:: Article

A human being made out of a statue

By Rodge Glass.

Hello 3am. Last time we spoke, I was in Santiago…

I’m writing this blog in an internet café in the city of Toronto where I’m staying for ten days, appearing at the International Festival of Authors. I’ve been to Canada before, and this a city I love, but to say the experience is surreal this time doesn’t quite do justice to the experience.

This trip is the only time I’ll be out of Latin America for a year; during the last two months I have been travelling Chile, reading, writing, looking, and trying – slowly – to learn Chileno Spanish, a tongue which Chilean friends remind me, usually with a wry smile, is 90 per cent slang, 10 per cent body language, 0 per cent Spanish. For most of October I’ve been living in a tiny village of just a handful of streets and no more than a thousand people, where poets are royalty. All of which I’ll explain. But as I sit here, having spent this morning peering out over Lake Ontario from the Penthouse suite of the Westin Harbour Hotel (not my usual standard of living), and now listening to blaring hip hop in this downtown café, close to Evergreen (the campaign HQ for marijuana legalisation) and next door to a XXX 24/7 live show (the guy hustling for custom on the street tells me the party of my life never has to stop), I can’t help but feel I haven’t so much moved country, but moved planet.

As I walked here in the brightness of the Canadian fall (or autumn, as we say back home), the 50 metre high billboards seemed like they were 100 metres tall. The skyscrapers seemed to double in the sky, the top of the famous CN Tower like a long thin string reaching right up to the sun. Right now, I can hear five languages being spoken – English, German, Arabic, French, Russian – and the sirens outside seem to be continuous. It can’t be one police car, one ambulance. It must be a train of them, racing to every emergency in Canada. I’ve not heard noise like this for weeks; in my village of Pisco Elqui the mountains don’t talk. Or they do, but you have to listen closely to hear what they have to say, whereas here I can’t make out anything, I can hardly think. Still, somehow this seems like the ideal setting to describe my last month in Chile. What better way to see yourself than to be lifted up, as if by a friendly hand, and dropped in the opposite place? It feels like I am only now beginning to see the gorgeous Elqui Valley, the idyllic place named after a (disputed) national drink and effectively sponsored by a mysterious schoolteacher, the place I’ve been telling people in Canada is my home. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After Santiago, the next stop on my trip was Valparaiso, the second city of Chile, on the central coast. A mangle of winding roads, steep hills, stunning views over the Pacific and the most colourful, dominating, distinct street art I have ever seen, the city seems to purposely mark define itself as the anti-Santiago. Which was worth exploring. On my first morning there, one of these hills (or Cerros), close to my hostel led me into a square where I noticed three sets of steps, each with a quote from three of the foremost poets in Chile’s history, along with paintings of their faces on the paving. The entire square seemed to be a statue dedicated to words. As I climbed the steps I noticed that along with these quotes, painted onto the ground, were several actual statues – one of Pablo Neruda, one of Gabriela Mistral, and one of Vincente Huidobro. I didn’t realise I’d stumbled into a tourist spot, but a stallholder appeared suddenly, as if jumping out from behind a tree, and proposed taking photos of me with each of these poets. He wasn’t asking. He was telling.

They all seemed rather resigned to this – the statues I mean. Not quite knowing what to do, I talked to them while waiting for the photographs to be taken. How are you doing, Pablo? Vincente, why have they made you with a stoop? Can you only see the ground? Between the men, the quiet figure of Gabriela Mistral was seated on a bench, pictured as she always seems to be, like a displeased schoolma’am with much on her mind. Why is she never smiling, I wondered? Where is her warmth? Or didn’t she have any? I didn‘t realise it then, but I was soon to find a home in the valley named after and funded by her legacy. First though, the local hero. From the square I was directed to the Casa de Pablo Neruda, a museum a little further up the hill. Neruda’s house in Valparaiso is famous, and he wrote about the place as if it was his closest friend. In my novel, I had an idea that my character, an ex-British Prime Minister of Chilean descent – might visit some tourist sites. I imagined her looking out from Neruda’s window at the view he adored, of the ocean which was such a large character in his own work, and realising she knew nothing about her mother country. Neruda’s house was the perfect place to start.

I say this not because I feel I learned something crucial about Neruda while I was there, but because this museum got me thinking about how human beings get turned into statues when they pass a certain level of fame, and particularly after they die. How public figures are often stolen for the nation, and facts be damned. This was an issue I first considered while writing my biography of the Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray – someone who, in Scotland at least, was already being turned into a statue by supporters and supposed patriots, despite the fact that he was (and is) still very much alive, very much still a rebel in a nation determined to make him a national treasure. I didn’t yet know too much about Neruda’s life, but there was something suspiciously lightweight about it, there were obvious gaps in the story which surely anyone paying attention would notice. I thought of the pictures I’d seen of Robert Burns on the side of Coke bottles during the 2009 ‘Year of Homecoming’ in Scotland. The similar images of Hans Christian Anderson I’d seen in Denmark in 2006. I thought about how ripe writers are for being appropriated once they are safely dead.

