Pablo Neruda once declared that if he had not been a poet, he would have built houses. He might have added that he did build houses. Before he died on 23 September 1973, exactly twelve days after the death of the democratic Chile that he loved so dearly, he had managed to buy three houses in three different locations, and had spent years enlarging them, appending spires and rooms, galleries and watchtowers, guesthouses and libraries.
The house in Valparaíso was ransacked after his death, and Matilde, his widow, has refused to fix it. It remains as it was the day the soldiers decided to call: the windows shattered, the doors broken, the furniture splintered, the paintings slashed. Matilde wanted that ravished home to be a symbol. If Pinochet’s men treated Chile’s Nobel Prizewinner in that way, treated the greatest poet in the Spanish language that way, the world could well imagine, Matilde said, the way in which they would be treating Neruda’s readers: the poor, the unprotected, the unknown.
The second house is in Santiago. When Matilde returned to it from the hospital with Neruda’s dead body, the house was flooded. Troops had broken in, and left the water in the kitchen and bathrooms running. Neruda’s coffin – not a black one, he hated that colour – was placed on a table in the middle of the overflowing mud and rubble.