And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.
~ Pablo Neruda from Nothing But Death
One week from today and four decades after his death, Pablo Neruda’s remains will be exhumed as part of an investigation into the possibility that the poet was murdered by agents of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The Nobel Prize winner died on September 23, 1973 at 69, just 12 days after the U.S.-backed military coup that overthrew his colleague and friend, Chile’s democratically-elected Socialist President Salvador Allende. Neruda was a well-known, outspoken and ardent leftist – a typical target of Pinochet’s violent purge during the immediate brutal aftermath of his seizing power. That doesn’t mean however, that Pinochet, among former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s closest South American friends at the time, had a hand in the writer’s death.
Suffering from prostate cancer and heart ailments, Neruda was taken from his Pacific coast home in the village of Isla Negra to the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago eight days after the September 11 coup; the Neruda Foundation, founded by his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, and the official care-taker of the poet’s legacy, has never suspected foul play.
The investigation is based largely upon claims by Manuel Araya, Neruda’s driver for the last few months of his life, that the poet was injected with poison while hospitalized. A Chilean court opened the investigation in 2011 which lead to the go-ahead for exhumation on April 8.
In the poem Disposiciones from Canto General, Neruda wrote:
Companions, bury me in Isla Negra,
in front of the sea I know, to each wrinkled area of stones
and to the waves that my lost eyes
won’t go back to see…
Those wishes were heeded, but his remains didn’t return to Isla Negra until December 1992, after the end of the dictatorship. His house at Isla Negra was his favorite of his three homes in Chile; after spending a couple hours there, it’s not difficult to see why. I felt like a poet there. And like a child, too.
Note that Isla Negra is not an island, but a place along a shore that Neruda named, most likely after the black rock formations along the beach. But the house, like its owner, is an island onto itself.
The home is a sweeping single story building, built to resemble part ship at sea, part railroad car. These days, fully restored after post-coup looting and confiscation, it is also home to some of Neruda’s eclectic collections.
Salvaged wooden ship figureheads fill his living room, impressive paintings cover the walls. Masks, wooden carvings, pipes and bottles fill the shelves of each of the dozen-plus rooms. Ocean-related memorabilia is everywhere. He had butterfly and beetle collections, along with an impressive collection of seashells that is surely the envy of many university marine biology departments. And lots of toys, photographs and musical instruments. I will never again feel bad about the numerous collections I possess.
Photography wasn’t allowed inside, so the best I can offer are a few shots from the grounds surrounding the home and a couple peeks through the massive Ocean-facing windows.
From Santiago and Valparaiso, public buses to Isla Negra make for an easy day trip; I chose a small group tour from a local company that combined Isla Negra with a visit to the Matetic Winery in nearby Casablanca. More about that and their delightful syrah another time.