The museum painted Neruda as a friendly father of the nation who magically rose to prominence, spoke direct to the people, suffered unjustified exile, graciously stepped aside so Salvador Allende could be the first Socialist Presidente, and died a hero. (He actually died days after the military coup, heartbroken and an enemy of the new regime.) His personal life was glorified and joked about, his drinking habits and womanizing skimmed over. It was only afterwards that, having read Adam Feinstein’s thorough and fascinating Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life (Bloomsbury, 2005) I learned about his three marriages, the death of the disabled daughter he abandoned, the extent of his Communism, and the nature of his crucial second marriage to the dynamic Argentine Delia del Carril who converted him to that particular cause. (In Neruda’s own biography I Confess I Have Lived, he declined to mention this woman at all – despite being with her for 19 years.)

I mention these things not to try to make a monster of Neruda – he was a human being with flaws like every one of us – but because this experience taught me to be suspicious. Some of these museums were mostly adverts connected to gift shops, no different to Disneyland, or the Duty Free I had to pass through in order to enter Canada, the clichés and stereotypes of the place, the official shorthand thrust before your eyes before you have a chance to cross the border and see it for yourself. In the Casa de Pablo Neruda, I realised I had a beginning for my novel: my protagonist, Gabriela Moya, shortly after her fall from power, escapes to Chile, in disguise, seeking refuge in the lives of great Chileans she has always admired. She spends three hours in the Casa de Pablo Neruda. She wonders what the museum of her own life would look like. And realises she would be horrified by it.

The next stop on my research trip across Chile was La Serena, six hours north of Valparaiso, also on the coast. There is much to say about La Serena, but in short I decided not to settle there. I wanted something more remote, something more connected to what out here they call Pachamama, Mother Earth, and this clean, modern city seemed more like North America than the South. But I did feel I was getting closer to something, and I found another museum which has been important for the writing process. Again, it was something I stumbled over. Again, I couldn’t have guessed I’d find it. But one day, there it was, in front of me, waiting to be explored. It would have been rude not to.

One of Chile’s 20th Century Presidents was from La Serena – his name was Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, and he ruled from 1946-1952. In the Plaza de Armas, the main square in the city, his family’s house stands proud, next to a statue of the man himself, and the house the family lived in for 50 years has now been turned into a museum. (Downstairs, the history of the ex-President. Upstairs, the history of Chile, as approved by the ex-President’s Estate.) With Neruda, I had read his poetry and already knew a little something of the man, even if I discovered more later which contrasted sharply. Here, I wanted to enter, take photographs and notes, and go in the door with no knowledge. I wanted to respond to the character the museum gave me, and look for gaps.

This place was fascinating, but it made the Neruda museum look like a warts and all portrayal. The plaques were taken from the man’s own (2000 page) memoirs. It started with an adoring portrait of his mother, (a humble woman – mother of 18! – who was portrayed as a mother to the whole nation, but was given no voice of her own). It took in many glamorous portraits of Rosa Markmann, his wife, who looked like she modelled herself on Eva Peron, her finest outfits hanging on display on mannequins in the museum. Gonzalez Videla himself was portrayed as a man of conquest (pictured grabbing part of Antarctica in 1951, a Chilean flag in the snow), also the man responsible for the modernisation of La Serena. I noticed only one mildly satirical picture, of Gonzalez Videla pictured apparently reading a serious book, inside which is hidden a book of cartoons. Despite its small size, this stood out as if it were taller than the whole building.

In amongst all these pictures and plaques of praise, in amongst Gonzalez Videla’s awards, his old typewriters, the pictures of his many political Cabinets (it was a volatile time), there was no hint of a human being. So my next job was to go away and find out about him. It turns out that it was he who exiled Neruda, then the most popular Communist in Chile, in 1946. What was more surprising was finding out that Neruda had been employed as the Head of Propaganda for Gonzalez Videla’s successful Presidential campaign that same year. The President had got into power in a coalition with the Communists. Then he outlawed the Communist Party, brutally put down protests against his government, and added to the great poet’s own legend (so lovingly recorded at the Casa de Pablo Neruda, the exiled artist photographed in cowboy hat, on a horse, looking up at the sun) by chasing Neruda out of the country. I was starting to get suspicious of everything I heard, everything I read, and was becoming preoccupied by pinning down simple facts about Chile. There weren’t many – which in itself was interesting. My new La Serena friends laughed and told me, ‘We are all crooks here man, watch out!’ But all the real people I met seemed honest and genuine. It was only the public figures, the symbols of the nation, that were slippery. All of which helped me choose the quote for the start of my novel. It had to be the infamous one by Donald Rumsfeld, from 2002, something said in the depths of war but which applies to all times: ‘There are known knowns, that is to say there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say there are some things we know we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know we do not know.’

