Reading Writers’ Houses

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Roughly one hundred miles west of the Chilean capital of Santiago, in the sleepy fishing village of Isla Negra, a cylindrical stone tower flanked by tiered, red-roofed corridors winds across a sloping bluff overlooking the Pacific’s black-rock beaches. On first glance, it resembles a maritime vessel grounded into the jagged coastal landscape, more of an aesthetic construct than an inhabitable space. Scattered about the yard are mounted anchors, sidewalks inlaid with seashells, triangulated wooden posts festooned with rusted bells and, incongruously, a red-and-black locomotive. Pablo Neruda purchased this house in 1940 and, through a process of continuous renovation and expansion that lasted until his death in 1973, managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like. And largely because of this, Neruda’s house in Isla Negra is exceptional among existing writers’ houses.

On the whole, writers’ houses are uninspiring sites that fade from memory soon after the tours conclude. At Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, for example, I harbor vivid memories of the six-toed cats lounging about the yard but can’t recall anything about the house itself. In Concord, Massachusetts, the premier literary pilgrimage spot in the United States, I toured the houses of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, along with Henry David Thoreau’s reconstructed cabin at Walden Pond; yet what I remember most about that day is when the guide in Emerson’s house pointed to some thick curtains and remarked that Hawthorne, who was painfully shy, sometimes hid behind them during social gatherings. As soon as she said this, several members of my group scurried over to inspect the curtains. Someone asked if the curtains were original. The guide shook her head, but then indicated that they were exact replicas of the curtains that Emerson had used during his lifetime. Satisfied with the answer, we continued on to the next room, where I instantly tried to determine the corners and crevices that Hawthorne might have deemed appropriate hiding places.

While it’s amusing to envision a great American writer cowering behind the drapes at his equally renowned friend’s home, it is this sort of pithy anecdote that underscores why visiting writers’ houses often makes for an underwhelming experience. Writers’ houses offer a curious mixture of reverence, nostalgia, fabrication, and history; but there’s a limit to the information that they can impart. Seeing the refurbished domestic spaces where authors toiled away on their masterpieces does little to illuminate how the authors’ lives influenced their works and vice versa.

Of course, few people are in search of textual illumination during journeys to writers’ houses. Some are sightseers interested in the history of the region, while others want to feel closer to authors whose works have moved them. In A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a quirky and enlightening meditation on literary tourism, Anne Trubek notes that writers’ houses often serve as “secular shrines” that devoted readers frequent “because they believe that it will strengthen their faith to pay homage in person. The house—or the typewriter or the desk or the chair—is the mediating fetish object.” For these visitors, simply being in the study where the author wrote or, if the guide isn’t looking, touching the desk on which the literary alchemy took place is reason enough to have undertaken the journey.

Even casual visitors are drawn to writers’ houses for the opportunity, in Trubek’s words, to come “as close as possible to the precise, generative ‘Aha!’” moment of literary creation. Yet since such moments cannot be seen or sensed but instead must be either imagined or re-created, visits to the rooms where writers labored often prove anticlimactic. After all, the rooms themselves were tangential to their inhabitants’ creative processes, and they appear now as little more than sterilized set pieces that have been deliberately frozen in time. Ultimately, the meaning that visitors derive from these rooms varies according to their capacity to imagine what might have taken place there. Or, as Trubek argues, a writer’s house is a fiction that visitors “read” based on whatever desires compelled them to venture there in the first place.

In Trubek’s estimation, there are over seventy operating writers’ houses in the United States alone, a group as notable for its inclusions (Jupiter Hammon, Gene Stratton-Porter, Vachel Lindsay) as its exclusions (Sherwood Anderson, Dr. Seuss, Theodore Dreiser). Over the past decade I’ve trekked to over a dozen of these houses and gradually became inured to the standard assortment of polished period furniture and colorful biographical tidbits that each offered. I fell into the habit of reading writers’ houses as formulaic works of genre fiction: easily digestible, diverting, and unmemorable.

But Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra cut through my cynicism in surprising ways. It didn’t hurt that the house’s dramatic setting, perched above a particularly turbulent slice of the Pacific coast, stoked my imagination even before I’d entered. Most important, it was the only writer’s house I’d ever visited whose very structure and interior decoration seemed to offer insight into the author’s creative processes.

While additional Neruda homes are open to the public in Santiago and the port city of Valparaiso, neither is as fully realized as the house in Isla Negra, which served as Neruda’s primary residence during the latter half of his life. Neruda once referred to himself as a “carpenter-poet,” but if his house in Isla Negra is any indication, he was also a “poet-carpenter,” cobbling together images, objects, and textures in jarringly effective ways. Each idiosyncratic room looks and feels as uniquely constructed as Neruda’s poetry, overflowing with seashells, mastheads, ships in bottles, antique maps, mounted insects, and countless other oddities accumulated from a lifetime of travel and collection. Some rooms attest to his love of the sea, resembling ocean liners with low ceilings, porthole windows, and rounded corners; others are stocked with the sort of unvarnished wood furnishings that recall the author’s rustic childhood in the northern Patagonian town of Temuco. Overall, this distinctive house brings to mind the person who, while in Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, declared that “my hobbies are shells, old books, old shoes,” and then, true to his word, promptly spent a hefty portion of his winnings on a stunning array of seashells and rare books.

In her memoir, My Life with Pablo Neruda, Matilde Urrutia, Neruda’s third and final wife, asserted that the house had a “unique atmosphere, not so much because of what is actually there, but because the house took shape from a collection of images rooted in [Neruda’s] passions.” According to Urrutia, Neruda endeavored to transform the modest stone tower that he had originally purchased into “his dream world,” adding that only “he understood the value of things in it.” Neruda himself mused in his posthumously published memoirs that “in my house I have put together a collection of small and large toys that I cannot live without. I have also built my house like a toy house and I play in it from morning till night.” What these passages suggest is that while Neruda didn’t physically build the house in Isla Negra, it nonetheless grew out of his seemingly childlike ability to seek out and celebrate the poetry inherent in all manners of spaces and objects.

This combination of bottomless creativity and wide-eyed wonder formed an integral—and widely documented—part of Neruda’s personality. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “I Sell My Dreams,” the unnamed narrator spends a morning in Barcelona with a lightly fictionalized version of Pablo Neruda and marvels at how Neruda “moved through the crowd like an invalid elephant, with a child’s curiosity in the inner workings of each thing he saw, for the world appeared to him as an immense wind-up toy with which life invented itself.” Similarly, Matilde Urrutia’s memoir portrays Neruda as an “overgrown boy” enthralled by the minutiae and happenstance of life. For example, Urrutia recalls that Neruda’s desk—a thick, weathered slab of driftwood—was something that had washed ashore on a beach near their house after a violent storm. When Neruda rushed out to retrieve it, he “chortled like a little boy who had just received the most wonderful gift.” My guide in Isla Negra told comparable stories about an eclectic array of displayed objects—how Neruda had encountered the objects, infused each one with value, and then strung them together, like words on a page, into the larger poetic design of the house.

As such, it is tempting to read Neruda’s house in Isla Negra as an extension of the author’s literary output. The house as a whole is as capacious, detailed, and imaginative as Canto General, Neruda’s lengthy masterwork on the history and geography of the Americas. At the same time, the attention that Neruda lavished on his possessions evokes his poems that glorify everyday objects, such as “Ode to the Onion” and “Ode to the Spoon.” By the end of the tour, I’d already come to the conclusion that Neruda’s poetry and houses were tightly intertwined, informing and playing off each other in a continuous creative loop.

