SANTIAGO — Largo Pétalo de Mar is the latest novel by Isabel Allende. It’s a 20th century tale that spans two continents and five decades as it follows two refugees who flee the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, travel by steamship to Chile (that “long petal of the sea”), and start over. Chile Today sat down with Allende and in the attached clip she explains the genesis of the book.
Allende, who has been called “the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author,” began her literary career as a journalist in Chile but it did not end there. Threatened and blacklisted after the military coup in 1973, she moved to Venezuela and ultimately to Marin County, California. In 1982, her first novel, La Casa de los Espíritus (“The House of the Spirits”), became an instant best-seller. It was followed by many others. Since then, she has won numerous awards and her works have been translated into 40 languages and have sold more than 70 million copies.
While reporting on Allende’s receipt of a major book award last year, we learned that she was working on a new novel and we became fascinated by its historical basis. We therefore reached out for an interview in advance and she met with us one afternoon in Providencia, shortly after the book’s release in Chile.
Largo Pétalo de Mar (“A Long Petal of the Sea”) is classic Allende. It weaves together many of her favorite themes: nostalgia, loss, separation, a desire to belong, the inability to go home, and going home to discover it’s no longer home. The novel is also perfectly timed: the pivotal event upon which it is based, the successful relocation of almost 2,500 Spanish refugees to Valparaíso by then-Special Consul for Spanish Immigration to Chile (and future Nobel Prize winning poet) Pablo Neruda, is coming up on its 80th Anniversary.
Allende says that she writes “to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion.” That is no more true than in her depiction of the brutality of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath in the makeshift French internment camps. It is equally true in the way she captures the bewilderment of the “disappeared,” a generation later, when their blindfolds were lifted and they found themselves blinking in the sun in another hastily-organized detention center: el Estádio Nacional (the National Stadium) in Santiago.
The book’s main characters suffer significant upheavals in Spain and Chile, but despite that, and even because of it, the book is a buoyant read. As Allende explained during our interview, at her age (almost 77), she has lived long enough to see that although history repeats itself, there is reason to be hopeful: “the curve of humanity,” despite its oscillations, is always “toward progress.”
Robert Travis grew up in San Francisco, California, and moved to Santiago, Chile, in July 2018. In addition to editing and writing for Chile Today, he practices law from afar with Travis & Travis. He’s thrilled to be living in the same hemisphere as “the world’s longest left,” Playa Chicama.