Australia’s “zero tolerance” policy towards asylum seekers arriving by boat has a dreadful legacy. It affected refugees around the world, as global leaders found inspiration in what former United States president Donald Trump hailed as a “good idea”. Trump told then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, “You are worse than I am”, but he was not outdone for long. His administration separated children from parents to deter refugees crossing the US–Mexico border.
This event is the inspiration for Isabel Allende’s The Wind Knows My Name. Allende refuses to name Trump, dedicating her attention to a cast of characters comprising asylum seekers – including from other historical and global contexts – and their principled supporters. These characters’ lives are documented in different narrative strands, which come to intertwine in novelistic ways. The author’s idealism is apparent – including in a tendency towards idealisation in her characterisations – but celebrating humanity makes sense in a work designed to defend it.
Allende has a reputation as a writer of magic realism, often mistaken for romance, and love is central to the various narrative strands here. There is also a character with clairvoyant powers. However, as with her breakthrough novel The House of the Spirits (1982), which recounts the 1973 coup that ousted the Chilean president Salvador Allende (the author’s uncle) and brought in Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror, Allende is fundamentally committed to educating her readers about the history of the oppressed, including the US’s culpability. In this new novel, one of Allende’s characters is a blind Salvadorean girl removed from her mother at the border in 2019. Another is a woman named Leticia, who in 1982 “entered the United States clinging to the back of her father … as he swam across the Rio Grande ... after the El Mozote massacre”. Allende, unafraid of exposition, explains that the perpetrators of that massacre were trained at the notorious School of the Americas, which was run by the US military and also educated members of Pinochet’s regime. The US is thus partly responsible for a refugee crisis it prefers to disavow.
The novel begins, however, in Austria in 1938, imagining the experience of one of the thousands of Jewish children sent alone as refugees to Britain after the pogrom known as Kristallnacht. Most of the children’s parents were killed in concentration camps. Allende puts her parallel histories into play to show, as the truism goes, that if we fail to learn from the past, we are indeed doomed to repeat it.
Bloomsbury, 272pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "The Wind Knows My Name".
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