Ghosts of Chile
“It was here I believed I would finally find Pablo Neruda.”
Along the backpacker trails that crisscrossed South America, the loose affiliations of hostels and cafés where a stranger might make your acquaintance in Caracas and then reappear in the bed next to yours in Buenos Aires, the rumor was that Chile was too expensive. “First world prices, man,” the backpackers said. Everyone was young and idealistic and on a budget. South America on a Shoestring was the most popular travel guide. Silk-screened Che Guevara was the most popular T-shirt. The backpackers admired eastern philosophy and nineteenth-century Russian novelists; they went in for techno and tango and two-for-one happy hour specials. They slept with each other and then parted ways, sometimes wistfully, other times hoping never to see each other again, as when I found myself in the arms of a Mexican poet who had the slightly starved, disheveled beauty of poets everywhere. We’d spoken with dismay about the wall going up between our two countries, after which he’d kissed me and I’d let him, then regretted it immediately since I had a boyfriend whom I loved back home, but they were unavoidable, these incidents and accidents; they were endemic to our situation.
“Why go to Chile?” the backpackers asked. But I’d been in Argentina for a while and it seemed if I didnt leave I might stay there forever, wallowing in the false wealth of the devalued peso, growing fat on meat and wine, tripping through tango variations with genteel old men and then falling into bed, kicking my sheets into damp knots, dreaming sodden, unmemorable dreams. So I bought a ticket for a westbound bus to take me across the Andes and that same night I was gone.
The sun rose while we were still in the mountains; a few hours later my bus rolled into Santiago. In the hazy morning light the city glared with power-washed skyscrapers and gleaming plate glass. Of Santiago I would write home: “Apart from all the mountains, its kind of like New York,” and what I meant was not that it was anything like New York but that it seemed a familiar sort of modern metropolis, busy with traffic and well-heeled pedestrians en route to office jobs.
As we drove toward the hostel where I’d secured a bed, my driver recommended sightseeing activities I could partake of while in Santiago: stroll through the Plaza de Armas; ride the teleférico up Cerro San Cristóbal to see the sculpture of the Virgin Mary at the summit; shop the luxury malls; visit La Chascona, the Santiago residence of the late poet Pablo Neruda.
The driver asked if I knew of Neruda and I said I did: I rarely read poetry but I’d grown up with his verse, brought to me by my mother, who was a hopeless romantic; by my grandfather, who admired his ardent communism; and most specifically by the 1994 film Il Postino: The Postman, in which the poet, in exile in Capri, befriends a young Italian postman. It came out when I was ten and was the first film with subtitles I’d ever successfully sat through, which made me feel sophisticated and gave me a special attachment to the content. As a despondent high school student Id scrawled Nerudas verses onto my bedroom walls between posters of Bob Marley (“Iron Lion Zion”) and Van Gogh (Café Terrace at Night): ¿Por qué no nací misterioso? (Why was I not born mysterious?) Lovesick in early college I’d copied lines from The Captain’s Verses into my notebooks. A month before I got to Chile I’d been in Peru, where I’d bought a little copy of Neruda’s Heights of Macchu Picchu before hiking to the Inca ruins myself. And even that morning, in the back of the taxi weaving through the traffic toward my hostel in Santiago, I was waiting to mail my boyfriend a Valentine’s Day postcard on which I’d written nothing but the opening lines of Nerudas “Soneto XVII”—
No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras, secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.
—lines I left untranslated, thinking that to do so would be more mysterious and therefore more romantic. In those days I often confused one with the other.
“Every Neruda lover must go to see his houses,” the taxi driver told me. I could already tell Chile was too expensive by how fast the cab fare was going up—first world prices, man—but one answer to the question “Why go?” was that it was the homeland of Pablo Neruda. After months of meandering in the company of strangers, it occurred to me that I’d be grateful to encounter an old friend.
Before I got to Chile I’d met a number of Chileans in other parts of the continent. Often upon learning I was American they would ask me if I knew that I wasn’t the only one for whom September 11 was a signifier of disaster on a national scale.
When many Chileans referred to September 11 they meant the day in 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet, recently appointed commander-in-chief of the army by left-wing president Salvador Allende, led the military in a violent coup d’état. By nightfall, Allende was dead, along with many of his cabinet members. The presidential palace La Moneda was bombed out and burning, the radio towers were down, martial law was in place, and at night conscripted soldiers cruised the streets firing machine guns from tanks.
