Chilean actor Luis Gnecco, star of the new Neruda film, on the legendary poet’s homes, the great desert that influenced his life and work, and Chile’s other hotspots every Pablo Neruda fan should know
Pablo Neruda is one of the most important poets in the Spanish language. The poetry he made in Spanish is a lot like Walt Whitman’s poetry, because he reinvented his land. He re-found the Americas.
He’s not only a huge political poet but he was very popular too because he had a very close relationship with the people. That was so important to him: being a politician in Chile, being a Communist senator. History says he was more popular even than Salvador Allende. He left Chile to Salvador Allende. Otherwise, he would have been the candidate and even could have been the President. He was a very important guy.
Luis Gnecco in Neruda (Network)
Neruda was born in the deep south of Chile, a very lost land at that time in the 1900s. It was a place called Parral, a city in the Maule region, far down in the south of this thin, long country.
When he was 20, he decided to move to Santiago, which was a little, unknown city in the world, with a poor cultural life. One day, he decided to go to the East, to Asia, to be lost there, smoking opium, drinking whisky and living the life, but he developed a very important career as a diplomat. He was very important in bringing to Chile refugees from the civil war in Spain.
At the same time, he was writing some of the most well-known love poems of all time: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. He wrote that book at the age of 20 years old. The guy was a genius.
Then, when you read the poetry he wrote when he was a mature poet, in the 1950s and 1960s, even his last poems before dying, he covered all the genres and covered all the styles. Each book is absolutely different from the last. We’re talking about a great guy.
Neruda mural near La Chascona (Turismo Chile)
Neruda had many different houses. He was a collector, which was very weird because he was a very committed Communist politician. You can find the spirit of the collector in all of his houses.
Neruda had houses in Santiago, in Valparaiso and in Isla Negra. These houses represent different parts of his history.
La Chascona, his house in Santiago, was his house with Matilde Urrutia, who was his third wife and the woman his was with after Delia del Carril.
The house is in a neighbourhood of Santiago, close to San Cristóbal Hill, which is now a very beautiful park in the middle of the city. It is the headquarters of the Neruda Foundation now, which takes care of Neruda’s legacy.
All of Neruda’s houses have the same style. They have big walls made of stone and are so cold in structure, but he made all of them very warm in the interior. This warmth was given because of all the objects he collected.
Neruda was a great host who gave big, thematic parties: Spring parties, the celebration of the Equinox, the celebration of one thing or another. Many people who knew Neruda say that those were the best parties they have ever been to.
The house is not so big, but he didn’t need a lot of space, because the house is full of corners. People say the parties were so funny because something different happened in every corner. There were dancers and people in costumes with masks. People were singing in one corner. In the other corner, people were giving a speech. In the other corner, people were dancing. There was a little orchestra in one corner.
It was all planned in the head of Neruda. When I read about those parties, I really wanted to be there. They sound so entertaining.
Pablo Neruda's house in Isla Negra (Dreamstime)
In Chile, the regions have numbers, rather than proper names. It’s so weird and so cold. It’s a heritage of the Pinochet dictatorship, who gave numbers to the region.
Neruda had a house in the fifth region. This place was a very forgotten place, with beautiful little fishing towns. It’s very wild, full of rocks, with a very wild sea. The place was very wild and not very populated at that time. It became famous and people started to move there because of Neruda. Many of the people who live in Isla Negra in the 1940s and 1950s were people of the Left wing, people with a very open mind, artists.
This was Neruda’s favourite house. He lived there for long periods, and he was very inspired by the sea. He collected a lot of things that came from the sea, including the figureheads of old boats. He had a great collection of objects that reminded him of the life of sailors and people of the sea.
He also brought into his house the biological life of the sea. He collected shells, big and little, and all kinds of stones, lamps from the boats... He had very good taste because he was not gathering rubbish. He was gathering special pieces.
My impression is that he was bringing the life of this wild sea that he adored. He called it not the Pacific Ocean, but a “warrior ocean”, very wild, very savage. He wanted to have that part of the sea in his house.
Atacama desert (Dreamstime)
Atacama’s landscapes are so unique. It’s a lunar land. Many NASA vehicles are tested in the north of Chile because it’s a very dry desert. You have really nothing there, except this land called the Altiplano, flat lands in the mountains. We’re talking about 3,000 or 4,000 metres of altitude.
It’s a fantastic landscape because you have very weird species: flamingos and weird birds and vegetation, little herbs that are trying to live in this dry land.
Pablo Neruda wrote about this land in many his poems. He was senator for the north of Chile. This area was, and is, very rich in minerals, so here is the richness of Chile and the slavery of Chile too, because all the great mining companies were there and of course the exploitation of the people was there too.
For Neruda, it was important to be senator of this land and to chant about this exploitation. He was very popular in the north of Chile because he was so close and committed to the people that worked in the mining factories.
Neruda said that the north of Chile and this land of copper was a land of blood and exploitation, of weird beauty but, at the same time, a land of pain, the pain of man, because it was where the Chilean working man was exploited. He found ‘his men’ there.
He was absolutely committed to this cause. He has a lot of poems where he talks about this. The north of Chile is more or less as important to him as the south where he was born.
Huerquehue National Park and the Andes Mountains (Turismo Chile)
When Neruda was in danger and had to go into exile, first of all he moved to many different houses in Santiago. He was moving towards the south of Chile, looking for a place where he could escape.
Finally, the place where he crossed to Argentina was called “The Path.” This is the Paso Lilpela or Lilpela Pass, which goes across the Andes. It’s more or less in the middle of the country. It’s a very beautiful place with great lakes and very wild forests and, because it rains a lot all the year, you can find jungles. It’s a very wild place.
He chanted to the mountains, chanted to the Andes and the Indian mountains. There are very wide mountains here. When we were shooting in those kinds of places, we had to stop because of a strong storm. You had two minutes of snow. The horses can’t ride over that snow.
It was a very hard time for Neruda to cross through those wide lands to Argentina. This region, which is called the Lake Region, where Neruda spent his childhood, is a land of river and woods. If you close your eyes and open them again, you can swear you’re in Switzerland. It’s fantastic. But the mountains of this region are so, so wide, with storms and wide rivers, so it’s very difficult to cross. Neruda crossed through that wide land to Argentina.
Colourful houses in Valparaiso (Dreamstime)
Valparaiso is a very colourful city. It was the first business capital of Santiago. The Panama Canal was not built at that time, so all the ships passed to Valparaiso. Valparaiso has a special history. It’s a mix of British and Italian colonies.
At the centre of Valparaiso, there was a very classic town, but it was surrounded by very poor towns growing towards the hills. The towns are very colourful, very poor, with houses built over one another, like the favelas in Rio De Janeiro.
Neruda’s house here is not a great house. It’s a very tiny house, a very discreet house, but this guy had a talent for finding his houses. I think he made great research and he chose a special house that looked to a special place. The view from that house is fantastic because it dominates all the town and all the bay.
This house is very common from the outside, but if you go into the house, it’s a very colourful place. You can find the same objects and styles in all the houses of Pablo Neruda. From here, you could see the best of Valparaiso.
Neruda, starring Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda and Gael Garcia Bernal as Inspector Óscar Peluchonneau, is in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from April 7.
Main image: Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda (Network)