Postcard from Isla Negra: Troubled by the Pacific

THE waves crash down on the rocks below Pablo Neruda's last home facing the Pacific Ocean. Many of the rocks are inscribed with lines of poetry or drawings in honour of Chile's national poet and Nobel Prize winner. His house, crammed full of seashells, telescopes, huge wooden ships' figureheads and risque postcards, has become a shrine. I was shown round in the company of two coachloads of firemen from the Chilean capital, who had chosen to come here for their annual outing to pay their respects to someone who for them was much more than a mere poet.

In the early Seventies, for many people in Chile and other parts of the world, Neruda was the symbol that literature and politics could mix, that the former did not have to give up its integrity but could endow the task of governing society with some of its own ideals. In 1969, Neruda had been the Chilean Communist party's pre-candidate for the fateful presidential elections eventually won in 1970 by his friend Salvador Allende. Already in his late sixties, Neruda was rewarded with an ambassadorship in Paris, but soon returned to Isla Negra, ill with the cancer that eventually caused his death.

This came in 1973, just two weeks after the military coup led by General Pinochet which saw the death of Allende in the bombed presidential palace, and the end of democratic civilian rule for almost two decades. Isla Negra itself was searched by troops, and the Chilean writer Jorge Edwards tells how the dying poet confronted the officer in charge with the grandiose, if perhaps apocryphal, words: 'There is only one thing here that is dangerous for you: poetry.'

Soon afterwards, Isla Negra was impounded by Pinochet's government because it was officially owned by the Communist Party. Only in 1989 was the property returned, and Neruda's ashes laid to rest facing the ocean as he had wished.

Isla Negra's fate was typical of what happened to literature in Chile: it was hijacked by a military government that sought to cut out all its links with politics. Many of those writers who had been in any way involved in Salvador Allende's Popular Unity movement left the country, and pursued a literature in exile which all too often only kept the rhetoric of the struggle, but lost touch with the tangible, credible reality that fosters true imaginative literature. Others, such as Chile's most famous exiles Isabel Allende and Ariel Dorfman, found a way of making their concerns international, largely to the bemusement or barely disguised envy of other Chilean writers.

Those who stayed continued to write as best they could in the oppressive situation, with little hope of reaching a significant public or being allowed any challenging experiment. By the middle of the Eighties, though, this situation began to change, and writers and artists took advantage of the spaces opening up as Chileans began to oppose Pinochet's regime. Once again, Jorge Edwards has described the situation aptly: 'In a small parish meeting room, or between the four peeling walls of an opposition cultural centre, the anti-authoritarian message gradually acquired a relevance, a force, an intensity, that we now tend to overlook. It felt as if thought, art, criticism, all had urgent meaning, a kind of dramatic necessity.'

These years did not necessarily produce another Neruda, but they did provide the conditions for writers to go on debating the importance of their work, to test it and try out new ideas. Now, 20 years after his death, Neruda is more of an idol for firemen than the younger generation of poets. 'We've learnt that the links between poetry and power cannot be innocent,' one of them told me in a poetry reading in Santiago. He and his colleagues still believe, like Neruda, that poetic expression is central to their lives, but are suspicious of any authority. So they continue an almost underground existence, exploring the margins, preferring the 'anti- poetry' of Neruda's contemporary Nicanor Parra to any grandiloquence that might be borrowed for someone else's cause.

A similar spirit reigns among the new generation of novelists. Arturo Fontaine, whose first novel Oir su voz (To hear his Voice) has already sold five editions in Chile this year, recently explained that in his work he felt the need to go beyond the idealised view of revolutionary Latin America often exalted in literature. His own novel, he said, was trying to show the true reality of Chile under Pinochet: 'The permanent sense of stupefaction, the lack of faith in any future, the fatalism, all of which we experienced without any great feeling of drama. The meekness with which we lived under the dictatorship and how we gradually came to accept it.' Fontaine's words are far less heroic than those of the dying Neruda, but in Chile, 20 years on, they have much more of a ring of truth about them.