that later became my first novel, The House of the Spirits. It was such a lucky book from the very beginning that I kept that lucky date to start. January 8th is a sacred day for me. I come to my office very early in the morning, alone. I light some candles for the spirits and the muses. I meditate for a while. I always have fresh flowers and incense. And I open myself completely to the experience that begins in that moment. I never know exactly what I’m going to write. I may have finished a book months before and may have been planning something, but it has happened already twice that when I sit down at the computer and turn it on, another thing comes out.”

Allende’s fiction is often described as “mystical realism.” Many of her works feature generations of strong women whose rich emotional lives defy patriarchal societal norms.

Besides being one of the most talented and prolific writers of our time, Allende has herself lived a life similar in many respects to those of her characters. She was born in Peru, but lived in Bolivia and Lebanon, as well as Chile, the country from which her family hailed.  Both her father and stepfather were government officials.

Allende married young, but pursued career interests atypical of Chilean housewives. She worked as a television personality, playwright, and reporter for a feminist magazine. She worked in Europe on behalf of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and — in a rather telling anecdote — was fired from a job translating romance fiction because she insisted on changing the “happily ever after” endings and giving the books’ heroines more autonomy and independence.

In 1973, the President of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and assumedly murdered by General Augusto Pinochet. (Allende was a cousin of Isabel and her godfather.) For a time, she helped enemies of the new regime escape, but eventually received death threats and had to flee herself to Venezuela, where she lived for 13 years. There, she wrote for the newspaper El Nacional and completed her first book, House of the Spirits.

Since that auspicious debut, she has written fourteen more novels, four works of non-fiction, and three for young adults. In total, she has sold 74 million books in 42 different languages. House of the Spirits was made into a movie in 1993 (with non-Hispanic stars Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Jeremy Irons), and is currently in production as a miniseries for Hulu. (Allende is an executive producer, so the series may capture more of the Latin flavor of the book than the decidedly Caucasian film did.)

Her new novel, The Long Petal of the Sea, currently on The New York Times‘s bestseller list, begins during the Spanish Revolution. The cultured Catalan Dalmau family has two sons: Guillem, passionate and quick to fight, a born soldier; and Victor, a thoughtful medical student sent to the front to help with Republican casualties. The Dalmaus also have an informally adopted daughter, Roser, a gifted pianist rescued as a child from a rural life of poverty and ignorance.

Guillem and Roser fall in love and plan to marry. However, before they are able to, Guillem is killed by Generalissimo Franco’s army. Roser is left an unmarried widow and pregnant. Along with hundreds of thousands of Republican sympathizers, she and the baby’s grandmother Carme set off on the long journey through the Pyrenees to the French border. There, the refugees are treated like criminals, surrounded by barbed wire and left to freeze and starve on the beach.

Eventually, Victor finds Roser and her newborn baby living with a Quaker family. The poet Pablo Neruda has raised funds to bring a few thousand of the Spanish exiles to Chile, and the two marry in order to qualify for passage. They slowly build a life and family together, although, at first, they live as brother and sister. Their lives intertwine with the aristocratic Del Solars, as well as Neruda and Allende, with whom Victor, now a prominent heart surgeon, plays chess. After the coup, they emigrate to Venezuela and are forced to begin again.

The novel, which encompasses some sixty years, includes unexpected reunions, fiery affairs, and enduring love. It’s a unique and deeply personal journey that happens while entire governments collapse in the background. And the characters, both historic and fictional, are brought to life in Allende’s lush prose, which has always reminded me of finely woven but gloriously textured cloth. (A Long Petal of the Sea is translated from Spanish by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor.)

One of the things I noticed in this novel, as well as many of Allende’s others, is her ability to narrate atrocities in a tone that is detailed and grisly, yet matter-of-fact. After waking on the frozen French beach with her infant daughter dead in her arms, a refugee woman “went to the water’s edge and waded out into the sea until she disappeared.” A victim of torture in Chile finds it difficult to walk, his “body aching from the beatings and electrical shocks.”

At the same time, the author endows primary and secondary characters with seemingly magical powers. A friend and ambulance driver, Aitor, Ibarra lives under “a lucky star” which protects him whether in the heat of battle or the exodus to France. A Swiss nurse, Elisabeth Eidenbenz, rejects the proposal of a young and naive Victor, but becomes a guardian angel for his family. A young pregnant girl sees her unborn daughter in her dreams. An older woman foresees her own death and encourages her husband to court their widowed neighbor. These moments of mysticism are just as real as the violence of war and the fates of its victims.

Throughout, however, the focus is often on love, romantic and familial. Because her books, including this one, often span generations, we’re treated to both the unbridled passion of the young and the enduring comradeship of the old, as well as all of the emotion’s myriad variants.

Another powerful theme in A Long Petal of the Sea is the concept of homeland and its loss. Victor and Roser long to return to Spain (although they, and everyone else, fear that Franco will live forever). As they grow older, they start to realize that home is as much about family and personal history as geography. There are always refugees; they are welcomed by some and treated as pariahs by others. Everyday people are forced to reinvent themselves, to start over, to continue living — often against devastating odds.

Today, immigration is a timely and much debated issue in the United States, as well as in many other countries. As Allende explained to Publishers Weekly, “I think the theme of refugees that are displaced has been in the air so much with what has been happening in Europe, where millions of refugees are reaching its borders. Then there is the hatred being built by Trump here in the U.S. My last three novels have dealt with refugees and immigrants, but in this one, it is the central theme. I didn’t plan to write about refugees, but the conversations are all around us, and it just seeps into my books.”

To honor her daughter Paula, who died in 1992, the author founded the Isabel Allende Foundation. Funded through income from Allende’s books as well as private donations, the foundation invests “in the power of women and girls to secure reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence.” It provides grants to non-profit organizations in Chile and California, where Allende lives today. For this work — some of which involves aiding immigrant families — she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

If you are a fan of Allende, A Long Petal of the Sea is a wonderful addition to her impressive catalogue. If you are new to her work, it’s a worthy introduction. By combining historic events with her complex, brilliant, flawed, and — above all else — human characters, Allende serves up stories that feel genuine even as they often reach mythic proportions.


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