Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s
choice for November 2020.
The Long Petal of the Sea
This book could be described as an historical novel, one of the most remarkable I have read. It will appeal to anyone interested in the human condition, politics, love affairs, religion, and history.
The author adopts the Dickensian technique of starting with a group of people and their concerns, and then switching to another completely different group in a different place. These two are gradually and inevitably drawn together to become inextricably linked, and this is the story of the book in essence. The characters are fictitious but modelled on real people. Historical figures are recognisable and very real.
The horrors of the Spanish Civil War, and later of the Pinochet regime in Chile figure largely in the history of these two countries. In my opinion the opening section set in Spain is unrivalled and sets the scene for the rest of the book; it is followed at inordinate length by the adventures of a wealthy Chilean family wandering around Europe, who suddenly had to get back to their own country at the outset of war in 1939. They returned to their Santiago mansion filled with servants.
Soon, immigrants began to appear, mainly from Spain, including our first group, who are given refuge by the wealthy Chilean family, and who figure as main characters from now on. (This is just too coincidental, and would hardly happen in reality.) The picture of Chile as painted here is one of gross inequality in the reign of money and privilege. We are given an insight into the shanty towns, where later, during the Pinochet regime, the doctor, a renowned cardiologist, insisted on setting up a consulting room in the shantytown near him.
The pampered and beautiful daughter – you guessed it - becomes involved with one of the immigrants from our original group, with bizarre results. The lives of these people were ruled by fear of divine reprisals and of purgatory, and by slavish devotion to the clergy, who were not exactly squeaky-clean: but that didn’t stop them. Not to be giving away too much, one might say that “the truth will out.”
There are aspects of the book that seemed rather unbalanced, in terms of what was described and what was omitted, and the amount of time given to relatively unimportant actions, and maybe a little padding. A translation from Spanish or any language will always suffer misinterpretation.
Dublin Unitarian Church
If you know little about the Spanish Civil War or the military coup in Chile under Pinochet then this family saga is an OK introduction. The family at the centre of the story are the Dalmaus who were on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War pitched against Franco’s right wing army. The main protagonist is Victor Dalmau and Allende based him on a real person she had met in Venezuela when they were both in exile from Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. The fictional Victor and his family endure not only the civil war in Spain but also the horror of concentration-like camps set up in France to cope with the thousands of Spanish refugees who came over the border. The Dalmaus then emigrate on the ‘Winnipeg’, a boat chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to rescue selected Spanish refugees and take them to Chile. They embark on a new life in Chile until Pinochet’s take-over in the 70’s when they are again faced with being exiles in Venezuela. Despite these epic events I found the characters were not drawn to their full potential and were at times lacking a certain amount of depth, which is unfortunate as they were certainly interesting people living out extraordinary lives. Perhaps it was Allende’s matter-of-fact and flat prose style which didn’t bring the characters alive for me or the descriptions of the events they were living through. The plot was a bit too neat and predictable for such momentous times. Despite some of its disappointments it was a good read.
Dublin Unitarian Church