When Pablo Neruda’s heart stopped in 1973 it could have signified the death of poetry in Chile. Augusto Pinochet’s coup was smothering the country in fear, silencing voices of dissent, ushering in a terrified philistinism. Neruda was the country’s most beloved poet, their recently-crowned Nobel Laureate, who had survived past proscription to captivate his country with fifty years worth of poems. Then Pinochet broke his heart.
The country’s love for their poet, however, could not be snuffed out by the dictator. At the poet’s funeral mourning mixed with protest. Although his works were banned they were smuggled into the country from Argentina. His three houses – in Isla Negra, Valparaiso and Santiago – were shut up with their treasures until the reign of the dictator ended and it was safe to adore the poet again.
Once the dictatorship had ended these three houses were restored and eventually opened to the public. When they were, the wealth and vibrancy of the poet’s life was put on display for all to enjoy; poetry, if it ever had really been run out of Chile, was returning in triumph.
Neruda’s houses – La Sebastiana in Valparaiso, La Chascona in Santiago, and his favourite Isla Negra house – share similar stories. The tours that wind constantly through all three of them point out the same traits. Neruda loved the ocean but was scared of sailing. Instead he designed his houses to resemble ships, with low narrow doorways and pegged wooden floors. He decorated the houses with ships in bottles, maps, and ships’ figureheads. An enthusiastic antiquarian, Neruda’s houses are filled with knickknacks and curiosities: African and Asian masks, Easter Island heads, stuffed animals, a narwal horn, shells and coloured glass, figurines, hats, shoes, erotic postcards, giant shoes, lanterns, bells, indigenous and colonial art from all over Latin America, a full-sized model horse in a full-sized stable, ship’s furniture, anchors, hats, pipes, photographs and paintings of himself and his third wife (I don’t remember seeing any of his earlier wives), traditional musical instruments from Asia and the Americas, photographs of other poets (Whitman, Rimbaud, Baudelaire featuring prominently), his awards and of course many, many books.
The size of Neruda’s collections and the anecdotes attached to them – how he thought drink tasted better out of coloured glasses, how he loved entertaining but prohibited his guests from entering his kitchens, how he wanted to always feel himself to be at sea on dry land, how he would ring the bells to inform the neighbours when he arrived back in town, how he would decorate rooms to look like scenes from his childhood, how he would buy up favourite objects (such as the full-sized model horse) from his childhood – testify to the vivacity and exuberance of the man, to the passion and sense of fun that come through in his poems.
And beyond their coloured walls and dense gardens, these houses testify to influence of the poet over his country. Out from these repositories of life and art have spread Chile’s most colourful communities. The grey shores of Isla Negra are scattered with pretty, colourful beach houses, the trendy village scattered with sculptures and artistic flourishes. Below the Valparaiso house spreads the city’s bohemian labyrinth. Around the Santiago house has sprouted one of the hippest and liveliest neighbourhoods in the metropolis.
In his houses the spirit of Neruda survived the oppressions of the dictator, and emerged to continue to inspire the country he loved. Today Chile is Neruda’s house, filled with his friends and admirers, his quirks and idiosyncracies, with colour and poetry; just as he always wanted his houses to be.