Santiago was very important to Neruda, both as a young student and in his later years living in the house he built with his wife Mathilde, La Chascona.
The tears of joy which greeted us at the airport when we arrived in Chile were turned to tears of sadness as we departed Vina del Mar and the company of Inés and her daughters. Not only had we been driven to Neruda’s houses but had been lucky enough to have informed guides to the Chilean coast and built in recommendations for the best places to eat and visit, not least the temptations of the Vina del Mar casino!
We took our leave and made our way back to Santiago by bus, this time to see something of the city and, of course, to visit the last of Neruda’s houses, La Chascona, named after the wild red hair of Neruda’s wife, Mathilde.
Santiago has a vibrant, modern European, especially Spanish feel, with a thriving café culture and the energy which youth and students bring to a city. As with all capital cities Santiago was vital to the politics of Chile at the time of the coup d’etat, being the seat of government and home to the presidential palace.
As a senior senator, internationally renowned poet and long standing member of the Communist Party of Chile, Neruda was selected as the Party’s candidate to run for the presidency in 1970. However, negotiations with the socialists resulted in the agreement to have a single Popular Unity candidate in the person of Salvador Allende, who was subsequently endorsed as president following the elections on 4th September 1970.
Neruda had spent three years in exile, following his denunciation of the government of Gonzalez Videla in the 1940’s. He spent a year in hiding before having to be smuggled over the Andes into Argentina then turning up at the first International Peace Congress in Paris in 1949, in spite of the Chilean government insisting that he was only hours away from being captured! Nevertheless, Neruda did not return to Chile from exile until 1952.
The visit to La Chascona was also a guided visit but could not have been more different to the experience of Isla Negra. Our guide was a young Chilean student, an enthusiast for Neruda who responded to my own enthusiasm with some delight and a degree of amazement. When discussing a photograph which included Neruda’s friend Alberto Rojas Jimenez I could not help but mention the poem ‘Alberto Rojas Jimenez Comes Flying’. Our guide was delighted that I had even heard of this poem, from the ‘Residence on Earth’, and our credibility was sealed.
Far from denying Neruda’s politics our guide was happy to engage in this discussion. He explained how the house had been ransacked by the fascists following the coup while Neruda lay ill in hospital and sections had to be rebuilt and restored, they had been so badly damaged.
We talked about the mixed feelings in modern Chile, with people attempting to put the years of dictatorship behind them while at the same time having to come to terms with the reality of this part of the country’s history.
Our visit to Chile and time in Santiago was coming to an end. Santiago was both the hope of the Chilean people and the scene of the crushing of its fledgling democracy in the 1973 coup. My final poem attempts to capture the mixture of sentiments around Neruda’s final days in the city, my own sense of imminent departure and the possibility of not returning.
c) La Chascona
Wild haired beauty of the Santiago backstreets
If I caress your head and kiss your mouth
Will these curls unravel slowly,
Disentangling my fingers from your hair?
Give me the chance to cradle your sorrow,
Whispering away your brutalised past,
Let me revive your faith in the future,
Let me bring your tormentors to trial.
Your resurrection has been lovingly drawn,
Sensitive to the grace of your features
Respectful of your slender fragile aura,
Re-touching hidden scars, to lightly heal.
Imagining the conflicts you survived
Calm hands have soothed your aching body,
Stroked your hips, back, neck and arms,
Lingered on the fullness of your lips.
You deserve more than a holiday romance,
Yet this first embrace may be our last.
Thick unfamiliar words, mumbled in confusion
Fall heavily as I grope towards the door.
Like an uncertain lover, I stumble
As my rushed departure beckons.
Though distance may determine our destiny,
Your perfume still haunts my every step.
Less than two weeks after the coup d’etat in Chile, Pablo Neruda died, on 23rd September 1973.
Inevitably Neruda’s funeral was the first mass expression of opposition to the generals. Try as they might the authorities could not prevent thousands from pouring out onto the streets to mark the passing of Chile’s greatest poet.
The crowd proclaimed their solidarity in a call and response calling out names in a roll call then proclaiming their presence by shouting back, “Presente!”
This went on for some time before the call then went up from the crowd,
“Comrade Pablo Neruda!”
With the inevitable response, from the entire crowd……
The dictatorship was in its infancy but resistance was already underway.