Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Long Petal of the Sea (Book Review)

In 1939, as the Spanish Civil War wound down, thousands of refugees fled across the border into France—which then confined tens of thousands in a deplorable detention camp at d'Argelès-sur-Mer. In partial response, poet Pablo Neruda—also a diplomat—chartered the French cargo vessel Winnipeg to carry 2,200 Spanish refugees across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal to his homeland of Chile where, despite isolated episodes of xenophobia, they integrated themselves into local society.

Chartered by Pablo Neruda, the French freighter Winnipeg carried Spanish refugees to Chile.

That’s the historical background for Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, which becomes a tale of exile and adaptation that includes several larger-than-life figures, most notably Neruda himself but also the late President Salvador Allende (Isabel’s father’s cousin) and the notorious Augusto Pinochet (mentioned only in passing). Some characters are fictionalized versions of historical figures, such as pianist Roser Bruguera, clearly based on the painter Roser Bru (who turned 98 in February).

Isabel Allende's novel focuses on one exceptional refugee family.

Bruguera is one focus of a complex family story that melds with an equally complex political history that involves her going into exile, with her husband Víctor Dalmau, from Pinochet’s dictatorship. Allende is especially good at depicting the intrigues and obstacles her characters must navigate, including neighborhood informants, imprisonment, intra-familiar conflicts that tore many Chileans apart, and the disruptions of exile.

The first Spanish refugees would have passed through Arica's customs house (now a cultural center).

Being a geographer, I try to be alert to people and place, and I found one unfortunate error. I expected that, after the Winnipeg passed through the Panama Canal, it would go directly to Valparaíso, whence the refugees would proceed to Santiago and elsewhere in the densely populated heartland. As it happened, though, the ship made a stop in the northern port of Arica, a city I know well, where Chilean officials met the vessel and some of the passengers came ashore to stay.

The nitrate port of Pisagua was the northernmost point on Chile's contiguous rail network.

Allende, though, claims the officials arrived by train, but the northern Chilean railroad network, developed to help exploit the Atacama Desert’s nitrate deposits, never reached Arica—the most northerly major station was in the port of Iquique, roughly 200 km to the south (though there was a smaller station in the nitrate port of Pisagua, only about 125 km to the south). It might have been possible to reach Arica by rail at this time, but that would have involved a roundabout route via Buenos Aires and slow trains to northwestern Argentina and then Bolivia, where the Ferrocarril Arica-La Paz connected the two countries. Given the time, distances, and often contentious relations between Bolivia and Chile, it’s unlikely that anyone would have taken this route and, as it happens, there were flights from Santiago to Arica as early as 1929.

Oficina Chacabuco was the camp where Víctor Dalmau was presumably imprisoned. 

Allende describes, but does not specifically identify, the location where her protagonist Dalmau “ended up at a camp for saltpeter miners in the north that had been abandoned for decades and was now converted into a prison.” That description fits Oficina Chacabuco, about 100 km northeast of the port city of Antofagasta, which is now a national monument and in situ museum that I’ve visited several times. She also offers a plausible description of the Dalmaus’ ostensible rural retreat, outside Santiago, when they return from exile in Venezuela.


All in all, Allende’s novel is a rewarding read that provides an insider’s view of refugees, immigrants, and the contributions they make to their new countries—with lessons for countries still including Chile and, of course, the United States (where Allende now makes her home).



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