Authors: Sara Wheeler
1999 Modern Library Paperback Edition
Copright © 1994 by Sara Wheeler
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
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Originally published in Great Britain by Little, Brown and Company (UK) in 1994 in hardcover
Maps by Neil Hyslop
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Hard work and geographical isolation once earnt the Chileans the epithet ‘the English of South America’. A dubious distinction, perhaps; but anyway, I went and lived among them for six months and I found them delightfully un-English.
You will see from the first chapter why I went to Chile rather than any other place. What I fear I cannot do is convey to you adequately at the beginning of the book how passionately I felt about the country at the end of the journey. I had never been there before. I set off with two carpetbags and a desire to find out what Chile was about, and I carried all three for thousands of miles, from the desert to the glaciated south. The book which has emerged is offered as a subjective and impressionistic portrait; painting it was a rich and joyful experience.
It was not one long idyll. I struggled to understand a society which had been so deeply divided by fear and hatred that in some circles human rights still means the same as Marxism. The extraordinary polarization of politics confused me: people were always eager to tell me what was black and what was white, but very few shaded in any grey. I have done my best to make some sense of it.
Although I made several visits to offshore Chilean territory, and these were among the most revelatory and entertaining episodes of the journey, I did not visit Easter Island. Rapa Nui, as it is called by its own people, does belong to Chile, but its culture is Polynesian, and as it really has nothing to do with anything else in the thin country I decided it would distract me from the task I had set myself. I was game for distraction – but not if I had to travel 2500 miles for it.
People often ask whom among the many travellers who have boldly gone before me I would cite as my heroes. Let me pay homage to one by using his words to cast some more light on the genesis of my journey. I have said that the primary reason I went to Chile was to paint a personal portrait of a country. Peter Fleming set down a similarly sober motive for travelling 3500 miles through Tartary with a stranger in 1935, and then he said, ‘The second [reason], which was far more cogent than the first, was because we wanted to travel – because we believed, in the light of previous experience, that we should enjoy it. It turned out that we were right. We enjoyed it very much indeed.’
Noche, nieve y arena hacen la forma
de mi delgada patria
todo el silencio está en su larga línea
Night, snow, and sand make up the form
of my thin country
all silence lies in its long line
Pablo Neruda, from ‘
Descubridores de Chile
(‘Discoverers of Chile’), 1950
I was sitting on the cracked flagstones of our lido and squinting at the Hockney blue water, a novel with an uncreased spine at my side. It was an ordinary August afternoon in north London. A man with dark curly hair, toasted skin and only one front tooth laid his towel next to mine, and after a few minutes he asked me if the water was as cold as usual. Later, the novel still unopened, I learnt that he was Chilean, and that he had left not in the political upheavals of the 1970s when everyone else had left, but in 1990; he had felt compelled to stay during the dictatorship, to do what he could, but once it was over he wanted space to breathe. He came from the Azapa valley, one of the hottest
places on earth, yet he said he felt a bond as strong as iron with every Chilean he had ever met, even those from the brutally cold settlements around the Beagle Channel over 2500 miles to the south.
I told him that I had just finished writing a book about a Greek island – I had posted the typescript off two days previously. I explained that I had lived in Greece, that I had studied ancient and modern Greek, and all that.
The next day, at the lido, Salvador said:
‘Why don’t you write a book about my country now?’
I had wanted to go back to South America ever since I paddled a canoe up the Amazon in 1985. The shape of the emaciated strip of land west of the Andes in particular had caught my imagination, and I often found myself looking at it on the globe on my desk, tracing my finger (it was thinner and longer than my finger) from an inch above the red line marking the Tropic of Capricorn down almost to the cold steel rod at the bottom axis. Chile took in the driest desert in the world, a glaciated archipelago of a thousand islands and most of the things you can imagine in between.
After Salvador had planted his idea, I sought out people who knew about the thin country.
‘In Chile,’ a Bolivian doctor told me, ‘they used to have a saying, “
En Chile no pasa nada
” – nothing happens in Chile.’
He paused, and bit a fingernail.
‘But I haven’t heard it for a few years.’
I went to the Chilean Embassy in Devonshire Street and looked at thousands of transparencies through a light box. The Andes were in every picture, from the brittle landscape of the Atacama desert to the sepulchral wastes of Tierra del Fuego. I took a slow train to Cambridge and watched footage of Chilean Antarctica in the offices of the British Antarctic Survey; the pilots, who came home during austral winters,
told me stories about leave in what they described as ‘the Patagonian Wild West’.
I was utterly beguiled by the shape of Chile (Jung would have said it was because I wanted to be long and thin myself). I wondered how a country twenty-five times longer than it is wide could possibly function. When I conducted a survey among friends and acquaintances I discovered that hardly anyone knew anything about Chile. Pinochet always came up first (‘Is he gone, or what?’), then they usually groped around their memories and alighted on Costa-Gavras’ film
. The third thing they thought of was wine; they all liked the wine. Most people knew it was a Spanish-speaking country. That was about it. Our collective ignorance appealed to my curiosity.