La Chascona: A poet’s eyes

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Ok, it’s now official: I am a literary groupie. Visiting Berlin to take in the sights from Theodor Fontane’s novels, I felt my heart speed up at the sight of the Liebesinsel and the (obscured) Grunewaldsee. That was just the beginning, inspiring a week-long Günter Grass Poland trip to take in the alleyways and history of Gdansk. It should not come as any surprise then that, finding myself on an overnight stopover in the capital of Chile, I am at it again. Today I made the trip through the bustling streets of Santiago to a small oasis perched on the side of a leafy hill, to explore the inner sanctum of Pablo Neruda’s ‘La Chascona’ abode.

Born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Pablo Neruda is Chile’s most celebrated poet. Renowned for his sensuous poems, he also led a sensuous life: ‘La Chascona’ is named for his mistress – and later wife – Mathilde Urrutia, and was built as a sanctuary for her to live in and him to escape to. It is appropriate then that when it came to his house he chose to focus on the intimate interior rather than a showy façade. The white walls betray none of the inside details: courtyards overlook each other like Juliet balconies sheltered by grape vines, while twisting staircases inhabit secret passageways.

The artworks tell the story of a man who loved the ocean, with the walls adorned with galleons tossed upon wild seas. This love is evident from the first room, known as ‘The Captain’s Bar.’ The poet had a close affinity with the Ocean, calling himself a ‘Land Captain’ and filling his homes with maritime paraphernalia such as a theodolite and nautical charts. This collection also tells a personal story, and Diego Riviera’s portrait of Mathilde with two heads is fitting. The two faces hint at Neruda and Mathilde’s affair and later marriage, depicting what is seen and what is not. Those who look closely will also find Neruda’s profile painted in the waves of Mathilde’s hair.

La Chascona demonstrates the two sides of Neruda as well, with the rooms revealing insights into both the poet and the politician. While it is well known that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, the importance of Neruda’s Marxist motivation is often overlooked. The numerous civic awards on display in the library serve as reminders of his successful diplomatic career. Neruda’s political interests remained strong right up until his death in 1973, which was attributed partly to stress over Salvador Allende’s loss of power following Pinochet’s military coup.

The lounge where Neruda’s wake was held is now open for visitors. The mountainous vista and eclectic collection of artworks, furniture and polished stones are welcoming, but their appearance masks a turbulent past. This is the same room in which Mathilde simultaneously mourned her husband and made a political stand, surrounded by friends and diplomats who had all picked their way across wooden beams to cross the flooded courtyard. The flooding was the result of vandalism, carried out by Neruda’s political opponents following General Augusto Pinochet’s takeover. When the people of Chile took to the streets to mourn him, they did so against direct orders, and knowing they were being watched by the brutal Pinochet regime.

Eyes still watch over the courtyard, but these days they are black and white drawings that hang from a branch and toss gently in the wind, winking over the landscape from many different angles. Having just come from Antarctica, my eyes are tuned in to relics of the Southern continent. Upstairs in the ‘French Room,’ an early map of Antarctica and a painting of a French Antarctic Expedition adorn the walls. The room is so called because it housed Neruda’s extensive collection of French poetry and literary works. It is also an insight into the poet’s unique attitude towards architecture: the room was built specifically to house Neruda’s favourite chair next to a well placed window and a picture he liked. Rather than starting with a space and filling it with details, he instead started with the details and built to accommodate them.

The result is a tangling maze of architectural moments, each its own work and, like a poem, suited to its own specific occasion. From the summer bar with its Single Malt Whisky sign, Fornasetti stools and giant pair of shoes through to the secret passageway between the dining room and Mathilde’s rooms upstairs, the house has many moods. It also inspires many moods in the visitors who come to explore, including curiosity and contemplation. I’ve come away from this excursion with a book of love poems, a better understanding of Chilean history and a definite track record for stalking literary greats.