Poems from the world's end
Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was inspired by the scenery of a country that still elicits verse from unexpected corners, as Toby Green discoveredToby Green
Sunday 10 December 2000 19.04 GMT
I can still remember my first visit to Isla Negra, the house of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It is such an extraordinary place that it is hard to be unimpressed. Set on a cliff overlooki ng the Pacific Ocean, the house's character is defined by the objects that Neruda amassed from Asia, Africa and Europe.
The place was overflowing with mementoes: figureheads from ships, Hindu carvings, masks from West Africa, sea shells and butterflies. In the raised gallery where Neruda worked and watched the ocean, it was easy to imagine this wanderer, romantic and lover of the sea becoming inspired.
Isla Negra has an almost mythic status for some Chileans, but this is only in keeping with the reverence with which poetry is viewed in the country. Chileans have a saying that they have a poet hidden under every stone, and certainly this is a place where the landscape inspires creativity, for the deserts, mountains, glaciers, forests and cliffs provide some of the world's most dramatic geography.
If any surroundings could be expected to elicit verse from people, these are they. And, as I spent six months travelling through the more remote areas of the country, I did come across poets in the most unlikely places.
One policeman in a lonely rural outpost, whiling away the hours as the winter rains poured down, showed me the certificates he had received from his Province's cultural centre praising the style and technique of his poems. Another man, an art teacher in a backwoods town, showed me the reams of paper on which his poems were kept. And on Navarin Island, the southernmost place in the world with a permanent settlement, I came across a farmhand who lived alone in a shanty 30 miles from the island's only town, brewing tea, frying pancakes and writing poems.
Some of the recurrent themes of Chilean poetry are solitude, the fragile and beautiful landscape, and the brutal wars waged by the Spanish against the Mapuche Amerindians. Isolated by the Atacama desert to the north, the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Chileans developed a mentality of being at the end of the world - this was a place which left you with nowhere else to go.
On a more recent visit to Chile, I went to Valparaíso - Chile's second city, and home to the country's Congress - to get another flavour of Neruda's inspiration. Built on seven hills, with winding cobbled streets housing ornate Italian mansions and rundown tenements in equal measure, this is one of the most extraordinary cities in Latin America. The hills are so steep that there are numerous funicular lifts rising from the commercial heart into the warren of the upper town, where you will find rusting 2CVs and hear tangos and Mexican ranchero music echoing through the narrow streets. The houses tend to be tall and brightly painted, and the streets create such a maze that even locals get hopelessly lost. On a clear day, you can see Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas.
Such a romantic and contradictory place as Valparaíso was bound to appeal to Neruda and, in the last decade of his life, he bought a house here. Brightly painted and filled with almost as many artefacts as Isla Negra, La Sebastiana echoed the organised chaos of Valparaíso itself. It is a building where you can feel the poet struggling to make sense of his bohemian past.
Almost inevitably, given his emotional fluctuations, Neruda's life ended with both great success and great tragedy. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, he was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards. As a lifelong communist and friend of President Allende, Pinochet's coup and Allende's death in September 1973 was more than he could bear, and Neruda died in Santiago two weeks later. In the extremes and the poetry of both his life and his death, he embodied much of the essence of Chile: a place with some of the world's highest mountains, its driest desert and its largest ice-field.