Al­lende’s sweep­ing, ro­man­tic historical epic of mod­ern Chile

Char­ac­ters take a back seat in Is­abel Al­lende’s gen­er­a­tional saga, which is a story stacked with historical de­tail and quite old-fash­ioned

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Seán He­witt

A Long Petal of the Sea By Is­abel Al­lende

BBlooms­bury, 336pp, £16.99

egin­ning in the fi­nal year of the Span­ish civil war, when it is be­com­ing clear to Vic­tor Dal­mau and Roser Bruguera that the repub­li­can cause is doomed to fail, Is­abel Al­lende’s new novel cov­ers half a cen­tury of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial up­heavals across Spain and Chile.

When the two pro­tag­o­nists be­come refugees, Roser flees across the Pyre­nees whilst heav­ily preg­nant, even­tu­ally giv­ing birth to Vic­tor’s brother’s son, whose fa­ther is killed in bat­tle. Vic­tor, who mar­ries Roser pla­ton­i­cally in or­der to gain pas­sage to a ship out­fit­ted by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, has worked as a medic in the bat­tle­field, and the two es­cape to Chile to seek a bet­ter life.

Though this novel does not have the mag­i­cal re­al­ism of some of Al­lende’s other work, it re­tains a ro­man­tic sweep. This gen­er­a­tional saga, car­ry­ing the reader from the 1930s right through to the early 1990s, is stacked with historical de­tail, though it of­ten feels like the re­search takes promi­nence, and char­ac­ters take a back seat in their own story. Of­ten, that means that stereo­types come into play, or the char­ac­ters them­selves be­come em­blem­atic of cer­tain ar­che­typal fig­ures. The two broth­ers with which the story be­gins, for ex­am­ple, are Guillem and Vic­tor, one is bulky, manly, and a war­rior, the other is skinny, ro­man­tic, and po­etic.

The book is taut with de­sire, and the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of mar­riage, births and fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships pro­vide an ef­fec­tive net­work of re­stric­tions against which Al­lende can ex­plore the tug of lust and love. That said, Al­lende of­ten suc­cumbs to broad brush­strokes in defin­ing her char­ac­ters’ sex­ual re­la­tion­ships, which again be­come es­sen­tially em­blem­atic of so­ci­etal bi­na­ries. There is “nat­u­ral chivalry”, much talk of chastity and Catholi­cism and the “free love” of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Spain, but also a quite het­eronor­ma­tive em­pha­sis on re­pro­duc­tion as the means by which women be­come beau­ti­ful: “He re­mem­bered her as be­ing skinny, with nar­row hips and a flat ch­est, thick eye­brows and strong fea­tures: the kind of wo­man who has no false pride in her looks, and who, with age, would be­come lean or mas­cu­line. The last time he had seen her was in De­cem­ber, with a bulging belly and a face cov­ered in acne. Be­com­ing a mother had soft­ened her, giv­ing her curves where be­fore she had only an­gles. She was breast-feed­ing her baby, and had large breasts, clean skin, and lus­trous hair.”

Such de­scrip­tions are care­fully done, but all serve the ba­sic tra­di­tion­al­ism of the plot, which is quite old-fash­ioned in its epic, ro­man­tic arc and can lapse into dull­ness. Al­lende’s prose style in A Long Petal of the Sea can be tir­ing, which is dis­ap­point­ing con­sid­er­ing the po­ten­tial of the plot. There is a huge amount of sur­face de­tail, both historical and per­sonal, and a reader can only ad­mire the ex­tent to which Al­lende must have re­searched some of the scenes here.

How­ever, we never fully see through the eyes of the char­ac­ters, nor is the emo­tional res­o­nance of the book re­ally drawn out. Rather, Al­lende moves quickly, fill­ing each page with de­tail. One thing hap­pened, and then an­other hap­pened, and this is what X thought of it, and then an­other thing hap­pened. Af­ter a few hun­dred pages, the reader still doesn’t re­ally know the in­ner lives of the char­ac­ters, and the stack­ing up of de­tail can be­come te­dious, leav­ing lit­tle com­pul­sion to con­tinue.

The real sub­stance of the novel is in the his­tory of mod­ern Chile, its re­la­tion­ship with democ­racy, so­cial­ism, and mi­gra­tion. De­spite the vi­o­lence of its historical fo­cus, Al­lende’s book is ul­ti­mately op­ti­mistic, and dove­tails pur­pose­fully though im­plic­itly with our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. Vic­tor him­self, we learn, was a real friend of Al­lende’s, and died six days be­fore the fi­nal man­u­script was fin­ished. Al­lende’s god­fa­ther and first cousin, Sal­vador Al­lende, also fea­tures through­out the novel, be­ing the first so­cial­ist pres­i­dent of Chile. This colours Al­lende’s vision slightly, but not enough to mar the historical vision of the novel.

In a short note to the reader, placed like a lens at the open­ing of the novel, Al­lende homes in on anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric, despo­tism and the plight of refugees. She also gives this a per­sonal tone, ask­ing ques­tions about how the his­tory of mi­gra­tion has af­fected her own life and her own sense of self. “Where do I be­long? Where are my roots? Is my heart di­vided or has it just grown big­ger?” Through the rav­ages of po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and per­sonal up­heaval, the char­ac­ters in A Long Petal of the Sea ask sim­i­lar ques­tions, and the world opened to the reader is rich and var­ied, though its po­ten­tial is greater than the emo­tional volt­age it car­ries.


Ul­ti­mately op­ti­mistic: Is­abel Al­lende.

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