A lesser known aspect of the complicated Spanish Civil War is that, as half a million dissidents streamed over the Pyrenees into France to escape Franco’s fascist regime, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda arranged for “The Winnipeg”, an old cargo ship, to carry two thousand of them to Chile where they docked on the day the Second World War was declared in Europe.
A subsequent friendship with Victor Per, one of the passengers, inspired Isabel Allende to write this novel, based on his memories. Although described as a fictional account, it is unclear exactly what has been invented, particularly since the author has her hero Victor Dalmau form friendships with real people like Neruda himself, and her own relative, one-time President Allende.
Like “Victor Dalmau”, did the “real” Victor actually save a severely wounded soldier by gently massaging his heart with his fingers? Did he agree to marry his brother’s pregnant girlfriend after he was killed in battle, to enable her to escape to a new life in Chile?
Although this novel is quite readable, and I learned some interesting history in the process, I never felt fully engaged. The characters appear somewhat two-dimensional, revealing no more than what the narrator tells us about them. The plot seems fragmented and unfocused, no doubt through the need to cover several decades of a lifetime. Victor and his wife Roser are clearly very successful, possibly like the author and those she is accustomed to mixing with, and they rub along together quite well. Victor becomes a respected doctor, and his wife a successful musician, but we never really learn the process by which this occurred. They both have affairs in their open marriage, without the friction or tension one might expect. When Chile swings to the right under Pinochet’s harsh regime, Dalmau is denounced by a neighbour and spends time in a concentration camp. Even such a dramatic situation as this is covered briefly in a fairly matter of fact way.
As others have observed, the slices of history based on research sit alongside the fictionalised relationships. I would have preferred a shorter novel showing more about how the couple achieved success in a new country, with more emotional involvement between the characters, and scenes on which I could reflect, and draw my own conclusions about their relationships.
This may be a minority view, since the novel has been very well received.