“It’s grey, but Neruda loved grey,” friend, intrepid journalist and unfathomably generous host Alejandra Matus told us. “It’s a Neruda day.”
She was talking to Jack Fuller, Dunreith and me.
The four of us were sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Plaza San Francisco waiting for University of Diego Portales colleague Patricia Rivera to join us before driving to Isla Negra, Pablo Neruda’s largest home and the place in which he spent by far the most time.
Jack’s the former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his editorials on constitutional issues. Alejandra hosted him throughout the week at UDP, a time during which he presented to students, alumni and colleagues about his latest book.
Although he’s a long-time and accomplished novelist-he told me during the day that he was writing fiction during his training in 1968 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina-his most recent work is about journalism and the challenges that news organization face in trying to retain large number of readers.
Dunreith and I attended his first presentation, an address on Tuesday evening in which he explained the impact of research about brain activity and the critical role emotion plays in attracting and retaining people’s attention.
A central part of his message was that journalists and news outlets need to focus both on retaining standards of journalistic integrity while at the same time integrating new methods based on the knowledge gleaned from the most recent neurological research.
Patricia arrived, we filed into the gray van that matched the day and started the 90-minute ride to Isla Negra.
The Ride and the Black Book of Chilean Justice
Relieved of driving and navigational responsibilities, we settled into an easy and amiable conversational flow as we made our way through the rolling green hills.
We moved from the joys and challenge of child rearing in the United States and Chile to Jack’s encounters with some of the more Joseph Heller-like moments while serving as a correspondent in Vietnam in 1968, to my father’s quip, when asked by a colonel why he was wearing his army-issued hat backward, that he wanted people of lower rank to be able to salute him coming and going.
The discussion went in a deeper direction when, at Jack’s request, Alejandra told us the story behind, and the response to, The Black Book of Chilean Justice, her expose of the corruption and lack of independence in the Chilean judiciary during the Pinochet era.
Investigative stalwart Monica Gonzalez invited Alejandra in the early 90s to participate in the project after the publication of a federal report that criticized the judiciary. (Gonzalez, who now directs CIPER, Chile’s strongest investigative publication, later backed out due to other work responsibilities.)
Alejandra smiled as she remembered asking her then-editor for two extra weeks of vacation to write the book.
He laughed, told her to take the two weeks of vacation and then get to work.
It ended up taking six years.
The book’s publication in early 1999 came months after Pinochet’s arrest in London in October 1998.
The timing was such that the book publishers thought that there would not be a strong official response to the book becoming available nine years after Pinochet left power.
They were wrong.
Judge Rafael Huerta Bustos ordered all copies of the books confiscated the day after it was published. Chief Justice Servando Jordan invoked the State Security Law, which made it a crime to disrespect public officials or governmental agencies. Among other elements in the suit, he cited the book’s cover, which showed three monkeys who represented the philosophy of “See-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil.”
Alejandra faced five years in prison.
Her initial plan was to stay and fight, but three conversations changed her mind.
She spoke with her brother, a lawyer who said she could indeed be imprisoned.
Her publisher said the house couldn’t protect her.
And her fiancé looked terrified.
Instead, Alejandra decided to flee the country as soon as possible.
She flew to Buenos Aires and thought the whole situation would calm down in about 10 days.
She didn’t return to her country for two-and-a-half years.
A lot happened during that time.
Presidential candidate and later victor Ricardo Lagos made the law and Alejandra’s return an issue in his campaign.
Tens of thousands of copies of the book were sold on the black market.
La Tercera, Chile’s second-largest newspaper, published the book on its website outside of the United States.
Alejandra won a case she filed against the Chilean state in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and received reparations.
The law eventually was overturned.
This is a remarkable story, Jack said.
Patti agreed, adding that many people in Chile consider Alejandra a hero.
The impact of what Alejandra had shared with us was soaking in when we pulled off the highway and started driving the final kilometers to Isla Negra.
We walked around the property and headed down to the beach.
“I came back from my voyages and navigated constructing happiness,” was carved in Neruda’s distinctive cursive writing into a brown wooden beam holding up the front entrance to the long house that snaked along his property.
Constructing was indeed the perfect word.
Dunreith and I had already seen La Chascona and La Sebastiana, Neruda’s homes in Santiago and Valparaiso, so we were prepared for the way Neruda built a world out of his home, his travels, his politics, his writing, his women, and his friends.
We felt ready to see the fantastic objects like a life-size horse made in part of papier-mache and statues of bare-breasted women that Neruda treated as if they were alive, the secret space of the kitchen, a place Neruda he considered magical, the sacred sanctuary where he wrote, and the items he acquired from all parts of the planet. (This house contains extensive collections of pipes, bottles, sombreros, butterflies and clam shells.)
