In the funky Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago, the capital of Chile, is a house that is as playful, quirky, colorful, political, historical and even lyrical as the great man who once lived in it. And it’s open to the public.
Pablo Neruda, arguably the greatest poet South America has ever produced (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1971), started building the structure in 1953 for trysts with his mistress. Constructed piecemeal over five years on different levels of the hill, the house doesn’t look imposing or looming so much as dry-docked. One of Neruda’s lifelong passions as well as themes was the sea, and the architecture of the upper levels evokes the contours of a boat.
Neruda christened this boat “La Chascona,” a Chilean expression referring to tousled, untamed hair — a perfect description of the extravagant red locks of his lover, Matilde Urrutia. Together they built La Chascona as a love nest until he could obtain a divorce and move in with her, which he did in 1955.
Neruda had two other homes in Chile — one in Valparaiso, the other at Isla Negra — but La Chascona was the home he and Urrutia, to whom he was married until his death in 1973, made together. She was still at La Chascona when she died in 1985. The house is now a museum run by the Neruda Foundation, which has preserved everything as it was when its residents were still alive. I visited in August.
La Chascona and its contents couldn’t be more peculiar to two people . But as I discovered, given Neruda’s tumultuous life, spirits of 20th-century Chile — including a Chilean diplomat’s brutal assassination on the streets of Washington — also hang very much in the air.
La Chascona is really three separate structures on three separate tiered levels, all connected by outdoor, uncovered stairs and pathways amid plants, flowers, bushes and trees. After paying an entrance fee of about $7, I got an audio device to play as I went from room to room, structure to structure, following a designated course at my own pace.
A few steps across a courtyard and I was inside the first part, at ground level, starting at the so-called Captain’s Bar and dining room. Suddenly it seemed I must have walked onto the set of some kind of disjointed play, equal parts surrealism, naturalism, romance and period-piece.
What struck me wasn’t just the phalanx of pewter steins, crystal goblets and liquor bottles atop a ship’s bar complete with wavelike chrome trim. Nor the iridescent green, red and blue wine glasses. Nor the huge technicolor watermelon-slice-in-a-bathtub oil painting, nor the blue-and-orange plaster walls, nor the Polish handmade dolls. Not even the barge of a table decked with traditional blue-and-white china, all looking almost normal until you notice the salt and pepper shakers are marked “Marijuana” and “Morphine.”
No one piece by itself, but rather the dumbfounding coherent whole they formed: I couldn’t stop looking.
Neruda had a promiscuous love of things; he even wrote a poem about it. Fortunately, his other lifelong career, as a diplomat, allowed him to acquire a vast array of things from many countries where he either worked or, at times, sought refuge. Being an outspoken poet-envoy with a communist bent wasn’t easy between the 1920s and ’70s.
His postings took him to many of the world’s most beleaguered or intriguing places — 1920s Burma; 1930s Spain, France and Italy; 1940s Mexico; 1950s Soviet Union. Mementos and curiosities — things — from everywhere he went are on display. So is some arresting artwork, like a Diego Rivera portrait of Urrutia showing her with two heads, and a profile of Neruda concealed in her hair. Some of the furniture is by the Italian designer Piero Fornasetti. Some things work well together; most don’t. And yet, somehow, it makes sense.
Off the far side of the dining room, up the creaky treads of a hidden staircase, is an open room where Urrutia wrote and answered letters. Several of Neruda’s letters to her are framed, as is a picture of one of Neruda’s idols, Walt Whitman.
If kitsch and conceptual art could produce a child, it would look like the cozy dining nook just around the corner. A round, white, possibly plastic table is surrounded by four matching tulip chairs; off to the side is the large shell of a TV cabinet that now houses serving spoons, and above hangs a mobile of eyes.
Outside, I walked up a gangway into the middle segment of the house, which includes a living room with a panoramic view of the Santiago skyline. Normal-looking wooden chairs and the occasional old sailing compass complement the cypress tree trunk that looks like it has grown up from the floor and through the ceiling. In the middle of the room. Neruda adored cypress trees.
A rising path leads to the top part of the house, where I found two rooms that became my favorites. First was what Neruda called the poet’s bar, a watering hole honoring his other idols, the French Symbolists. Stone walls, a wooden bar, some bistro stools, and, apropos of nothing, a pair of shiny black shoes about three feet long resting on a slate floor, all seemed to say, “Come in, sit down, have some absinthe, and let’s talk about Baudelaire. Or the shoes.”
Second was Neruda’s writing room, where he produced (always in green ink) some of the 3,500 total pages of poetry that poured out of him. Glass cabinets hold photos, manuscripts and awards, including his Nobel medal and his International Lenin Peace Prize. There’s also a commemorative medal to the memory of his colleague Orlando Letelier, the Chilean diplomat killed by a car bomb in Sheridan Circle in 1976. The bomb was planted by the Chilean secret police as part of a campaign to silence critics of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power three years earlier. Because Neruda died shortly after the coup, it’s likely that Urrutia placed the Letelier medal in the case.
The story was that Neruda died of cancer, but this month the Chilean government acknowledged it was “highly probable” that a “third party” was responsible for his death — in other words, that the Pinochet regime might have killed him.
The regime did indeed forbid any public ceremony in Neruda’s memory. But as I learned from my audio device, when word got out that Urrutia had brought Neruda’s casket to La Chascona for a wake, droves of people gathered outside the house, forming the first public protest against the new government.
Despite its owner having been a communist, La Chascona doesn’t look anything like the home of an ideologue. Rather, like Neruda’s best poetry, still read and treasured around the world, the house is a simple but powerful expression of being alive. The poet Mark Strand once wrote, “There is something about Neruda — about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion — that sets him apart from other poets.”
Spontaneity, directness, passion — you can fill a house with things like that. Neruda did.
Triplett is a Washington-based writer.
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La Chascona Casa Museo
Fernando Márquez de la Plata 0192
Barrio Bellavista, Providencia, Santiago
Open March through December, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and January through February, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is about $7, and about $3 for students with ID.