The weather-beaten ship's hatch that Pablo Neruda used as a desk sits majestically in one corner. The tuxedo the famed Chilean poet wore when he accepted the 1971 Nobel Prize hangs...
The weather-beaten ship’s hatch that Pablo Neruda used as a desk sits majestically in one corner. The tuxedo the famed Chilean poet wore when he accepted the 1971 Nobel Prize hangs in an upstairs closet, still neatly pressed. And nearby, facing the sea he loved, is the bed where he took his final breath more than three decades ago.
After wandering around Neruda’s house in the oceanside Chilean village of Isla Negra for the better part of a morning, I strolled outside and brought my literary sojourn to this South American country to an end.
Or so I thought. As a longtime admirer of Neruda, Isabel Allende and other Chilean writers, I had wondered what kind of culture had produced them. After re-reading my dog-eared anthology of odes to the Atacama Desert and other far-flung places in Chile, I decided to pack a bag and see for myself.
In the stately capital city of Santiago, I spent four days visiting literary monuments and haunts in the area: the elaborate mural in Santiago’s Cerro San Lucia park of the poet Gabriela Mistral, whose emotional verses made her Chile’s first Nobel Laureate, in 1945; the art-filled homes where Neruda had lived; and Cafe Tavelli, which doubles as a watering hole and performance place for the city’s best-known writers, where I heard a spirited reading by four poets.
I had even paced along Calle Cueto, a street of ramshackle houses on the edge of the city, in search of the mansion Allende had used as a model for the magical abode at the center of her first novel, “The House of the Spirits,” until finally someone told me it had been razed. And now, following my visit to Neruda’s house in Isla Negra, I leaned against a bus sign and prepared for the 1-½-hour ride back to Santiago. A young couple in jeans and backpacks made their way toward me along the dusty road. They greeted me in Spanish, chatted briefly, then invited me to join them for tea.
Within minutes I was huddled before a fire on a brisk, autumnal afternoon in the cafe of La Candela, a cozy guesthouse around the corner, sipping Darjeeling tea and swapping tales from the road with Anna and Miguel, travelers from the desert regions of northern Chile. Like me, they had made the trip from Santiago earlier that morning, especially to see Neruda’s house.
The tour, we agreed, had been rushed, the guide too brusque. But the quirky relics of Neruda’s life the life-size horse carved of wood, voluptuous figurines taken from the masts of ships, collections of everything from wooden Spanish stirrups to African masks had made the visit worthwhile. And, along the rocky shore below the house, I stood at the site where the poet and his wife, Matilde Urrutia, are buried, in a simple plot marked only by a placard.
A literary city
Even for the casual visitor, a literary sojourn makes for an easy entree to Santiago and environs. To be sure, the city, probably the most underrated South American capital, has a lot else going for it. The Pre-Columbian Art Museum and other repositories of paintings and pottery have impressive collections. The cuisine, featuring Chile’s famous sea bass and wines, is first-rate. Among urban areas in this region, it has one of the lowest rates of pickpocketing and other crimes against tourists. The dollar is strong here, too.
But with its population of 5 million, and myriad neighborhoods, public squares and parks, Santiago can seem to a newcomer like a South American version of Los Angeles: a city without a center. As I scratched the city’s surface, however, I found it to be a place where books and the people who write them have the status of say, chocolate bars in Hershey, Pa., or slot machines in Vegas. Nearly every bus or subway rider seems to be hunched over a novel.
Books by the best-known Latin American authors are sold for a few pesos from streetside vending machines. “Chileans think of poetry as a national sport,” explained Katherine Silver, an American-born translator and specialist in Chilean literature who had helped me prepare for my trip. “They consider it their patriotic duty to know the works of the country’s great writers.”
A house with spirit
La Chascona, one of three Neruda homes that are maintained as museums, was the first stop on my list. Finding La Chascona, in the hip Santiago neighborhood of Bellavista, was like looking for a speakeasy. And no wonder: Neruda built it for Matilde, his mistress (and later third wife) while he was still married to Delia del Carril. Even the name, which means “messy-haired woman” in Spanish, is a reference to her.
The house is set on a back street in the city’s answer to Greenwich Village. Clubs that give way to a small but vibrant up-all-night party scene are interspersed with grand colonial-era residences and restaurants serving ceviche, empanadas and other Latin specialties. As I fumbled with maps, a stranger came up and pointed me down the street to Neruda’s house. Inside the house, every aspect of the poet’s life, from his whimsical love of hats and other accessories to his keen interest in the travails of colonization, come graphically to life.
The themes of Neruda’s verses range wide, from colonization to passions of the flesh to the mysteries of the sea. But he was far more than a poet. Between his 1904 birth and 1973 death, he became Chile’s Mr. Everything: an ambassador, politician, collector of art and artifacts and mentor to a generation of writers.
As he ushered me from one room to the next, Jorge Lopez, my impassioned guide, sprinkled anecdotes about the poet and the house. Even though it was built on a hillside in the middle of the Andes, Lopez explained, Neruda had outfitted the house with nautical windows, a stream running underneath and other features to make it feel like a sailing vessel. When Augusto Pinochet’s military regime came to power in Chile in 1973, they ransacked the place. But even in those dark days, Matilde and other Neruda devotees worked hard to fill the house with his spirit.
The next morning, I took a two-hour bus ride to Valparaiso to visit another of Neruda’s homes. The highway passed fields of grapes as blue as the evening sky and vendors in straw hats selling peaches and oranges. The city, a sprawl of houses built on hillsides, all with views of the sea below, struck me as a less polished version of San Francisco.
Perfect setting for Neruda
I sensed instantly why Neruda had chosen this locale for his third home. It is a port city with the kind of gritty seafaring atmosphere the poet adored.
La Sebastiana, which Neruda had built in 1961, has an unremarkable exterior. But inside it has all the Neruda trademarks: ocean views from nearly every room, a bar with a recipe for one of his favorite drinks on top, ships in bottles, a wall lined with books. And from the top floor, a magnificent panorama of Neruda’s beloved sea.