Every January 8th Isabel Allende, the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author, steps into her “writing” shed to begin her next book. It became her habit starting on January 8, 1981, when she wrote a letter to her terminally-ill grandfather. That letter morphed into her first book, The House of Spirits / La Casa de los Espíritus.

Isabel Allende slipped into my reading arena like an early morning fog, her words shrouding any clear tale, making my eyes work to distinguish the characters and plot. I read my way through Inés of My Soul, Paula, Maya’s Notebook, Zorro and The Japanese Lover before realizing there was something called magical realism, a genre credited to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, among others.

 En pocas palabras, in a few words, this genre includes mystical moments, fluid timelines, a sprinkle of centuries-old beliefs set down by curanderos, the healing ones, mixed with Catholic influence and flashbacks of the real and imagined sort.  My definition.

Isabel Allende came back into focus this year when I caught NPR’S Lulu García-Navarro’s interview on January 19, 2020 regarding Allende’s latest book, A Long Petal of the Sea. Allende spoke of a conversation with a man forty years ago who had come to the Americas on a ship called the Winnipeg.  That trip had been arranged by Chilean Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize winning author, to save 2000 Spaniards fleeing Franco’s fascist war and impending reign of terror in the late 1930s. It seemed, Allende reasoned, that this is an appropriate moment in history to revisit that conversation, merging this little known saga of politics and the plight of refugees into our present space and time.

It is nothing new to have Allende weave a compelling story within the rumbling of South America’s tumultuous history.  She is the goddaughter of Salvador Allende, cousin of her father and onetime duly-elected president of Chile – a president ousted with the overt help of the United States CIA and quickly replaced by Augusto Pinochet, the United States’ handpicked successor. Isabel’s personal story was much affected by this coup d’ ètat, taking place on September 11, 1973, yet another historical September 11th disaster.

Pinochet threw out the constitution, dissolved Congress, banned political parties and gained fame as one of the horrific dictators in Latin America’s history.  (For comprehensive overview check:  NY Times, December 11, 2006 Obituary for Pinochet, by Jonathan Kandell) Her family, as many other Chilean’s lives, was ravaged throughout the Pinochet regime. Allende’s novels reflect the cellular memories of those turbulent times.

Isabel Allende, A Long Petal of the Sea     

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she fabricates a Catalan man and woman brought together in Barcelona during the grueling Spanish Civil war, their individual flight to France’s refugee camps and finally, acceptance to board the Winnipeg, bound for a new life in Chile. The ship is real. Pablo Neruda appears throughout the novel in the form of quotes and the revolution. Human suffering, political acts, crackdowns on civilians, their detention, torture and disappearances are factual.

As an author, Isabel Allende combines these facts with her fiction into another award-winning book of her annual creation. By documenting the voyage of the Winnipeg, she revives a little known piece of Spain and Chile’s past. She recalls Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, France’s refugee camps and introduces us to Chile’s surprising response to refugees.

What of today’s refugees?  What of our current calls to nationalism? What is the global response to human migration in the face of political upheavals? Natural disasters? Pandemics? Will we be the next refugees?

Gracias to Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea, we experience the little known voyage of the refugees on the Winnipeg and one country’s response in the face of their plight. It is up to us, the reader, to explore the parallels in our own time.


For more on Isabel Allende:  https://www.isabelallende.com

Link to NPR interview: https://www.npr.org/2020/01/19/797722065/isabel-allende-on-a-long-petal-of-the-sea