Across the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, Chile is known as país de poetas: land of poets. This reputation for verse-making is, in part, recognition of the fact that two Chileans have received the Nobel Prize for Literature for their poetry. Gabriela Mistral was first, in 1945, but it was the second of Chile’s prize-winners, Pablo Neruda, that ensured the South American nation became identified across the globe as a veritable powerhouse of poetry.
Taking a pilgrimage to the places that inspired one of the twentieth century’s most widely translated poets is as vivid and visceral an experience as Chilean culture can conjure.
A voyage of discovery into the sea-buffeted soul of Chile can scarce be seriously contemplated without delving into the life and legacy of the colourful Neruda. The Swedish Academy said, upon awarding the poet the planet’s most prestigious literary accolade in 1971, that he “brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams” but whilst his work eulogised Latin America from Mexico to Machu Picchu and Patagonia, it was Chile that he wrote about most evocatively and extensively. Chile’s landscapes helped him produce his best work, and nowhere fuelled his muse more than the places where he lived.
Neruda owned three houses in Chile during his lifetime and here the spirit of the man − and in many ways of the country – burns brightest today, 44 years after his death. The poet’s former residences are respectively in the Bohemian neighbourhood of Bellavista in Santiago; in the gritty, animated seaport of Valparaiso; and in the idyllic retreat of Isla Negra on a rugged coastline some 70km south. In its wild 4250km tip-to-tail length, Chile holds a treasure trove of better-known natural attractions, but these three photogenic destinations in the nation’s zona central (central zone) provide a fascinating insight into its culture.
The Chilean Capital’s Bohemian quarter for half a century, Bellavista enjoys the beautiful views its name intimates. Clustering up the sides of Santiago’s second-highest hill, Cerro San Cristobal (880m), its cute candy-coloured houses flank a dazzling array of restaurants and bars. But its avant-garde charms only arrived after its first famous resident, Neruda, moved here in the 1950s.
Steeply tiered on multiple levels up the hillside towards Chile’s mountains and with a stream gushing through the grounds, Casa La Chascona, Neruda once asserted, was close enough to the city zoo on Cerro San Cristobal to hear the lions roar. The poet began building the house as a getaway for himself and his then mistress and future wife, Matilde Urrutia. His influence on the construction was flamboyant and immediate: seeing the architect’s plans for the house to face the morning sunlight and the city below, Neruda had the prospect switched northeast instead to look out over the Andes. The residence developed into a poet’s flight of fancy. Neruda was a collector, and his houses, like his poetry, all became reflections of the things he collected.
In his Santiago residence, these collections seem distinctly Chilean in character. The vines common to this region of Chile decorate the entranceway. The maritime theme is evident in everything from the many glass fishing floats to the driftwood pillars to a living room resembling a lighthouse and a dining room modelled on a captain’s cabin. Geographically, in this long, thin, coast-hugging nation, the sea is never distant and in Neruda’s houses it is ever-present too, imbued into the buildings’ very fabric.
Neruda set the trend for Bellavista’s emergence as a haven for artists and intellectuals: La Chascona welcomed plenty, including Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who painted a two-faced portrait of Urrutia which hangs in the house to this day. One face depicts the Urrutia the public knew, the other the Urrutia Neruda loved, with the poet’s face painted into Urrutia’s curly hair. It was his lover’s curls that gave La Chascona its moniker, and the place is replete with those intimate details of a love affair: objects that were shared passions, shared secrets or shared jokes and the sensation Neruda or Urrutia could laughingly emerge from an adjoining room any moment. In this sense, La Chascona reaches far beyond the role of museum and feels more like you are there in the moment all those years ago with the poet and his muse. “Here has risen Casa La Chascona,” Neruda wrote, “with water that runs, writing its own language.”
Neruda had much to say on his beloved Valpo, the old-fashioned and eccentric port city of Valparaíso: its intertwining alleyways and rickety ascensores (lifts) fanning up the sides of precipitous cliffs captured his imagination more than the capital ever could. “Santiago is a captive city behind walls of snow. Valpo throws its doors wide to the infinite sea, to its street cries, to the eyes of children,” he said.
Like many Valparaíso abodes, La Sebastiana is sequestered up a steep labyrinth of passageways, precariously balanced on the steep slopes above the port.
Neruda describes the house he purchased here as “hanging, from the firmament from the star from light and darkness”. Inside, it is a miniature Valparaiso of narrow passages and steep staircases, often leading to nothing but windows, walls, balconies. He wanted La Sebastiana to escape the confines of conventional architecture, theming the third floor as a birdcage where birds were free and the roof terrace as a heliport for possible voyages to the stars. The furnishings are worldlier than those in La Chascona: appropriately so for a house in Chile’s long-time gateway to the world, and for an owner now achieving global renown for his verse. Exotic maps and mementos reflect Neruda’s extensive travels as a diplomat, a career many Chilean writers dabbled in.
Glimpsed from outside, with its funnel towering from the roof, the house bears a resemblance to the steamers that would have still called at Valparaíso in Neruda’s time. Like the ships he saw coming and going from his window, Neruda was with La Sebastiana captaining his own ship, perhaps into the sea of his consciousness. The poet referred to himself as an estuary sailor, mesmerised by the sea but preferring the stability of dry land from which to observe it.
South down the rocky shoreline from Valparaíso, Isla Negra is an area where wealthy Santiago residents gravitate for coastal escapes, a peaceful place of holiday retreats, smashing seafood restaurants and crashing waves. It is also something of a writer’s and artist’s community, and of course a large part of the reason why is former denizen Neruda, who spent the majority of his time in Chile at his house here.