The title of the novel “A Long Petal of the Sea” refers to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s description of the physical appearance of Chile. The country is a long stretch of land that includes deserts, rain forests, and beaches along the coast of the Pacific Ocean in South America. The graceful appearance of Chile belies its history fraught with political terrorism, military suppression, torture, and revolts that are occurring even today.
This captivating story of refugees from Spain is intertwined with historical events that include the Spanish Civil War in 1938 and the journey of a ship, The Winnipeg, which carried 2,000 refugees to Chile in 1939.
The story includes the military coup against Salvador Allende (the author’s cousin) in 1973, and the rise and fall of General Pinochet who, backed by President Nixon and the CIA, mercilessly killed an estimated 3,000 people, imprisoned 80,000, and tortured tens of thousands of people to establish a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990.
Isabel Allende is an award-winning writer who is dedicated to preserving the history of Chile. With this novel, Allende tells the story of Victor Dalmau, a doctor, and his wife, Roser Bruguera, who fled Spain for Chile on The Winnipeg. Their life together is complicated but filled with compelling figures consisting of different classes of society in Chile.
Dalmau and his wife managed to flee Spain because Chile agreed to welcome refugees who faced death as Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, imposed military rule. France closed its borders to terrified refugees, believing them to be lowlifes—rapists, robbers, diseased.
The poet Pablo Neruda convinced the Chilean president to accept 2,000 refugees chosen by Neruda for their skills and ability to add to the culture and economic success of Chile. The story of the Winnipeg is true. The Dalmaus are fictional, composites of people known by the author.
The couple’s story is told against a backdrop of political upheaval that is now typical of the history of Chile. Dalmau and Bruguera create a wonderful life together—Dalmau as a cardiac surgeon and Bruguera as an influential music teacher and supporter of the arts. The reign of Pinochet, filled with prejudice, racism, and xenophobia, interrupts their idyllic life, forcing them to face life as refugees once again.
The unique and valuable contributions made by refugees, in the fields of economics, science, medicine, industry and the arts, are central to the story. The rise of Nationalism and right-wing philosophies interfere with the ability of the refugees to feel completely secure.
The need for love in the midst of brutality permeates the novel. It is the driving force behind the characters’ abilities to survive and prosper. Love is what enables the characters to face challenges, even death, with dignity and grace.
Those familiar with the works of Allende know that history drives her plots, but the people she introduces through her stories are unforgettable. Lines of Neruda’s poetry grace the beginning of each chapter and provide insight into the theme of each selection. He also is a character in the book. In fact, the author was encouraged to become a novelist following an interview with Neruda.
Unfortunately, Chile is currently in the news with its culture of militarism threatening the civil rights of its citizens. Violence again is wrecking havoc against its indigenous population.
“A Long Petal of the Sea” is a must-read for insights into the beauty of Chile, a country that accepts terrorized people from other nations and for the horrors that arise when nationalism rears its ugly head. Allende writes from experience; she left Chile when her cousin was ousted from his presidency by Pinochet and his army. She literally fled for her life. She now resides in California.