To be exiled from one homeland is unlucky; to be exiled from two might suggest that somebody up there has a grudge against you. One such double unfortunate was Victor Pey Casado, an engineer who fled Franco's Spain in 1939 as one of more than 2,000 refugees transported to Chile on the SS Winnipeg. Over the next 25 years, he became more Chilean than the Chileans, but as an adviser and friend of Salvador Allende, he was obliged to flee again when the president was deposed by General Pinochet's military junta in 1973, finding refuge in Venezuela.
There he befriended Isabel Allende, also forced into exile as one of the ex-president's relations. This was a liberating period for Allende, who took the opportunity to slough off her old, conventional existence and channel her homesickness into the magnificent, offbeat portrait of Chile found in her world-conquering debut novel, The House of the Spirits (1982). Now, in her 17th novel - her most ambitious in years - she revisits the emotional territory of her years as an exile through a fictionalised retelling of Victor's story (he advised her on the book up to his death in 2018 at 103).
The novel begins in 1939 with Victor Dalmau serving as a medical auxiliary with the Spanish Republican Army. Although the novel is free of the full-on magical realism that characterised The House of the Spirits, it sometimes teeters on the brink: it starts with Victor plunging his hand into a dead teenage soldier's chest wound and kick-starting his heart with a few adroit squeezes.
There is a fairy-tale aspect, too, as Victor's family take in a young goatherd called Roser who turns out to be a piano prodigy; she sleeps in the bed belonging to Victor's brother Guillem, who is away fighting, and without having met him falls in love with him. Eventually Roser and Guillem meet, but he is killed, leaving her pregnant. Victor does the decent thing and marries her, but after the victory of Franco's fascists, they join the trudging exodus of Republican sympathisers towards France, where they are herded into makeshift concentration camps.
It is, of all people, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who comes to their rescue. It was clearly one of Allende's aims to celebrate Neruda's Schindler-esque activities in organising the SS Winnipeg's voyage, defying the Chilean government's orders to bring back no intellectuals or other non-useful folk.
Having started the Civil War, Allende is slightly less sure of herself once the exiles arrive in Chile. She has trouble breathing life into real figures: she tells us that when Neruda stays with Victor, he "filled every nook and cranny with his huge presence" but doesn't take the time to show it, and even President Allende remains two-dimensional.
It is Victor and Roser, both of whom enjoy various romantic intrigues before realising that their marriage of convenience is blooming into late love, who hold the attention. She writes superbly about the miseries of her twice-exiled hero and heroine, as they wangle their way to Venezuela and try again to work out where they might find a home.
Allende's novels have become notably darker and more tendentious in the last five or so years, and the importance of generosity to refugees has become a recurring theme. Here she stresses the enormous cultural contribution that the Spanish refugees made to mid-20th-century Chile, as well as sounding some warning notes about the rapidity with which fascist regimes can seize power in apparently peaceable countries. But despite the stark tragedies it depicts at times, this is a defiantly warm and funny novel by somebody who has earned the right to argue that love and optimism can survive whatever history might throw at us.