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'A Long Petal of the Sea': Personal account of war and revolution in the 20th century

Devina Heriyanto
Devina Heriyanto

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, January 7, 2020  /  05:07 pm
'A Long Petal of the Sea': Personal account of war and revolution in the 20th century

'A Long Petal of The Sea' by Isabel Allende. (JP/Devina Heriyanto)

Historical fiction A Long Petal of the Sea does not only owe its title to Pablo Neruda, but also much of its plot. The Chilean poet coined the phrase "long petal of sea and wine and snow" to describe his motherland, whose people championed him and whose tumultuous politics in the 20th century drove him out of his own country.

Just like Neruda's best-known poems, at its core, A Long Petal of the Sea tells a romance between men and states. To be exact: of political struggle, war and unrequited nationalism of those who are exiled.

The novel begins in Europe, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War which split the country and later saw the rise of dictator Francisco Franco. Victor Dalmau, a young doctor at the Republican front line, finds himself on the verge of life and death, dragged into a political quagmire that will catch him again and again for the rest of his life.

During the war, Victor lost his father to old age and his brother Guillem to the Nationalist force. Now the head of the family, he must guarantee the safety of his mother and Guillem's lover Roser, who is pregnant. The fact that the Dalmau family are Catalan forces them to uproot their lives in order to survive.

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After Franco seizes power, the Dalmau family seeks exile in France, which treats the refugees as pests. However, thanks to Neruda's intense lobbying, the government of Chile decides to welcome the refugees in the country.

And so the Dalmau family begins a new life in Chile. Equipped with years of experience as a doctor on the frontline of the war, Victor obtains a post in Chile's prestigious hospital. Roser finds company in music.

In a letter to the readers, Allende wrote that much of the story owed its existence to a real Spanish refugee named Victor that she knew. This Victor also boarded the Winnipeg, a ship commissioned by Neruda, and lived in Chile for 34 years.

The lives of the two Victors were upended by the 1973 military coup in Chile, which marked the beginning of junta leadership led by General Augusto Pinochet. For the Dalmau family, it was as if the Spanish Civil War followed them through the decades and across the ocean.

A Long Petal of The Sea neatly captures the political turmoil in the 20th century through the story of one man and his family, beginning with the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and the revolution in South America. Again and again, Allende shows how politics, while most times distant and elitist, can be unflinchingly brutal to the laypeople.

The novel's strength lies in the perseverance of its characters, who persist amid all difficulties. At times, the story of Victor lends a glimmer of hope to the readers: If he could survive war, revolution and exile, then we too can hopefully face whatever is coming in the years ahead. (wng)

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A Long Petal of the Sea is available in Periplus and Kinokuniya Indonesia.

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