If there was ever any shred of a doubt that Pablo Neruda, nee Neftalí Ricardo Reyes, lived an epic, fantastical life, it can be permanently eradicated by visiting La Chascona in Santiago’s Bellavista neighborhood.
That’s the name that the legendary Chilean poet, diplomat, communist and global citizen gave to his third and final house. (The other two are in nearby Valparaiso and Isla Negra.)
The title was in honor of Matilde Urrutia, his lover at the time construction on the house began in 1953. It refers to the nickname he gave the actress, who eventually became his third wife after Neruda and Delia del Carril divorced, due to her abundant and overflowing red hair.
The house eventually had three distinct buildings that were completed over the course of five years.
Alejandra Fritz, a former literature student who now works in publishing, guided Dunreith, Margaret Woodman-Russell, daughter of dear friend Dave Russell, and a handful of others on the English language tour.
Alejandra explained that Neruda wanted each are of the house to feel like a boat-a desire that was based in large part on his complicated relationship with water. (He only learned to swim when he was 50 years old, she said, so he wanted to feel like he was in water but on land.)
The first room had the narrow shape of a boat, wooden floors that creaked ominously at times, a spiral staircase that took us up to the second floor and a second section of the house designed to resemble a lighthouse.
It, along with all all the other spaces we visited, had artifacts from Neruda’s decades as a diplomat and examples of his willingness to indulge his habit of being a “thinger”, not a collector.
We are talking dolls from Poland.
The first robots in world history from 17th century France that were clad in Turkish outfits.
A miniature horse from India.
A pair of giant shoes from an area shoe store.
A television with three rows filled with silverware.
A pair of weight reduction belts that Don Pablo used in his ongoing battles against the bulge. (Even a casual student of the master knows how much he loved food from his odes to salt, the onion and fried potatoes.)
Rows of eyes that hung down from the ceiling and in the garden encouraged you to take in whatever was around you.
At the same time, while the house bears Neruda’s imprint, it shows Matilde’s influence, too.
She not only lived there for a dozen years after Neruda’s death-he died just 12 days after the coup that drove Socialist President Salvador Allende to suicide and initiated the destructive reign of Gen. Augusto Pinochet-and worked tirelessly on the trees and plants that envelop the home in cool, clear air.
Portraits of the former actress appear throughout the house.
In the bedroom they shared,a formal portrait shows her with the hair that earned the house its name and wearing an elegant, off-the-shoulder dress.
In another part of the house Mexican muralist and longtime Neruda friend Diego Rivera painted a portrait of Matilde with two heads, a reference, Alejandra explained, to the public role of friend that she played while Neruda was still married to his Argentine second wife. Matilde’s middle name was Rosario, and Rivera said that one face represented Matilde, while the other part embodied Rosario.
The muralist noted the relationship’s originally clandestine nature by drawing the poet’s face and profile in one part of Matilde’s bushy hair.
Other pictures of Neruda are far less subtle.
El Poeta depicts the celebration that Allende held in the national soccer stadium after Neruda won the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. In the image, Neruda sits in profile in front of the tens of thousands of antlike people who have come to celebrate his honor. His eyes contain the Andes mountains.
There’s also a photograph of Neruda from the time he was in Capri, a period when his politics led him to be exiled from his homeland and a place where he met a humble postman seeking for language to express his love for the woman he later married.
The poet’s encouragement of the young man in his quest became the subject of the Academy Award-winning film, Il Postino.
Beyond the things Neruda collected and the artwork that hangs on the wall, La Chascona is also a place of people, and his life intersected with many of the last century’s brightest stars.
Willy Brandt was a Nobel Prize winner for Peace in the same year that Neruda claimed the Literature Prize.
This all in a place where Alejandra explained that he did not even spend the majority of his time.
La Chascona was ransacked in the days after the coup that occurred on Sept. 11, 1973, and close to a third of its materials were destroyed.
The end of the Allende regime devastated Neruda, who was suffering from prostate cancer.
But he was not so weak that he was unable to inform armed forces who were searching the home at Isla Negra where he spent the greatest amount of time while he was there: “Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”
Images of Neruda’s funeral fill one part of a room in the third section of the house.
Mourners led by Matilde and a host of diplomats from others started near the home.
With the crowd of thousands who joined, they marched to the Recoleta neighborhood where the great poet was laid to rest.
The march was the first protest against the new regime, Alejandra told us. After her husband’s death and a brief period of departure from the country, Matilde worked on behalf of the thousands of people who were disappeared during the Pinochet regime
In the end, Pinochet was forced from power, while Neruda’s poetry and the near magical appeal of his homes endure.
We can’t wait to see the other two.