MARCH 12, 2020
PICASSO PAINTED Guernica after Spanish general Francisco Franco ordered the Nazis and Italian Fascists to bomb the Basque town of Guernica in 1937. Built on harsh geometries and monochromes, his painting is terrifyingly apprehensive. It strips figures to their bare, broken forms to articulate the fragility of naked bodies decimated by this new kind of destruction. The atrocity was one of the first instances of aviation being criminally used to target civilians, a dangerous precursor of what was to befall Europe soon after.
Yet the bombing was far from the only despicable crime in a battle that foreshadowed Europe’s loyalties before World War II. The Spanish Civil War pitted the rebelling alliance of Fascists, Monarchists, and Catholics against the Anarchists, Basques, and Republicans of the Second Spanish Republic based in Catalonia. The Republic had come into power after Spain’s king was deposed in 1931, and it lasted until its defeat by General Franco’s forces in 1939. During the war, Franco was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, while the Soviet Union aided the Republicans. Thousands of American, French, and British soldiers joined the Republican army, including, famously, George Orwell, who wrote of his experience in Homage to Catalonia (1938), “Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”
As genuine as it was, that belief collided with the viciousness of the war, during which both the Fascists and (to a far lesser degree) the Republicans would be accused of rape, executions, and purging. These acts would come to be known as the White and Red Terrors.
Isabel Allende addresses this bloody period of history in her new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, which traces the exile of a family of Catalonian Republicans as Franco’s forces close in on Barcelona. The war offers the Dalmau family and their compatriots no shortage of suffering: typhoid, dehydration, displacement, torture, exile, and death. Unimaginable decisions are repeatedly made out of unimaginable circumstances. After a woman’s five-month-old daughter dies of malnutrition as they flee into France, the mother “went to the water’s edge and waded out into the sea until she disappeared. She was not the only one.” Friendship, romance, family, and sense of self are tested, mostly because the cruelty of war eliminates those rare opportunities to display and preserve humanity.
Those who can escape east to France. While there, Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and then-senator, organizes passage to Chile for refugees, and he invites the youngest Dalmau, Victor, and his deceased brother’s girlfriend, Roser, onboard the ship. To increase their chances of making it, Victor and Roser marry, and they spend their time in Chile together formally as husband and wife.
They adapt easily to Chile. They befriend the del Solar family — wealthy Chilean landowners and Conservative Catholics — and negotiate their new lives as exiles. Victor spends time with Neruda and plays chess with a young, fiery senator named Salvador Allende (the author’s real-life relative), who will become president in 1970. He manages to practice medicine again, and Roser returns to teaching and playing piano. 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. Still, what they discover is a home in exile — until it is lost.
In 1973, a CIA-backed coup ousts Salvador Allende and installs General Augusto Pinochet. For nearly two decades, Pinochet’s dictatorship imprisons, executes, and forcibly disappears tens of thousands of Chileans. Though Neruda escapes, a network of informants helps target the disloyal, the progressive, and the creative. Now in their old age, Victor and Roser must consider running a second time, and they are confronted by the question that always shadows the exiled: who am I if I have no home?
Allende made her mark with her 1982 debut novel, The House of the Spirits, which came late to the world of magical realism with a friendlier aesthetics. With A Long Petal of the Sea, Allende instead turns toward realism, for good reason. On her deathbed, Carme Dalmau, the matriarch, writes down her memories in a notebook and “embellished the facts, because she was aware that life is how we tell it, so why would she jot down trivia?” Yet how does one embellish that which is already unimaginably monstrous? Allende sees that to embellish the violence of war is to create distance from it, which can be useful in the immediate aftermath of irreparable trauma but would feel oddly escapist after nearly eight decades of reflection.
In that vein, Allende allows her writing to breathe. It’s light and fast. Like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), also set in the years following the Spanish Civil War, her work moves with the economy of a fairy tale, as she collapses the long lives of her characters into a quick 13 chapters. Her language is direct and compressed. There is no ornament to her description of Spain and Chile, but rather than feeling brutalist or cold it comes across as melancholic.