In the days and weeks and months following the coup, the stadiums of Santiago had been converted to makeshift detention camps for political dissidents. Arriving in Chile, I could cite rough figures regarding the number of people tortured (estimated 30,000) and executed (over 3,000), but the disappearances were uncountable. I was particularly disturbed by the transitive form of the verb disappear: its usage in Latin America as an action that could be committed by one person against another, as in if only he had returned those bodies to their relatives instead of disappearing them, or as in the joke Pinochet made to vice admiral Patricio Carvajal on the morning of the coup after Carvajal suggested offering Allende safe passage out of the country: “He can be flown out of the country, but then, old boy, while he’s flying, the airplane falls out of the sky.”
Whenever Chileans had initiated this conversation with me, I wondered whether they did so merely to lay earlier claim to the date September 11, or because they considered me, in my Americanness, complicit in their own malignant history.
“CIA undertook specific covert action projects in Chile,” the National Intelligence Council had reported in 2000, following the declassification of 24,000 documents related to US operations in Chile in the 1970s. “The overwhelming objective—firmly rooted in the policy of the period—was to discredit Marxist-leaning political leaders, especially Dr. Salvador Allende.”
Or as Defense Secretary Melvin Laird put it to President Nixon in a 1970 meeting: “We have to do everything we can to hurt him and bring him down.”
Or as a September 1970 cable from CIA officials to covert operatives in Santiago read, under the heading “Creation of Coup Climate” and subheading “Psychological Warfare”:
. . . conclusion that military coup is the only answer. This to be carried forward until it takes place . . . The key is psych war within Chile. We cannot endeavor to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come within Chile. Therefore, the station should employ every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre, to create this internal resistance.
(Although a CIA memo sent three weeks later—“Concur giving tear gas canisters and gas masks . . . working on obtaining machine guns”—indicated that some of the “fuel for the firewould in fact come from the US.)
The US government knew Pinochet’s forces were rounding up civilians, including some American citizens, for torture, execution, or disappearance, but US officials maintained a posture exemplified by an announcement the secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, made to his staff several months after the coup: “I want our policy to be clear: however badly this military government behaves, it is better for our interests than Allende’s was.”
When Pinochet died in Santiago on December 10, 2006, there were more than three hundred unresolved criminal charges against him for tax evasion and embezzlement and passport fraud and human rights violations including torture, kidnapping, and murder.
I was arriving in Santiago on February 10, 2007, exactly two months after his death. Two months after the families of his victims flooded the streets around the capital waving flags and dancing and uncorking bottles of champagne. Two months after President Michelle Bachelet—who had been tortured along with her parents at one of the Junta’s infamous detention facilities—refused to honor Pinochet with a state funeral. Two months after his supporters wept outside the hospital and called him mi general and attended his funeral five thousand strong. Even in 2006 there were many who still believed he had saved the country from sliding into a Marxist nightmare.
“And there is the national stadium,” my taxi driver said, pointing as we rolled beneath the shadow of bleachers and floodlights. I expected it to be somber or menacing but it looked like any stadium. The driver craned his neck to look back at me. “You like to watch fútbol games?” he asked.
The hostel was run by a guy named Pato, but it was a young woman named Mariana who opened the door for me. She had matted dark hair pulled into a lopsided topknot and her eyes were half-shut, her cheeks flushed and pillow-creased. “Tiene reserva?” she asked, squinting out at me. I nodded. She turned back into the house without asking for my name, and I followed. We walked down a hallway of yellow tiles toward the dormitories within. “We had too many pisco sours last night,” she said. “Pato’s dead. I’m dead too. We’re all dead here; you should’ve come yesterday.”
“I was on a bus,” I said.
She paused in an open doorway. “Tonight,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “we may be alive again.”
Inside the room, the window shades were drawn and the edges of beds emerged dimly from the gloom. She pointed to an empty bottom bunk in the corner, a starched sheet folded on the mattress. “Yours,” she said. “Now I’m going back to mine.”