All of this impacted on the way I felt by the time I reached my next stop, Pisco Elqui, which is where I am now living (forgetting for a moment Toronto, where the Russians in this internet café are screaming FUCK YOU in English at the zombies on their computer screens.) After La Serena, and after experiencing a string of cities in Argentina and Chile – Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Santiago, Valparaiso, La Serena – I was keen to find somewhere to work and consider my statues. So when Chilean friends recommended the quiet, picturesque Elqui Valley, a couple of hours further north, it seemed like it was waiting for me. There is a time in the writing process for immersion, for research, for noise. And then there’s a time for silence. You can talk and talk and imagine the novel in your mind, but at some stage you have get on with simply writing the thing. Also, given the intense period of research I’d been engaged in, I was aware my mind was overloaded with Chilean history, and I needed to make sure to forget some of it in order to tell an actual story, avoiding what the Canadians here call ‘infodump fiction’.

The village of Pisco Elqui used to be called La Union, but it turns out that that Gonzalez Videla (yes, him again) changed the name during his reign as a way to claim the drink Pisco for Chile, given there was (and still is) and ongoing fight with Peru over who really owns the drink. (The Chileans say they make Pisco of better quality; the Peruvians trace their claim to the 17th Century.) Either way, the drink Pisco Sour is hugely popular, despite the punch-in-the-face hangover it provides the next day (yes, I’ve suffered one of those – in the name of art of course), and in amongst the cordillera there are glorious pisco fields in all directions; from a distance they look like rows and rows of small delicate trees, which even over the few weeks I have been there seem to have doubled in size, filling out with green. The people are warm and welcoming. The atmosphere is peaceful. This was the first time I’d ever lived in somewhere so small that you could meet everyone in no time at all, and I was surprised to find how much I liked that. It was soon obvious that here was a genuine close knit community hidden from the view of almost everyone where there would be much to explore (the Rio Elqui, the desert, the mountains), an inspiring view every morning, and an opportunity to get to know a place in Chile rather than just pass through it. At least for a while, it was time to stop touring. So I have.

The other notable thing about the Elqui Valley is how closely it is associated with one particular human being. Gabriela Mistral was from this small area. Despite being born into poverty and never going to school – she was educated by her mother after her musician father left the family – Mistral became a schoolteacher, and her words are everywhere here. So it seems I have found myself in a place which just so happens to be a statue to a human being who people take great pride in – Mistral was not only the first Chilean or the first woman but the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now the profits from her poetry go to finance the school in her old village, Montegrande, which is ten minutes from Pisco Elqui and now bears the name Escuela de Gabriela Mistral. Visit a toilet in the Valley and notice Mistral quotes on the wall. Visit the square in Montegrande and see her statue (once again she’s stern, though depicted alongside two small children) or stand opposite the local church in Pisco Elqui and notice lines from her poems on the large standing barrels by the artesanal stalls.

Along with the drink, it is Mistral who brings tourists here for the few busier months in the summer. The signs in our village point out the Circuito de Gabriela Mistral, part of the Ruta de las Estrellas (Route of the Stars). Mistral has a street named after her, and even the place I am now living is named after her. She is in my address: Gabriela Mistral Cabañas, Pisco Elqui. I’ve never seen anywhere so closely associated to one person, and despite the schoolma’am image, and the dry, soulless museum which bears her name in the close-by town of Vicuña, the positive effect she’s had on the area in general has forced me to reassess my take on human beings as statues. I didn’t think of it like that while I was there, in the day to day I was just delighted to find somewhere the sun seemed to shine in so many ways, and I was grateful for the opportunity to write. But here, now, as the zombies finally lay down to die (naturally, a noisy, gruesome death) I think I’m just beginning to realise. And get some ideas for how I could bring my own Gabriela to this village. After all, I think she’d be interested in it.

Rodge Glass is the author of six books, most recently LoveSexTravelMusik: Stories for the Easyjet Generation, as well as the biography Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, and he is co-author of the graphic novel Dougie’s War: A Soldier’s War. He is supported by the Edge Hill University REF Investment Fund, and by Arts Council England. [Pic: Georgie Glass]

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 14th, 2013.