Photo by Michele Molinari
“I suppose we are the self-styled English of Latin America: sophisticated and hard-working but a bit class conscious,” says my friend Claudia Diaz as we walk through the chic Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago, the capital of Chile.
Claudia has lived most of her life in Santiago, where she manages a fashion boutique. Over a Pisco Sour – the national drink whose birth both Chileans and Peruvians lay claim to – I ask her why the people of Chile have a reputation for being less, well, Latin than the rest of the South American continent. “Chileans tend to do their sinning in private,” she says. “It’s a cultural thing.” Rather than a social life revolving around bars, Chileans prefer house parties with drinks placed on a central, communal table and indulged in freely. “Behavior is less reserved when you’re in a friend’s house,” says Claudia. Entertaining at home is a natural reaction to the poverty that grips large swathes of society here but the outwardly abstemious behavior may be one reason for the unfair reputation Chileans have as being a little dull.
Chile has north and south, but no east and west. As the world’s longest country, it stretches for more than 4,000km from the hot Atacama Desert in the north, to the frozen tip of Patagonia – with a claim beyond that to large swathes of the Antarctic. Squeezed between the high Andes and a tortured coastline, the country’s widest part is 440km but the average is less than half of that. This is a country with a lot of geography. “The European immigrants became isolated from home and their neighboring countries by the Andes and Atacama,” says Claudia. “It forced them to become self-sufficient and mix freely with the indigenous people. As a result, we are one of the most homogenous nations in Latin America.” Wealthy and modern, but still struggling to lift the urban and rural poor out of poverty, self-confident yet with an insecurity about what might be going on outside, the country’s contrasts make it difficult to understand what makes it tick.
We are on our way to visit La Chascona, one of poet Pablo Neruda’s three homes: in Santiago, Valparaíso and nearby Isla Negra. It was built as a secret hideaway for his mistress and muse, Matilde Urrutia, and he named it for her wild red hair (chascona means “uncombed”) and later made her his third wife. She appears in the 1995 Italian film Il Postino, about his life in exile.With three wives, and many mistresses, here is a man who was very far from dull. I wonder if understanding the poet and his complex love life might be a good way of understanding Chile. His poetic inspiration came from the land around him, from the sea and, notably, from his many women – building his houses in a triangle based on the coastline and pointing at the capital. All sit in the center of Chile, as though the Nobel Laureate could not bear to be too far from the country’s heart.
As we wander through a maze of rooms stuffed with his eclectic collections of glassware, nautical memorabilia and faded poetry books, Claudia tells me of the complexity behind Neruda’s position as a Chilean national hero. He died in disputed circumstances only two weeks after the 1973 military coup that killed his friend, the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. General Augusto Pinochet took over and his rule saw the death or disappearance of at least 3,000 people, with an estimated 40,000 tortured. “Neruda left his homes to the Communist Party but the government seized them and it took years of legal battles by his widow to have them returned,” says Claudia. “Now all three are filled every day with visitors.” Neruda is a national business, as well as a national icon.
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