A guest of the hostel had left a note on the bulletin board about La Chascona— “AMAZING!!!! See the SOUL of NERUDA for only $5!”—so that afternoon I set out to visit the house with Julia, an American girl I’d encountered in the kitchen while everyone else slept off their pisco hangovers. La Chascona was named (we learned in South America on a Shoestring) for the curly hair of Neruda’s mistress-turned-wife Matilde Urrutia, about whom he’d written: Naked you are as blue as a night in Cuba; you have vines and stars in your hair.
The line for La Chasconas ticket window stretched around the block. It was very hot and there was no breeze. We wandered to the end of the line to join the flushed and sweating masses awaiting entry, whereupon we learned from a better-prepared Canadian couple, who fanned each other with their pre-printed tickets, that the only tours one could take were guided tours, and the tickets for the day were sold out.
Julia and I abandoned La Chascona and walked instead to Cerro San Cristóbal. We took a cable car to the summit and stood at the bright white feet of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción. We looked out over the city and at the mountains beyond the city, then climbed down and bought ice cream cones in the Plaza de Armas. We walked past Estadio Victor Jara, which had been called Estadio Chile until 2003 when it was renamed in honor of the folksinger. He was one of the most prominent people tortured there in the days following the coup.
According to a popular version of the story, the soldiers stationed at Estadio Chile beat Jara so badly he couldn’t stand, then cut off his fingers. They dragged him out to the middle of the field and taunted him by shouting, “Play your guitar for us now!” And since he couldn’t, because he had no fingers left to play with, he began to sing.
“They destroyed his hands, but they say he sang and sang,” Pablo Neruda told Matilde Urrutia as he lay heartbroken and dying in the week following the coup, according to the memoir she later wrote. “The soldiers were furious.” So they dragged him inside and forced him up against a wall, then made his body dance in a riot of machine gun fire. They drove his body to the outskirts of Santiago and dropped it in an alley, where his wife found it several days later. In this sense she was lucky, since many of the disappeared did not get found again. The story of Jara’s torture and execution quickly became legendary and, as with most legends, part of it was untrue. Specifically: The soldiers never cut off Jara’s fingers; they only broke and burned them.
The military had destroyed most of Jara’s master recordings but his wife managed to smuggle a few out of the country when she fled. Bootleg Victor Jara CDs were now spread out for sale on the sidewalk outside Estadio Victor Jara. I bought one.
“Do you want to go inside the stadium and look around?” Julia asked. I said not really.
“Me either,” she said.
The word from the backpackers was that Santiago was boring, too commercial and expensive, whereas Valparaíso had real character, so the next day I caught a bus to the coast. Valparaíso had the look of a place shattered and patched back together helter-skelter. The air was damp and briny. Vertiginous hills hurled themselves down toward the sea and mismatched houses clung cluttered to their sides. The houses of the poor were constructed of scrap wood and corrugated tin, and they were painted with shipyard paint because in a port city shipyard paint is abundant and inexpensive. The houses were therefore the color of ships—red, yellow, green, blue—and they appeared to be in motion. The whole city seemed fashioned of moving parts: Funiculars tracked up the inclines, pedestrians wove through the streets, drying laundry flapped out over alleys. At a street market I ran my hands over dusty clusters of grapes, swollen avocados, knuckled garlic bulbs. I went down to the docks to watch the relentless traffic of wooden crates and steamships, shouting men with sinewy arms loading and unloading, bending and tossing, coiling ropes and smoking and spitting out over the sea.
Neruda had a house in Valparaíso, at the top of Avenida Alemania. He’d named it La Sebastiana after the architect Sebastián Collado, who had constructed the third floor like a bird’s nest of wire and glass. Neruda occupied the third and fourth floors of the house and sometimes joked that he’d bought nothing but “stairs and terraces.” I built the house, Neruda wrote of La Sebastiana. First, I made it of air. Then I raised a flag in the air and left it hanging from the sky, from the stars, from light and darkness. “From there, Pablo could watch the ships coming and going in the harbor,” Matilde would later write in her memoir. “He was very happy in that house.”
Unlike La Chascona in Santiago, there was only a short wait outside La Sebastiana, and visitors were free to wander wherever they liked. I fell into line, unaccountably nervous, blood pulsing in the palms of my hands. I had not intended to become a pilgrim of Neruda but now, finding myself for the second time at his door, I arrived as pilgrims do: seeking proximity to miracles. I suppose I thought if I could occupy the exact space he’d once occupied, I might come away with some more profound understanding of my Neruda—the poet of my mother and grandfather, of my angsty adolescence and the wanderlust that had sent me tripping across an unfamiliar continent these past months with his poems tucked away in my backpack—as much as Chile’s Neruda, the hero-poet and statesman who’d been Allende’s friend and diplomat before Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup, who’d died soon after the government was overthrown. I thought if I understood Neruda better, I could love him better, and that I might then also know how to feel about Chile, how to be an American tourist there.