However, reading a writer’s house in this manner is exactly what Trubek cautions against. In particular, Trubek warns that “if the fit between the author and his history—or biography—is too perfect, then the house becomes a cage, and the author, a bird.” This point is especially apt for the narrative constructed about Neruda at Isla Negra. My guide there repeatedly characterized Neruda as “a child in a man’s body,” and by doing so the tour accentuated Neruda’s eccentricities while effectively minimizing a more serious and equally important part of his life: his political activism.

It may strike many as comical that an individual with three sizable houses would define himself as a communist, but Neruda’s political convictions ran deep. He was someone who ran for President of Chile on behalf of the Communist Party, lived for nearly five years in hiding and exile to avoid political persecution, and titled one of his poetry collections Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution. When Neruda died on September 23, 1973, twelve days after a military coup had overthrown his country’s Socialist government and outlawed the Communist Party, his houses were ransacked and shuttered. The house in Isla Negra remained closed to the public for seventeen years, reopening only after democracy had been restored to Chile. Yet the tour does not dwell on this portion of the house’s history, perhaps because of its potential to polarize visitors, or because some of Neruda’s political views have subsequently fallen out of favor, or simply because it doesn’t fit comfortably within the airbrushed narrative put forth throughout.

But this shouldn’t be surprising. Even those readers that perceive of their treks to the choppy Pacific coast as pilgrimages must reconcile themselves to the fact that they’re also engaging in a tourist activity, and as with all forms of tourism, time restrictions and obligations to entertain typically trump concerns about historical accuracy and comprehensiveness. To capture a broad audience, my tour of Neruda’s house in Isla Negra seemed invested in canonizing a specific incarnation of the former inhabitant—the whimsical lover of wine, women, and words that has taken hold in the popular imagination over the past few decades.

And who’s to blame them? After all, this incarnation jibes with the unusual objects on display and, if my experience is any indication, is powerful enough to seduce even the most disenchanted literary tourist. Halfway through the tour, I’d become, in spite of myself, a willing accomplice in the constructed narrative, vividly imagining Neruda shuffling about the rooms, rearranging his scattered seashells and colored bottles, staring out at the Pacific while seated at his driftwood desk, waiting for inspiration to strike. Through it all a faint voice in the back of my head kept reminding me that for a more nuanced portrait of the author, I would have to wait for the tour to conclude. Invariably, a gift shop would await me then, conveniently stocked with biographies and assorted literary works at full retail price.

(Image credit: Luke Epplin)

Country of Quakes

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Around noon on February 20, 1835, Charles Darwin was lying down in a forest outside of the southern Chilean town of Valdivia when a massive earthquake jolted him upright. Appropriately for someone who had spent the past three years voyaging on the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin related the vertiginous experience to seasickness, as if the earth were undulating over ocean waves.

When the ground stabilized, Darwin returned to Valdivia, where panicked villagers were inspecting their damaged homes and bracing for the inevitable aftershocks. In his journal, which would later be included in the travelogue, The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin wrote: “A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid.”

Over the following week, Darwin journeyed through several coastal towns where tsunamis had crashed through neighborhoods clustered along the shore, scattering boats about the streets. According to villagers, cows that had been grazing near the beaches had simply rolled into the ocean. Shortly thereafter, Darwin arrived in the devastated city of Concepción, where entire rows of houses had been reduced to rubble, and looters roamed the streets after dark. For Darwin, it was evidence of how much earthquakes affect not only the economics of a country but also its citizens’ worldviews. As Darwin mused: “If beneath England the now inert subterranean forces should exert their powers…how completely would the entire condition of the country be changed!”

Darwin’s journals fit into an eclectic group of writings that take as their subject matter an occurrence that has been constant through Chile’s long history: the earthquake. It is, in many ways, an alluring topic—a cataclysmic incident that can kickstart a plot or ratchet up a story’s emotional levels; but it also can function as an almost irresistible metaphor of instability, rupture, or suppressed memories or emotions that rumble unexpectedly to the surface.

I learned the Spanish word for earthquake before the word for thunderstorm. But that’s not uncommon for someone who learns the language in a country where thunder rumbles infrequently but the earth shakes every few months.

