Classi Lectures Mon Feb 22 at 7:30pm

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Cathy Tile Notes

“I have been a foreigner all my life,” she says, “first as a child of diplomats, then as a political refugee and now as an immigrant in the USA. Maybe that’s why a sense of place is so important in all my writing. Where do I belong? Where are my roots? Is my heart divided or has it just grown bigger? These are the questions faced by my protagonists in A Long Petal to the Sea, the title of which comes from a quote by Pablo Neruda.”

Inspired in part by her own history—she is a cousin and goddaughter of the late Chilean president Salvador Allende and lived in Venezuela and Spain—the tale, drawing on the biographies of actual figures, recounts some of the events surrounding South America’s evolution and how it became one of the world’s most ethnically diverse regions. Allende captures the irony and heartbreak of generations in exile.

One of her major sources for this novel was Victor Pey, (1915-2018) an engineer who came from Spain as a refugee to Chile in 1939. He became an advisor to Salvador Allende’s popular front government.  He and many other Chileans including Isabel Allende, her first husband and her two children, sought asylum in Venezuela after the military coup of 1973. In Venezuela, Isabel and Pey met, and he told her about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and on the Chile-bound refugee ship, the Winnipeg. It wasn’t until his death at the age of 103, that she gave herself permission to tell this story.

“I have had to imagine very little. It’s thanks to the poet Pablo Neruda that they get there. As happened in real life, Neruda persuaded Chile’s president to provide asylum for a number of Spanish refugees, defying right wing opposition and the Catholic Church. Neruda filled the Winnipeg, a cargo ship built for 20 seamen, with more than 2,000 Spaniards. After a month at sea, they arrive on the day that the Second World War breaks out in Europe.”
Almost 15,000 people perished in the French camps, among them nine out of every 10 children.
Neruda’s far-reaching humanist act calls to mind Oskar Schindler.

The Novel

In this linear narrative of more than 60 years of Spanish and Chilean history, Allende takes great pains to describe the real, lived effects of two dictatorships. She mixes fictional characters with historical figures for a story that spans more than half a century and tells of war, political upheaval, immigration, family and love. The Dalmaus represent the multitudes that cross borders, mountains, and oceans to find homes where they can not only survive but thrive. Their deep friendship makes them realize that only together, can they endure what they’ve lost and recover a sense of purpose. Notions of love and belonging, reflected through Victor and Roser, remind us of the complexities in human relationships. Their marriage is stable and respectful, if complicated by the deep feelings they develop for each other over their decades together and the existential feeling of isolation that never leaves them.

In A Long Petal of the Sea, as in much of Allende’s fiction, there is the sense that every human life is an odyssey, and that how and where we connect creates the fabric of our existence: the source of our humanity. If what happens to us — the axis of our fate — is nearly always beyond our control, stubbornly unchangeable, we can still choose what we cleave to and fight for, refusing to be vanquished. This is true belonging, and how we build a world.   From the New York Times

Friendship, romance, family, and sense of self are tested, mostly because the cruelty of war eliminates those rare opportunities to display and preserve humanity.

Pablo Neruda – He is the venerable poet of the people. Allende opens each chapter with his verse in gratitude for writing those inspiring expressions of love and pride, particularly for Chile, which he called “the long petal of the sea.”

Salvador Allende – The book’s timeline traces his rise from a doctor from Valparaíso to minister of health and co-founder of the Socialist Party, and finally, to his being “the first democratically elected Marxist head of state” in 1970. Three years later Pinochet’s coup d’état ends his life.

Victor – a man of science recognizes that most of who he is, or who others think he is, has been accidental. The war made him a medic. Exile found him twice. France and Chile each interned him. He remains melancholy and nostalgic for Catalonia. The world’s suffering has not left much space for him to breathe, or to make decisions of his own. He struggles to achieve an independence that is constantly illusive. He mistakes solitude for independence. He mistakes resistance to feeling for courage. He recognizes this after Roser dies and his isolation threatens to immobilize him.                                                                                                                                                                            
Roser – a woman of the arts, understands her misfortune, and decides to move forward in the world. Resolute and realistic, she never looks back, successfully pursuing a musical career in Chile.

They reinvent, again and again, because they must. As the author reminds us, each of our lives is not one journey, but many. Allende’s unique and distinct voice makes us love her characters for their human frailties and their quiet fortitude. The prose is soulful, wise and richly atmospheric.

A Long Petal of the Sea is about finding home and family in unexpected places. It captures the pain, suffering and heartbreak of having to leave one’s homeland and the resilience and joy of discovering a new life in a new country. As Neruda wrote: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.”