A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA by Isabel Allende (Ballantine, 311 pp., $28)
“This was to be his most stubborn, persistent memory of the war: that 15- or 16-year-old boy, still smooth-cheeked, filthy with the dirt of battle and dried blood, laid out on a stretcher with his heart exposed to the air. Victor was never able to explain to himself why he inserted three fingers of his right hand into the gaping wound, gently grasped the organ, and squeezed it rhythmically several times."
The bloody Spanish Civil War is almost over, as there are “no more men, old or young, to fight the war” on the side of the Republicans. To fight the hopeless battles immediately preceding the victory of General Francisco Franco, the boy soldiers of what was called “the baby bottle conscription” were called in. Here, med student Victor Dalmau is about to raise one of them from the dead.
With this scene, master storyteller Isabel Allende opens the curtain on a story of war, love and displaced persons, 1938 to 1994, moving from Spain to France, Chile and Venezuela. Make that mostly Chile, the “long petal of the sea,” according to Pablo Neruda, or that “long worm at the far south of the map” in the mind of a character Allende sends there in the aftermath of the war. Some will first make a stop at the notorious detention camp in Argèles-sur-Mer, in the French Pyrenees.
Though she earned her original fame in the 1980s with the magical realist bestsellers “The House of the Spirits” and “Eva Luna,” Isabel Allende’s 24th novel is rooted firmly in historical fact. The author’s versatility is no surprise at this point; highlights of her backlist include “Paula,” the 1994 memoir of her 29-year-old daughter’s death, and most recently, “In the Midst of Winter,” a novel featuring three characters in Brooklyn trying to dispose of a body during a snowstorm.
Though “A Long Petal of the Sea” contains no magical realist elements — unless you count that DIY cardiac surgery in the first scene — it is full of the magic of storytelling. Sharply drawn, vibrant characters; a long-simmering, unlikely love story; ruthless plot twists, and a long waited, last-minute development — Allende deals the cards with a practiced hand and a narrative poker face. The specifics are rooted in events of the last century, but the theme could not be more timeless — and timely. This is a book about people tossed by fate into a country where they are not welcome, with their circumstances reduced and their gifts unappreciated, yet they replant themselves with open hearts, tenacity and optimism. “In the 25 years that had elapsed since the arrival of the Winnepeg, Roser had become more Chilean than anyone born in the country.”
Roser is the girlfriend of Victor Dalmau’s brother, Guillem, and the mother of a child whom he never meets as he is among the 30,000 killed at the Battle of Ebro. Roser is never convinced of his death, despite the charred wallet Victor shows her when the two are reunited after internment at Argèles-sur-Mer.
Onto the stage steps one of the historical characters who plays a role in the book, Pablo Neruda, “dressed from head to toe in white.” (Neruda’ poetry also provides an epigraph for each chapter.) Neruda has arranged for an old cargo ship, the SS Winnepeg, to take 2,000 Spanish refugees to Chile. The Dalmau group will soon cross paths with the Del Solar family, members of the Chilean ruling class. Their daughter, Ofelia, will be Victor’s first love. Unfortunately, he is already married to Roser and sworn to make sure that she and baby Marcel, his nephew, are always taken care of. Soon another baby whose father knows nothing of its birth will arrive on the scene.
Allende has explained that she based the fictional Victor on a real Victor, a Spaniard who made his home in Chile after the Civil War. Like his real-life model, the fictional one plays chess with Salvador Allende, the last president of Chile before the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The author is the goddaughter of Salvador Allende; her father was his first cousin, and has lived all her life as a foreigner and immigrant in various countries. In “A Long Petal of the Sea,” Allende imbues the experience of displaced people trying to find a new home with the dignity, idealism and even romance it has been stripped of in our cruel times.