In 2004, I lived in a three-room bungalow behind a stately, turn-of-the-century house in a middle-class neighborhood of Santiago. By the end of the first month, the family that owned the estate already had fallen into the nightly habit of buzzing the speakerphone that connected our two living spaces to invite me to dine with them. During the weekends, we would sit down to a midday, three-course meal with members of their extended family, after which the father, a reticent government employee who had grown up in the Atacama Desert, would pluck cedrón leaves off a backyard tree for us to mash into boiled water for tea. Pretty soon, I started to think of them as my Chilean family.

Several times throughout the year, while sitting down for either lunch or dinner, a family member would ask me if I had felt the tremor the night before. Invariably, I slept through these bits of seismic activity, which were too weak to even register in the morning news. Still, the idea of Chile being a country whose ground shook remained ever-present in my thoughts, and became a frequent topic of mealtime chitchat.

Over a dessert of flan and quinces that summer, I remember talking with one of the grandparents about the earthquake that rocked the country in 1960, registering a 9.5 on the Richter scale, the most powerful on record. She spoke of it as though it had happened only the week before, the awe still palpable in her voice. Many years later, while living in Chile again, I took a trip to Argentina and struck up a conversation with a tour guide there. When I asked her what she thought of Chile, she said, in a manner that is typical of the sibling rivalry between the countries, “Well, we’re just waiting for Chile to fall off into the ocean.” Even though the line was spoken in jest, there was still something slightly uncomfortable about it, as if behind its hyperbole was a sliver of plausibility.

When the next big one struck Chile during the early morning hours of February 27th, 2010, I thought immediately of my good friend Felipe, who works on a vineyard near the southern Chilean town of Talca, which was close to the quake’s epicenter. Luckily, Felipe had spent that weekend in Santiago with his fiancée. Upon feeling the rumbling, they leaped out of bed and rushed to the front door, the tremors knocking them repeatedly against the walls of the narrow hallway. Furniture toppled over and glass smashed onto the floor. But they came out unscathed.

While communicating with them over the next several days, I was reminded of the opening lines of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Earthquake,” which was included in the author’s magnum opus, Canto General:

I awakened when dreamland gave way beneath
     my bed.
A blind column of ash tottered in the middle
of the night,
          and I ask you: am I dead?

The power of these lines derives largely from their lack of context; they’re almost purely experiential. One moment the anonymous speaker is asleep, and the next an earthquake upends his life, plunging him into a terrestrial inferno. Upon recovering his senses, the speaker asks: “Why does the earth boil, gorging on death?” This question frames the earth—and, by extension, the natural world—not as indifferent but as ravenous, gluttonously feeding on the destruction it’s caused. But perhaps the most haunting image comes in the closing lines, when the sun rises:

And today you dawn, O blue day, dressed
for a dance, with your gold tail
above the listless sea of debris, fiery
seeking the lost faces of the unburied.

Following a night of death, the dawn incongruously arrives in full splendor, its clear blue skies seeming to mock the ruins below. There’s an eerie, impersonal silence at the end of the poem. The speaker has retreated, and all we’re left with is the illuminated aftermath—heaps of rubble and unclaimed bodies.

Overall, Neruda’s poem treats the earthquake as lived experience—a natural incident that indiscriminately and terrifyingly transforms the physical and human landscapes.

Of course, there are numerous lenses that literary works have applied to Chilean earthquakes over the centuries. For the protagonists in Heinrich von Kleist’s short story, “The Earthquake in Chile,” the earthquake, oddly enough, offers salvation and redemption.