We were familiar with Neruda’s love of the sea, his penchant for naming houses and friends’ books, and his insistence on a robust and well-stocked bar.
But whereas the other homes had a more vertical feel-they were a minimum of four stories each-Isla Negra was defined by its comparative flatness and its clear and stunning views at nearly all points of the house of Pacific Ocean.
This included the tomb outside where he and Matilde Urrutia, his third and final wife, were buried.
Waves crashed into the rocks in their ceaseless, eternal rhythm, spraying foam high into the air and providing an undulating, calming background accompaniment to their permanent resting place.
It was close to 1:00 p.m., and we were all feeling hungry.
Fortunately, Alejandra had arranged for us to eat at a nearby hostel owned by Chilean acoustic guitar legend Charo Cofre.
She and her husband Hugo were close friends of Neruda who lived with him for two months in Paris.
A gallery of black and white photographs, several of which were autographed by the poet, and nearly of which had relevant quotes from him writing pasted onto them, stood along the walls.
Images of Neruda’s mother, who died shortly after he was born.
Pictures of the artist in exile, looking like an earlier version of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano.
A somber shot of the crowd of people, with Hugo identified in the back, who marched to bury Neruda after his death in the first public protest after the coup.
A photograph of his message, written in 1971 in his trademark cursive script, “I am too happy to write. I have to eat and drink with you, dear friends.”
We were the only customers in the house.
Well, besides Don Pablo.
A lifelike model of the poet, dressed smartly in a tweed jacket, a red scarf poking out of his white button-down shirt and one of his many hats, sat in the corner.
We all took some pictures next to Neruda, whose fingers moved as if ready to write some more when we started to move away from him.
We started the meal with Chilean standards of a pisco sour and rolls topped with pevre, a salsa equivalent.
Dunreith and I followed Alejandra’s lead and ordered caldillo de congrio, a fish soup that was Neruda’s favorite dish.
We were well into our meal and a few glasses of white wine where Charo came, guitar in hand and sat at the head of the table.
Her black haired pulled back tightly against her head, Charo was draped in a green shawl that covered most of her body like a cloak. The color of her light-blue flowered shirt matched her eyeshadow.
Although she regularly performs for hundreds, if not thousands of people, today it was just the five of us.
I am doing this for Alejandra, she said.
Charo sang about her country, the sea that Neruda loved so deeply and, in a new song, about her mother’s hands.
Her own hands danced and strummed and plucked as she sang, often with her eyes closed.
In between the songs, she told us about Neruda and Matilde.
People on the left want to say that he was killed by the government, but I think he died of a broken heart, she said. (Neruda passed away just 12 days after the Pinochet coup and subsequent ransacking of La Chascona by military authorities.)
Charo based her opinion on having talked with Matilde regularly in the dozen years after her husband died, a period during which she never mentioned a murder.
Charo told us about shopping at a flea market in Paris for a bottle to add to his collection.
It was no easy task, as he already owned many of the ones they brought to him.
But, eventually, they met with success.
Neruda rewarded himself with an artery-clogging croque monsieur, ham and cheese sandwich that he said had to be kept quiet from Matilde.
Charo also talked about how she learned from the joy her mother took in daily life, in small moments like watching tiny chickens move.
Indeed, she said that she had recently told a very wealthy friend that she felt richer than her because of the way attitude she has toward her life.
After about half an hour of singing and talking and laughing, Charo said she had to go.
Soon, we did, too, to get Jack to the airport.
The ride back to Santiago was slower.
Dunreith closed her eyes in the front.
I talked mostly in Spanish with Patti, a documentary film maker and a doctoral student who is doing her dissertation about narrative construction in blogs. Jack and Alejandra discussed the 1976 murder by Chilean government officers of former Chilean ambassador to the United States Orlando Letelier.
We dropped Jack at the airport so that he could catch his return flight home before the driver dropped us at the University of Diego Portales.
We went with Alejandra to pick up Alejandro, her five-year-old son, and then to meet her husband Alberto, a former militant and exile who is now a political consultant.
He hugged and his wife and son.
He and his partner were working with Ricardo Yarzo, a candidates for a council position in the upcoming November elections. He’s one of 40 candidates seeking to win the eight positions that are available in Punta Arenas, one of the country’s southern-most communities.
Alberto introduced Alejandra to Ricardo.
Do you know her? he asked quietly, pride seeping through his voice. She wrote the Black Book of Chilean Justice.
Ricardo said that he did.
We downloaded the video I shot of Charo singing, and I showed it to Alberto.
He stopped moving and watched, riveted.
“She is beautiful,” he declared.
Alejandra was right.
It was a grey Neruda day.
And so much more.