The book’s title comes from a Neruda poem that depicts Chile as a “long petal of sea and wine and snow […] with a belt of black and white foam.” The mournful plainness of Neruda’s poetry, especially in his later years as he watches his country’s destruction, informs the novel’s texture. It’s intimate but never sentimental; it’s traumatic but never aggressively so. The sadness that accompanies what Allende sees is always riding underneath her language. She prefaces one chapter with Neruda’s 1952 poem “Night on the Island,” written to a lover while he was in exile on the island of Capri: “I have slept with you / the whole night long / while the dark earth turns / with the living and the dead.” As with Victor, Neruda turns to a memory of love to fend off the isolation that stretches his voice to the brink of collapse.
The question that interests Allende is to what extent love awakens the feelings that make us human even as war and exile work to destroy them. She alerts us to suffering only to investigate the alienation — or personal exile — that drips from the tap of a savage world.
The image of a heart recurs throughout. The novel begins as Victor miraculously saves a young Republican soldier’s life by pressing with his bare hands on the wounded man’s exposed heart until it starts beating again. Later, he trains as a cardiologist and becomes fascinated by the heart as the organ that circulates blood. As a medical expert, he understands its objective function perfectly, but he fails to comprehend the heart’s symbolic power. While his marriage to Roser is more fulfilling than he could have expected, Victor never overcomes the profound sense of isolation that war and exile have placed in him. When he thinks back on Ofelia del Solar, a woman with whom he had an affair when he first arrived in Chile, Allende writes, “He […] reasoned that by marrying and choosing a conventional life, the security of a marriage and her place in society, Ofelia had exiled herself from herself, renouncing an essential part of her soul, although possibly she had regained it in later life and in solitude.”
Courage, Victor believes, comes with solitude. To live alone with his beliefs and memories, no matter how painful, is to resist abandoning the forces that have shaped him. It would be convenient to exile his soul just as Ofelia has, especially for an idea as sentimental as that of love, but Victor believes that would collide with the superior value of seeing the world as it is and others for who they are. He knows the heart. He can mend it. Even as he lives with and loves Roser for decades, Victor concludes that to flee into the arms of another, for love or for company, is to desert oneself.
But Victor’s belief that Ofelia married to escape her own independence actually reveals the depth of his own renunciation of feeling and of other beating hearts. As he reviews his life, Victor 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. The world’s suffering has not left much space for him to breathe, or to make decisions of his own. In fact, he sees that living in solitude is living at the mercy of events that have happened to him rather than through actions taken by him, and that is not independence at all. Roser’s loving embrace shows Victor that. Allende writes, “Roser’s love had always helped him keep at bay that sly melancholy that pursued him like an enemy and sometimes threatened to crush him with its weight of bad memories.”
Both he and Roser have been forged by grief and suffering. Given what Victor has seen, it’s no surprise that he has become resistant to the vicissitudes of feeling. Yet where Roser comprehends her misfortune and bravely moves forward into the world, Victor internalizes his and allows solitude to flourish instead. He mistakes solitude for independence, just as he mistakes resistance to feeling for courage, a truth he recognizes only once Roser has passed away and his isolation hits doubly as a feeling and as a fact. Alone, nearing the end of his life, Victor confronts his own image without the possibility of distortion. I’m reminded of Roberto Bolaño, who wrote, “To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self. […] All literature carries exile within it.”
Forever exiles to Chileans, Venezuelans, and Spaniards, Victor and Roser recover their agency by lovingly renewing their partnership. They suspend the suffering and crystallize their humanity. They open their hearts to the world, exposing them, like that of the soldier Victor saved, to the touch of another person. In this way, Allende shows us that even the briefest moments of intimacy can venerate the soul’s beauty.