The SS Winnipeg, Pablo Neruda, and A Long Petal of the Sea

Pablo Neruda and the SS Winnipeg in 1939.


VARPARAISO, Chile — Not many radicals from the U.S. know of the Winnipeg and the great poet Pablo Neruda’s role in the event, which is a shame. It is one of many instances of heroism and direct action on the part of the left before and during World War II.

Pablo Neruda worked as a Chilean diplomat from 1927 (when he was 23) to 1943. He served in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore, Argentina, Spain, and France as the Chilean consul. Before, during, and after his diplomatic career, he wrote and published steadily. Neruda published his second book when he had just turned 20. “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” became a bestseller and established his reputation as a writer. While he continued to publish love poems during his entire career, his poetry became more political as he served in his various diplomatic posts.

In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Neruda was stationed in Madrid. He strongly supported the Republic. He raised money for solidarity activities, and spoke and wrote in defense of the Republican cause. Radicalized by the war and the murder of his friend Federico Garcia Lorca, he became a communist and would later become a leader of the Chilean Communist Party. Some of his best collections of political poems come from this period. They include “Spain in Our Hearts” and “Residence on Earth.”

“Spain in Our Hearts” is included in some English translations of “Residence on Earth” but was also published in Spanish and English as a separate book. The poem’s title was used by Adam Hochschild in 2016 for his excellent biography of Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Neruda’s other great collection of political poems is “Canto General,” published in 1950.

In 1939 Franco defeated the Republican forces around Barcelona and soon afterward created a dictatorship that lasted 46 years. Hundreds of thousands of Republican soldiers, supporters, and activists fled to France, where they were placed in concentration camps. Some were released or escaped; some were able to obtain passage to other countries or join the French Foreign Legion. Many, however, were trapped in the camps. This later group of Republicans was later transferred to Nazi work camps or extermination camps.

Oct. 2019 Winnipeg women
Spanish refugees who arrived in Chile on the SS Winnipeg.

Realizing the danger that these Spaniards faced, Neruda lobbied his government, raised money, and organized a ship, the SS Winnipeg, to take 2200 Spanish refugees to Chile, where they received political asylum. Originally designed to carry up to 97 passengers, Neruda had the ship gutted and retrofitted so that it could hold a maximum number of people. The Winnipeg left France on Aug. 4, 1939, arriving in Arica (in the far north of Chile) on Aug. 26. The ship arrived on the night of Sept. 2 in Valparaiso. The next day, the refugees were welcomed by massive crowds of supporters. Some refugees stayed in Valparaiso, a second group traveled to Santiago, and a third group boarded a train to Argentina. To give a sense of Neruda’s act, one might recall that Oskar Schindler, made famous by the Spielberg movie “Schindler´s List,” saved 1200 lives. Neruda saved 2200.

Cognizant of what he was doing, Neruda would later write: Let the critics erase all my poetry, if they wish, but this poem that today I remember, will never be erased ever (translation by the author). The Chilean government ordered Neruda to only take skilled workers who were not political. Neruda defied his government and took people of all social classes, from lowly peasants and workers to professionals and intellectuals. Many were also, of course, socialists and communists.

The anniversary of the Winnipeg’s arrival is being celebrated in Chile during August and September with talks, workshops, film festivals, book releases, dance performances, art exhibits, and an official ceremony in the Chilean congress. Perhaps the most interesting event is a reenactment of the arrival of the Winnipeg in Valparaiso on the night of Sept. 2 and the day of Sept. 3. Actors will play the role of the some of the refugees, but many roles will be played by ordinary Chileans who attend the event.

While the voyage of the Winnipeg is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, this may soon change. Isabel Allende´s latest book, “Larga Pétula de Mar” (2019) is about to be published in the U.S. in January 2020 with the title “A Long Petal of the Sea” by Ballantine Books. The book was published in June in Spanish and is being sold throughout North and South America. Allende is the most read living author from the Spanish-speaking world. Her 28 books have sold over 72 million copies and been translated into 42 languages. While mostly known for her novels written in a magical realist style, she also writes historical fiction, children´s books, and deeply felt autobiographical works. All of her books are political, some more than others.

have not read the English translation (obviously—it has not been published yet) but have read “Larga Pétula de Mar.” It is high quality historical fiction based on extensive research, well written, and engaging as a novel. My experience with her books in Spanish and English is that the translations are very good. I expect that the Ballantine Books translation will live up to that high standard.

“A Long Petal of the Sea” spans 56 years of history, beginning in 1938 in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, moving through the voyage of the Winnipeg and the refugees’ adaptation to Chile, moving through the Allende years of third-way socialism and the dictatorship of Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, and ending with the transition to democracy. Many of the minor characters are real, such as Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda. The main characters, Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera, are composites of the real refugees who traveled to Chile on the Winnipeg. Sorry, there are no spoilers in this review. I will only say that every event Allende describes is based on historical events.

We live in a world culture awash in the ideology of capitalism. Each and every one of us drowns in this flood of capitalist discourse. Yet within that flood, there are cultural works and authors that present an alternative vision with which we can construct a socialist world. These works and authors are like life preservers we can hang on to amidst the flood. Several genres lend themselves to anti-capitalist discourse, including poetry, historical fiction, detective fiction, and even science fiction. Isabel Allende’s historical fiction falls within this tradition. She doesn´t just tell a good story in an engaging manner; she educates her readers politically.

The anniversary of the Winnipeg’s arrival in Chile and the publication of “A Long Petal of the Sea” come at an opportune political moment. The treatment of the Spanish Republican refugees by the French government, which closed its borders and placed the Spanish who succeeded in crossing the frontier in concentration camps, mirrors the U.S. government’s treatment of Central American refugees. As in the U.S., French politicians and media demonized the Spanish, calling them criminals, rapists, and freeloaders.

The U.S. media has focused on the Central American refugees at the U.S. border. This refugee crisis is part of a larger crisis tormenting all of the Americas. In South America, the concern is with refugees from Venezuela and Haiti. Chile, for instance, has received over 400,000 refugees from Venezuela in the last 12 months. Other South American countries have received even more. Haitian refugees are now found throughout South America. There are an estimated 150,000 Haitian refugees in Chile today, whereas in the 2002 Chilean census there were fewer than 100 Haitians in the country. This hemisphere-wide refugee crisis is a consequence generally of the capitalist world system, and specifically of U.S. intervention.

Neruda’s example shines across history. The crisis must be met with political organizing and direct action; with courage and compassion. Allende’s latest novel is a tale of hope and love, well told. It offers a history lesson of the recent past, and indicates the general way forward. Please read it and pass it along to your friends in the English-speaking world, especially in the belly of the beast.

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