New Allende novel inspired by refugee stories
A new book by acclaimed author Isabel Allende is an epic story of displacement, the search for a home and the battle between freedom and repression.
And although set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ has a poignant resonance with the current global human displacement crisis which has seen more than 70 million people forced from their homes because of conflict or persecution.
The novel plays out as civil war grips Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border.
Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them desires.
Together with two thousand other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile.
As unlikely partners, they embrace exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war. Starting over on a new continent, their trials are just beginning, and over the course of their lives, they will face trial after trial.
Through it all, their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going. Destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world, Roser and Victor come to a new realisation of what home means.
The novel is both an intimate look at the nature of relationships and an epic story of love, war, family, and the search for home.
In a recent interview Allende spoke about her fascination with displaced people.
“This is a story of displaced people. My last three books deal with refugees and immigrants. This is something close to my heart,” she said.
“First, because the plight of refugees is a global crisis, then, because I have a foundation that works closely with asylum seekers in the US-Mexico border and last, because of my personal experience. I heard the story that inspired ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ 40 years ago from Victor Pey, one of the passengers on the ship Winnipeg,” Ms Allende said.
“He inspired the character of Victor Dalmau, a young paramedic who spent three years of the Civil War in Spain (1936-1939) in the battlefields.
“At the end of the war, when half a million people escaped for fear of General Francisco Franco’s brutal repression, he accompanied the wounded and ended up in a concentration camp in France.
“Roser Bruguera is Victor’s brother’s pregnant widow, who eventually travelled with him to Chile on the Winnipeg,” she said.
The SS Winnipeg was ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda and the story has become part of South American folklore.
“The story of the Winnipeg is known in Chile. I had a vague idea about the refugees when I was a child because my family had several Spanish friends who arrived in Chile on the Winnipeg,” Ms Allende said.
“The poet Pablo Neruda, who loved Spain and had many friends among Spanish intellectuals, learned about the tragedy of the refugees in concentration camps in France, and he convinced the Chilean government to accept some of them.
”He went to Paris, fund-raised to buy a cargo ship — the Winnipeg — and conditioned it to transport two thousand passengers. He then selected the people.
“Those who got on the ship and travelled to Chile considered themselves very fortunate. They were escaping from a desperate situation and crossing the ocean in hope of a new life. They called the Winnipeg ‘la nave de la esperanza,’ ‘the ship of hope’,” she said.
But the Spanish refugees were not universally welcome in Chile, Ms Allende said.
“The right wing parties and the Catholic Church didn’t want the refugees because they were leftists and many were atheists. The rhetoric against them was very similar to what we hear today against immigrants — they are rapists, criminals. They are going to take our jobs. They will take advantage of welfare. They will bring chaos,” she said.
Along Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende, Penguin Random House.