At the top of the stairs I pushed past a group of tourists through the doorway of his apartment and saw:
A row of commemorative porcelain dishes propped upright on a shelf with hot air balloons painted on their faces.
Framed and faded paintings of the same balloons.
A chipped mug with mustache guard beside a placard reading taza bigotera.
A map of lower Patagonia and Antarctica made of small gray, white, and rose-colored stones, set into the plaster of one whole wall.
A hot pink Coro-Coro bird, embalmed with outstretched wings, suspended from the ceiling inside a giant glass bubble.
An embalmed baby penguin tucked away on a high shelf.
A wooden merry-go-round horse.
Red-and-white striped wallpaper. Pink walls and turquoise walls. Various clocks and plates with seashell motifs and paintings of women in plumed hats and paintings of dour Elizabethans in ruffled collars.
A bar that could be entered by a tiny secret door. (“Pablo, as always, played the bartender,” wrote Matilde in her memoir.) Shelves of colored glass bottles and the recipe for Neruda’s coquetelón:
a few drops of Cointreau and orange juice
It was prohibido to touch anything or take a photograph inside, though we could point our cameras out the windows to take pictures of the port. In one of the only photos I have from the inside of La Sebastiana, you can see a brass bedpost and part of a patchwork quilt. In another, the gruesome pink Coro-Coro bird is splayed out before the west-facing windows.
Amo las cosas loca, locamente, Neruda wrote. I love crazy things, crazily.
There was a portrait of Walt Whitman hanging in the hall. Eavesdropping on a tour guide, I learned the following story: One day a workman came to make some repairs on the house. He spotted the portrait of the bearded old man and asked Neruda if the man was his grandfather. Neruda said yes. “By this,” the tour guide explained, “he meant his grandfather in poetry.” Neruda’s other favorite poets: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Federico García Lorca. Of García Lorca he’d written: If I could weep with fear in a solitary house, if I could take out my eyes and eat them, I would do it for your black-draped orange tree voice and for your poetry that comes forth shouting. Neruda had befriended García Lorca in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Two years later, the Spanish poet was killed.
The tour guide said that Neruda always wrote in green pen; it was his trademark. “For this reason people often mistake him for the author of the poem ‘Romance Sonámbulo,’ which begins Verde, que te quiero verde,” the tour guide said. “But that poem was actually written by García Lorca.”
I learned that the portrait of Walt Whitman, along with nearly every other item in the house, had been taken from Neruda’s Isla Negra residence. During the coup, the military had plundered his Santiago and Valparaíso homes, burned what was left, and then—in the case of La Chascona—flooded the smoldering remains. Neruda was hospitalized for advanced prostate cancer in the days following the coup and never lived to see his homes reduced to rubble, though Matilde did when she returned to them after his death. “I have witnessed the destruction of all the houses I loved most,” she wrote.
La Sebastiana had been reconstituted for tourists from the materials of another place. It was less a home than an approximate diorama. So when one of the women on the tour touched the shoulder of the man beside her and murmured, “I think I can feel his ghost here,” I thought I could be forgiven for feeling nothing.
Isla Negra was the home Neruda loved best, the one for which he’d written: The house . . . I don’t know when it was born in me . . . For the first time I felt the prick of the scent of the winter sea—a mixture of laurel and salty sand, seaweed and thistle, struck me. It was here I believed I would finally find Neruda, so I took a Pullman bus two hours south from Valparaíso, through desert towns and seaside towns and along the coast where the ocean rolled in deep blue and purple to break against the rocky black shore.
Midmorning I climbed off the bus at Isla Negra into blustery salt gales. The little town was already ravaged by tour buses and the only way into the house was with a guided tour. I joined one in Spanish, since it was cheaper than the English tour, though Chilean Spanish, with its rapid-fire chains of half-formed words and regional slang, often left me blinking and confused.