Even though the German writer never visited Chile during his brief and tempestuous life (1777-1811), von Kleist nevertheless became inspired by an account that he read of the 1647 earthquake that devastated the Chilean capital of Santiago. He opens his short story in a prison cell where a young Spanish immigrant named Jerónimo Rugera is preparing a noose from which to hang himself. Earlier that year, he had fallen in love with Doña Josefa, a wealthy Chilean noblewoman whose father had forced her to join a convent. Undeterred, Jerónimo snuck into the convent and consummated his relationship with Josefa. When she gave birth to a baby boy nine months later, the Archbishop of Santiago sentenced her to death by beheading for their transgression. Jerónimo, who also had been imprisoned, vowed to take his life at the same time his lover’s was taken from her.

Immediately before Jerónimo slips the noose over his neck, violent tremors send him toppling backward. The prison walls collapse, allowing him to crawl through the debris to safety. He sprints out of the chaotic city and climbs a nearby hill, falling on his knees once he reaches the summit and weeping “with rapture to find that the blessing of life, in all its wealth and variety, was still his to enjoy.” Later that day he spots Josefa giving a bath to their infant son in the overflowing Mapocho River. After a tearful reunion, she tells him that the ground shook before she had reached the guillotine, burying the Archbishop in a pile of rubble. With nothing but destruction in sight, they abscond into the woods and reflect on “how much misery had to afflict the world in order to bring about their happiness.”

In their exhilarated solipsism, the lovers interpret the earthquake as both a rebuke to the institutionalized religious order and a divine miracle, as though the earth had intervened to spare their lives. In other words, they succumb to the all too human tendency to regard the earthquake as a personal event—a slightly mystical omen or verdict about one’s own individual fate. For Josefa and Jerónimo, the earthquake not only redeems their actions but also destroys those that had used their authority to keep them apart. It also serves as a societal leveler, for the world that the couple awakens to the next day is one where the rigid Chilean class system has been temporarily suspended, where noblepersons rush to the aid of beggars, “as if the general disaster had united all its survivors into a single family.”

As expected, this illusion does not last long. Overconfident in their interpretation of God’s will, Josefa and Jerónimo decide to return to Santiago to beg forgiveness at the church that had originally sentenced them. Once they enter the congregation, however, they discover that the priest has an alternate interpretation—namely, that the earthquake was divine retribution for the moral depravity of Santiago. When Jerónimo and Josefa are recognized, members of the church revolt and strike them both dead. Thus, the story is a sort of cautionary tale about the pitfalls of interpreting an earthquake as anything more than the seismic activity of an indifferent earth, and of assuming that a lone cataclysmic event can permanently alter culturally constructed power structures. In other words, an earthquake may affect the fate of humans, even positively so in rare instances, but human nature is another matter altogether.

Unlike von Kleist’s story, there’s nothing redemptive about the earthquake in “Pandora,” an untranslated short story by the celebrated Chilean writer Ana Maria del Rio. In a manner reminiscent of Neruda’s poem, “Pandora” immediately plunges the reader into the experience of the earthquake: “The tremor didn’t come little by little. In reality, nothing in this life does. Everything happens just as it does in an earthquake: all at once. We are those who live one day at a time.”

The narrator, a teenage girl staying with her wealthy family at their country estate outside of Santiago, is still awake when the earthquake strikes, after which her father orders the family to spend the night in an oversize playhouse. The next morning, while surveying the damages, the mother, whom the narrator describes as a depressive woman whose youthful beauty had faded, falls to her knees and begins to dig into the earth with her bare hands. Unsure of how to respond, her children bend down and dig as well. Sobbing, the mother turns to her husband and exclaims, “Strange things emerge when you dig deep, Carlos.” The father quickly whisks her away from the children, who continue the excavation.

As the narrator turns up clumps of dirt with her hands, repressed memories emerge in her mind: her first menstruation that occurred when her cousin was performing oral sex on her, her mother’s unexplained decision to attend confession twice a week at the National Cathedral in Santiago. Soon, she enters a trance-like state: “By this time I was digging in a disorganized frenzy without quite knowing the objective of my search. I only knew that things kept appearing that were buried in the layers beneath words.”

