Jan 20, 2020
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Pablo Neruda Saved Thousands of War Refugees. Isabel Allende Imagines Two of Them.

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By Isabel Allende

In January of 1939, after three and a half years of devastating civil war, Francisco Franco defeated Spain’s Republican army at Barcelona, clinching a dictatorship that would last for nearly a half-century and displacing hundreds of thousands of soldiers, activists and Republican supporters. Many fled across the Pyrenees into France thinking they’d escaped the worst, only to find themselves behind barbed wire in concentration camps like Argèles-sur-Mer, “half-dead from cold and hunger.”

Though the larger world seemed as blind to Spain’s displaced population as they’d been to the war itself, the Chilean diplomat and poet Pablo Neruda lobbied to save over 2,000 of the refugees, as many as could fit on a nine-ton cargo ship called the Winnipeg, bound for political asylum. Neruda’s far-reaching humanist act calls to mind Oskar Schindler, and is the little-known kernel of history at the heart of Isabel Allende’s 17th novel, “A Long Petal of the Sea.” Allende, we learn from her author’s note, first heard about Neruda’s “ship of hope” in her childhood, when it caught in her memory and remained there for 40 years. Now she has deftly woven fact and fiction, history and memory, to create one of the most richly imagined portrayals of the Spanish Civil War to date, and one of the strongest and most affecting works in her long career.

Spanning generations and continents, the novel follows an unforgettable pair of exiles granted passage on the Winnipeg: Victor Dalmau, an auxiliary medic in the war, and Roser Bruguera, a young woman carrying the child of Victor’s brother Guillem, missing in action. As the special consul for Spanish emigration, Neruda has been ordered to select candidates clinically, rejecting radicals and any candidates who are overly political or intellectual. His compassion becomes the stronger factor, however, an unexpected blessing for Victor and Roser, who manage to impress the poet with their selflessness and commitment to save the child at any cost.

Victor and Roser marry, a bond that has nothing to do with romantic love, but something far richer and more reliable. As they begin their lives over again with nothing in Santiago, Chile, their partnership grows into deep friendship and emotional symbiosis. Only together, they realize, can they endure what they’ve lost and recover a sense of purpose.

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