On the 12th of February at UEA’s Literary festival, Isabel Allende talked about her new book, (A Long Petal of the Sea), which discusses love, relationships, optimism in these dark times and as always, stories. However, she tenderly defined them as personal histories. Her new book is translated by two Norwich academics; Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson. She tells the story of Victor Dalmau and his sister-in-law; Roser, refugees from the Spanish civil war. They are aboard the Winnipeg– a boat chartered by the legendary poet; Pablo Neruda in 1939 bound for Chile. She commented on the ease with which this story took shape, as much of the plot is based in real history.
Allende did not spend masses of time explaining the story as she slyly quipped; ‘I want you to read it for yourselves!’ but she did reveal that the protagonist; Victor Dalmau was profoundly inspired from the personal testimonies of a friend, also named Victor, with whom she met while exiled in Venezuela. They corresponded up to three times a week and she gleaned many details from his experiences but, tragically, he died aged 103 just six days before she was ready to send him the final manuscript. He died never learning that her protagonist was based on him. It was with this warmth and tenderness that Allende embraced the audience and we were immediately hooked on her every word.
Isabel Allende has written twenty-four bestsellers, received over sixty awards and sold seventy-two million copies of her books worldwide. She touched on the poignancy of the themes in A Long Petal of the Sea with the painful history of the Spanish Civil War, of Chilean politics and the political landscape of today. She despaired over the dehumanisation of refugees in global media and the similarities in Chilean attitudes to the admittance of Catalonian refugees to Chile in 1939 to attitudes today. However, when asked by an audience member about her optimism she said; ‘all of the significant events in my life; the abandonment by my father, the death of my daughter, the Chilean coup of 1973 and the breakdown of my first marriage all happened outside of my control. The only thing you can control is how you react to such things.’ She talked anecdotally at length of her relationship with her mother, whom she adored, and the importance of having inner strength and resolve in times of hardship and in times like these that we share today.
I leave you with some selected quotes that made me roar with laughter;
‘Men are so much work. There are like three men here. Raise your hands! Oh, more like twelve.’
‘I really don’t like children…I don’t know why you laugh, children are disgusting.’
‘I’m sorry I can only talk in proverbs.’
‘I would feel absolutely ridiculous panting in English.’
And finally, on a more pensive note; ‘Better things are going to come. Young people are going to change things.’