Finally, the narrator’s fingers hit on something solid. After burrowing around it, she unearths a small white box with flowers decorating the sides. Inside is the decayed body of an infant. The narrator’s sister comes over to inspect, and states flatly that it was the child that their mother had presumably aborted after she found out that her husband was having an affair.

In this case, the metaphor of the earthquake becomes literal: what was once hidden beneath layers of earth rumbles back to the surface. But it’s more than just a geological excavation; the characters are also digging into the strata of their unconscious, sifting through the memories that they’ve repressed in order to keep their family together. It’s no surprise that, at the end of the story, after the narrator reburies the casket, she reflects on a feeling that she experienced during the initial seconds of the earthquake: that the world was coming to an end. And while the physical world didn’t dissolve, in many ways the imaginary world that the characters had constructed for themselves did.


Despite the considerable seismic activity in Chile throughout the past centuries, it can be argued that the earthquake is under-explored in the country’s literature. At least, that’s the argument made by Alberto Fuguet, the enfant terrible of the Chilean literary scene, whose provocative novels mix urban realism, U.S. pop culture, and youthful malaise. In an interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, Fuguet opined that “in Chile, neither our literature nor our people take earthquakes seriously.” Fuguet, who spent part of his childhood in Los Angeles, remarked that he was always aware of living in one of the most fault-ridden cities in the United States. But once he returned to Santiago, he was surprised that “nobody talked about the fact that the country was extremely seismic. Seismology as a science and as a concern ranked very low.”

Fuguet’s most recent novel, The Movies of My Life, directly addresses this perceived incongruity. The narrator, Beltrán Soler, is a middle-aged seismologist who relates nearly everything in his life to earthquakes. Before he catches a flight, he estimates how much damage a violent quake would inflict on the tarmac; when he looks at high-rise buildings in Santiago, he ponders their sustainability. As he tells it: “This is one of the drawbacks to being a seismologist: I always look deeper, I search for the cracks, I scan for flaws and resistances.” His profession has transformed him into a blunt realist. After a strong earthquake in 1997, Beltrán, as a representative of the country’s Seismological Institute, tells the President of Chile:

“The question, Señor Presidente, is not if it will happen again, but when. This is the question that no one in this country can or wants to ask. Every Chilean is going to die, yes, for this is the fate of every human being, but we bear an additional cross: we all will endure an earthquake that may either kill us or destroy everything we’ve fought to have.”

The novel opens with Beltrán preparing to fly to Tokyo, where he will spend a semester as a visiting professor at Tsakuba University. Unmarried, disconnected from his family, and depressed about the recent death of his grandfather, who also was a seismologist, Beltrán strikes up a conversation with the woman sitting next to him on the flight about movies that have sentimental value in their lives. When the plane lands in Los Angeles, Beltrán impulsively decides to skip his connecting flight, rent out a hotel room, and write his autobiography based on the movies that he watched during his childhood.

This rather forced contrivance threads throughout the novel, but it is the metaphor of the earthquake that ties it all together. For Beltrán, the earthquake is neither salvation nor rupture; it is an inevitable reality, an intrinsic attribute of the country. Or, as his grandfather tells Beltrán: “Everything moves in [Chile], from the ground to the hilltops to the people. They all change, they all hide things. Such instability can be really disturbing.”

In this sense, the country’s peoples, politics, and cultures become inextricably intertwined with the metaphor of the earthquake, so much so that, at least according to Beltrán, inhabitants measure their lives according to past bits of seismic activity: “Everyone remembers at least one earthquake, everyone has a particular angle or distinct detail that gives them the right to tell us a story that we know like the back of our hand, a story whose ending we already know full well.”

Overall, then, earthquakes form a part of the national identity, which holds especially true for the most recent quake. These are events that are collectively shared, even if the circumstances in which individuals experience them vary drastically. They unite generations and fuse the present with the past. Or, as Beltrán so poignantly puts it: “Earthquakes and aftershocks: the things that turn us into brothers, the glue that binds our broken country together.”