Sunday, July 30, 2006

At Home with Pablo Neruda

Yesterday we were invited to the home of Chile´s Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, on the coast at Isla Negra between the port cities of Valparaiso and Cartegna, about an hour and a half´s drive from Santiago. Of course he was not able to join us, having died of prostate cancer within days of Pinochet´s military coup in 1973. It is said that his will to live gave out after the death of his friend, Salvador Allende, who either committed suicide or was killed by soldiers. Allende had appointed Neruda as ambassador to France and it was during his two years in Paris that Neruda became only the third Latin American writer to win the Nobel prize for literature.

The area around Neruda´s home resembles parts of Carmel, with a curving coastline sprinkled with pine trees and granite boulders making for numerous tide pools. It was the weekend and we were not the only group going to visit Neruda´s seaside retreat. The building next door was the assembly point and it included an art gallery, restaurant and gift shop. Because of the success of the film "Il Postino," it was possible to mail cards from a kiosk, even though the film was made in Italy where the poet lived for a time. The views from the house were stupendous; freighters studded the horizon traveling to one of Chile´s ports. Down from the house on a point of land overlooking the ocean were the graves of Neruda and his third wife, Matilde. Poems were displayed beside objects important to him, a giant ship anchor, an aloe vera plant. Jorge, our guide, pointed out the tiny train-car shaped hut that appeared neglected and was not on the tour. It was there he said that Neruda prefered to write. And it was shaped like a freight car because Neruda´s father was a train engineer.

Neruda is now perhaps Chile´s premier icon, along with Allenda and Victor Jara, that folksinger who was brutally murdered during the coup. You can buy bronze plaques of all three with quotes from their work. But Neruda´s house complicated his personality for me. I knew that he changed his name because his father did not think a literary career the proper one for his son. But I was surprised to learn that he was a collector par excellence, to a manic degree, and one of the two buildings on his property was built solely to house the thousands of various objets d´arte that he assembled during his lifetime, everything from huge carved bowsprits from sailing ships, to colored bottles and glasses, masks, compasses, tiny ships in bottles, shells (including spikes from narwal whales) and a wide variety of art. He seemed to be in love with the sea, but apparently he never went out on the water, preferring to stay inside and look at it surrounded by fascinating representations and icons of things marine. Neruda loved fish as a symbol and a design he created is replicated on statues, weathervanes and souvenirs. Outside beside the house was a sailboat and we were told that he liked to sit inside it drinking, so that when he felt tipsy it seemed to him like being on the sea. How very odd!

This wasn´t the only house in which he surrounded himself with quirky objects. Another is La Chascona in Bellevista, a suburb of Santiago, which he named after his wife´s disorderly hair. We´re going to visit it during our city tour today. And there was yet another house, bought after his reknown brought him money, in Valparaiso. It seemed strange that now, 33 years after his death, the poet´s belongings would be surrounded with the trappings of tourism, his face on posters and plates. Would he like all of these people tramping through his lovely house, oogling the accumulations of a lifetime they were not allowed to touch ("No Tocar" signs abounded)?

The all-day trip began with a journey through several wine-growing valleys west of Santiago. We learned that the best white wines were produced in the Casablanca Valley which looked remarkably similar to Sonoma or Napa with huge vineyards, large manor houses with tasting rooms, and elaborate gates through which weekend wine fanciers would travel. We learned about Carmenere, the grape unique now to Chile, which originally came from Bordeaux where it was wiped out by the phylloxera plague in the 19th century, and were able to sample it that night when we ate dinner in Bellavista at the crowded Galindo (it went well with my fried conger eel (tastes like filet of sole). We caught a glimpse of the ancient Inca canals and stopped in Curacavi to nibble sweets, sample the potent Inka brandy, chicha, and feed grass to the llama. And we drove through the coastal resorts of Algarrobo, El Quisco, and El Tabo, stopping for lunch in Pomaire, a dusty village famed for its unique dark ceramic art and local crafts. At Los Naranjos, we listened to music and feasted on local treats. I tried the pastel de choclo, a chicken casserole topped with corn mash which was delicious, while others had a unique soup.

In the evening our group went out exploring, taking the metro to the center of the city where most of the traders on the pedestrian walkways were closing up shop. There were numerous vendors of CDs and DVDs, no doubt pirated. And there were at least three groups of fundamentalist Christians, screaming and singing the truth as they saw it to ignoring crowds. In the Plaza de Armas a man was making fun of them and had far more listeners. From there we took the metro a short distance to Bellavista where nightlife was booming, and throngs moved slowly along the streets from bar to restaurant to bar. We settled on Galindo because it looked neighborly, and our waiter turned out to be from Mexico, to Gerardo´s delight. The food and the conversation was terrific. But we never found a music venue where we could listen to folk music or dance to rock, and we were back to the hotel before midnight.

Today we travel around Santiago and tonight it´s back over the Andes to Buenos Argentina.

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