LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Isabel Allende's new novel, "A Long Petal Of The Sea," begins in the horror of war in Europe. So much blood ran that the following year, the peasants swore that when they pulled up their onions, they were red and that they had found human teeth in their potatoes, she writes. What follows is an epic tale of exile, loss, resilience and love. The story is a personal one for Allende, mirroring her own experience of fleeing her country, Chile, after the overthrow of her relative Salvador Allende. It is my great pleasure to welcome the world's best-selling Spanish-language author, Isabel Allende.
ISABEL ALLENDE: Gracias, Lulu. Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Un placer. This novel starts in Spain, nearing the end of the Spanish Civil War on the side of the losing Republicans. Why did you want to start there?
ALLENDE: Well, because this is the story of the 2,200 refugees - Spanish refugees - that went to Chile. And when the fascist armies of Franco were surrounding Barcelona, half a million people walked to their border with France, asking for asylum. And France didn't know what to do with them.
They placed them in improvised concentration camps. They closed beaches with barbed wire and just dumped people there. And they started dying. There was not even water - drinking water, nothing.
And it was a cold, horrible winter in 1939. And then the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda managed to send 2,200 of those people to Chile. The refugees that came to Chile arrived in Valparaiso, the port, the same day that the Second World War started in Europe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The main character, Victor, is based on a real person.
ALLENDE: Yes. I had a very good friend that I met when I was living in exile in Venezuela. And he was one of the passengers of that ship that took these people to Chile - the Winnipeg. His name was Victor Pey Casado. And this man, who became my friend, told me his story, which I kept in my memory and my heart for 40 years. And I had the inclination or the need to tell the story recently because the tragedy of refugees is in the air. It's a global problem now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How were immigrants and refugees treated in Chile at that time?
ALLENDE: Well, Chile was at the south of the south of the world, a very insular country. And it was a very, I would say, Catholic, conservative society but with a very strong workers movement. And we had, at the time, a center-left government - Radical was the party. And the right-wing parties and the Catholic Church opposed the coming of these refugees with the same rhetoric that we hear today in the United States and in many other places in the world.
But the people in Chile ignored this rhetoric. And they had their own narrative about the refugees. And they had followed the events of the civil war very closely. And so when the ship arrived, people were waiting. They waited for days. And when it finally arrived in the port of Valparaiso, there was a crowd, an enthusiastic crowd with banners and flags and music from Spain and from Chile. They had food for them.
And they were taken in a train form from Valparaiso to Santiago. And the train went very slowly because in every town that they passed, there was a multitude of people greeting the refugees. And many families opened their homes for them. They were offered jobs immediately. And so not only them - those people contributed greatly to our culture and the society but their descendants.
Recently, in September 2019 - so a few months ago - it was anniversary of 80 years of the arrival of the ship - of the Winnipeg. And descendants from the people of the Winnipeg gathered. And it was, I mean, thousands of people and many of them - famous people who are part of the society. You see their surnames everywhere. It was a beautiful story, a story that ended well for refugees.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The main characters in this book are Victor and Roser. Victor is a doctor. Roser had a relationship with his brother. And they end up in an unlikely union until the rise of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Victor ends up being denounced by someone he knew well. And he ends up in prison, being tortured and starved again. What were you trying to evoke by having Victor's story, again, face the cruelty of political conflict?
ALLENDE: Well, first of all, it happened. And...
ALLENDE: What happened in Chile was very similar to what happened in the civil war in Spain. The civil war in Spain in - it started in 1936 with a leftist government elected by the people. And then the military rebelled. And they attacked the government, to topple the government with the idea they could do that in 24 hours. But the workers resisted. And they had, for three years, a horrific war. And then many years later in Chile, Victor lives a similar situation - a leftist government elected by the people - parties of the right, sometimes with the help of the Catholic Church and the military who are - that rebel and topple the government. In this case, there was no resistance. In Spain, the war ended with a fascist dictatorship that lasted 40 years. In Chile, it lasted 17.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At its core, this is an unlikely love story. Is your message that, even as the world goes mad, we can preserve what is best about humanity through our bonds with others?
ALLENDE: I think that in extreme circumstances, like war, exile, any extreme circumstance, the best and the worst of human beings emerges. And we can see the torturer. And we can see the hero who will risk his or her life to save somebody. And I write about that because why would I write about common lives, a suburban couple that has the - that the problem is they can't find the right wine to serve their guests? No. I want the catastrophe. I want the war. I want the tragedy. That's what books are made of.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's also what your story has been made of, in part.
ALLENDE: Well, my life has been ups and downs. But if I look back, I would say that I have had a very good life, although the crossroads, the moments when my life has changed directions completely, were moments in which I had absolutely no control over the circumstances, and I had just to follow my instinct and do the best I could with what was there. But still, I look back. And in spite of the losses and the many times that I have started from scratch and the fact that I will always be a foreigner, I have had a very good life because I have had what you were saying - relationships, friendship, love.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Isabel Allende's new novel is "A Long Petal of the Sea." Muchisimas gracias. Thank you very much.
ALLENDE: Muchas gracias, Lulu.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN PHELPS' "CREEPER VINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.