We trouped past an antique railroad engine roped off in the yard, about which Neruda had written: I love it because it looks like Walt Whitman. We entered the house and stood inside a room with a wall built like the prow of a ship, rough-hewn wood draped with ropes. Massive figureheads hung suspended from the ceiling. I counted fourteen, some of wood and others of stone, some painted and others scraped clean. A few were over ten feet tall. Where did he get them? How did he bring them home?
And what was cachalote? I should’ve taken the English tour. I guessed whale, from context clues; Neruda collected their teeth. And also: ships in bottles, detective novels, plaster casts of hands, conch shells, rifles and bayonets, butterflies pinned in shadow boxes, an astronomer’s telescope in the hall and a sea captain’s telescope in the bedroom, pipes, carved wooden masks, ivory tusks, colored glass ashtrays. Upon entering his study we learned: Neruda looked out the window one day and caught sight of a plank, a lost ship’s hatch, bobbing on the water. “Here comes my desk,” he said. Here it was.
Referring to his trademark green ink, the Isla Negra tour guide told us Neruda believed green was the color of esperanza, hope, but I was only half listening, so at first I heard espera, waiting, as if green were the color of longing without end.
“I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay “Haworth, November 1904,” on the occasion of her visit to a former home of the Brontë sisters.
A pilgrim goes looking for miracles or communion. In the houses of Neruda I found only things, only so much salvage. In each room the poet seemed more foreign, more unknowable, than in the room before. What was it, anyway, I hoped to find? A wrinkled pillowcase with a stray strand of hair caught in its folds? A perfect fingerprint on the windowpane? A broken-spined book left open on the coffee table? A pen uncapped, and green ink gone clotty? I had arrived at each of his houses as if I expected him to open the door and invite me inside. I had welcomed a haunting, but if ever a ghostly presence existed in those rooms, it seemed to have been exorcised by gift shops and exit signs.
Neruda was buried in Santiago in 1973 and reinterred at Isla Negra in 1992 after democracy was restored in Chile. Years after I left Chile, his body would be exhumed and examined by forensic experts in response to allegations that he’d been poisoned in the aftermath of the coup. The experts wouldn’t find any evidence of poison, though some of the poet’s devotees would continue to wonder. On the day I visited Isla Negra, Neruda’s body lay in a plot overlooking the sea alongside Matilde, who died with the Junta still in control. At the end of our tour, many of the visitors walked outside to scatter flowers over their grave.
I had not thought to bring flowers. I walked past the grave to where the hill gave way to the sea. At the shore, waves thrashed the rocks. I took off my shoes and waded out from the land. The water was so cold it burned and I stood there for a while with the ocean biting at my ankles.
In his novel Yellow Rain, the Spanish author Julio Llamazares writes:
Death at least has tangible images: the grave, the words spoken above it, the flowers that refresh the face of memory and, above all, that absolute awareness of the irreversibility of death that makes itself at home in time and makes absence just another familiar habit. Disappearance, however, has no limits; it is the contrary of a fixed state.
Some of the disappeared of Chile were taken up in helicopters and tossed into the sea. Of those, some washed ashore and others remained disappeared. I am surrounded by the sea, invaded by the sea; we are salty, Neruda wrote. We are turning into salt.
All afternoon on the bus back to Santiago I rubbed drying crystals off my skin.
On my last night in Santiago, I went to a free film screening in a park. The audience sat on bleachers facing the screen in the open air. When cars passed on the road behind us, their headlights projected our seated shadows so that dark human shapes occasionally appeared on-screen, drifting in rows, warping, and then disappearing again.
Ariel Lewiton is a writer, editor, and literary consultant based in New York. Her stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The National, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, Vice, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House online, and elsewhere. A former editor and marketing director at Sarabande Books, she is a contributing editor at Guernica magazine and PR strategist for Mission Creek Festival, an annual celebration of arts and culture. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.
Enter your email address to receive notifications for author Ariel Lewiton
Confirmation link sent to your email to add you to notification list for author Ariel Lewiton
More in this series
Love Your Crooked Neighbour / With Your Crooked Heart
How Flushing’s settlers planted seeds for our religious freedom.
Ode to Aleppo
“All people are children of Syria. We are open here.”
The Year of Mercy: Too Far Gone on the California Coast
Misfits, outliers, drifters have always lived by the sea and at the mercy of the elements.