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The City and the Writer: In Santiago de Chile with Idra Novey

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                                                                        —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Santiago as you feel/see it?

The mood in Santiago is like the new highway that runs under the Mapocho River.  Under its muddy water, beneath its complicated system of concrete and steel reinforcements, the people of Santiago rush along unseen. People rarely argue passionately in public or on the metro.  You never see anyone cry in a restaurant with a friend the way you might in New York.  The emotional life of Santiago all happens unseen and underground.  

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

About a decade ago I went to a Wailers concert in the National Stadium. For years afterward, it haunted me to have danced in a place where so many people had been detained, tortured, and killed during the Pinochet dictatorship. But it was a beautiful moment as well, to lie on a blanket and listen to thousands of people sing in a new era in that space.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I love the way the Andes appear outside the capital after it rains. Most days in Santiago, the smog is so intense it burns your throat and obscures any view of the cordillera. But after a good storm rinses the air, the mountains appear in the distance in all their snow-capped, uninhabited immensity.  You can see them from almost anywhere and then the smog thickens and they’re gone again.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Katherine Silver did a superb translation of Pedro Lemebel’s brilliant novel My Tender Matador a few years ago—I would recommend for readers looking for Chilean literature in translation. For books not yet translated, Andrea Maturana and Alejandra Costamagna are two of my favorite Chilean fiction writers whose work aren’t available yet in English but really should be. And there are a number of promising younger Chilean poets writing now, such as Paula Ilabaca Nuñez and Victor Lopez Zumelzu.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I would like to spend less time in Café Tavelli but can’t seem to get away from it. Every time I arrive in Santiago and want to meet someone for lunch, I’m there again, eating the only vegetarian option among the lunch specials, usually an artichoke quiche and a slice of German apple pie. For years, Tavelli served fresh-squeezed fruit juices made from fresh raspberries, oranges, and chirimoya. Now all their juices are made from frozen pulp and the slices of quiche and pie keep getting smaller but lunch at Tavelli happens anyway. If there were a board game set in Santiago, you’d have to stop at one every time you rolled a six.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The bookstore Metales Pesados. Beyond being the best indie bookstore in Chile, the owner, a poet named Sergio Parra, is always there and can you tell you, at length, about every book ever published in the country. If you have a question about a poet or novelist he doesn’t know the answer to, he’ll call up someone who does. On my last trip to the store, I was looking for anthologies of work by new Chilean writers and after showing me the two options he had in the store, which of course he’d read and could have discussed passionately all day, he called someone from a new small press he admired to bring me a few books they’d just published he thought I might enjoy. It’s a bookstore but also a haven for bibliophiles. It’s a place that’s hard to leave.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I have a low tolerance for shopping crowds, but I let myself get seduced into the madness of El Patronato. Beyond being the best place in Chile to get socks, sunglasses and Mardi Gras beads if you might need them, it’s the only place where you can get decent kimchi and serious wonton soup and then a slice of baklava. All the immigrant groups in Santiago have stores in El Patronato, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Jewish and Palestinian families that have been working beside each other in Chile since the nineteen twenties. In a country as homogeneous and socially predictable as Chile, it’s a relief to be immersed in so many languages and incongruities, unless it’s mid-summer and past noon and the temperature on the concrete is well above a hundred degrees.

Where does passion live here?

On Sundays at the family barbecue when the trays of steaks and anticucho and potatoes engulfed in mayonnaise arrive. And occasionally, when the stars and barbecues align, in the poetry readings at the bar Estación Central.

What is the title of one of your poems about Santiago and what inspired it exactly?

“Pausing Outside a House” is about one of the houses that was used as a torture center during the dictatorship and now houses a family. I would pass it and stare at the bougainvillea and children’s toys in the yard and couldn’t understand how anyone could live in a place where people had been thrown, blindfolded and electrocuted, down the steps. When I find myself understanding something less and less I often start a poem. 

In my new book, I have another poem set in Chile that also came out of an ongoing sense of bafflement. It’s about a prison in Valparaíso that’s now a festival ground. Musicians tune their instruments in what used to be the prisoners’ cells and play in the courtyard where inmates used to pace and rub their hands in the cold.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Santiago does an outside exist?”

I think of the Atacama Desert as the driest outside of outsides. It’s a place where you can’t help consider how easy it would be to disappear. You can walk for hours and reach nothing but dunes and cacti until you get lost in a camanchaca, a fog so dense you can’t see your fingers in front of your face.  Then just as abruptly, the fog is gone and it’s not clear why it started or ended and you’re back standing in the driest of deserts and, oddly, all along it is the ocean.


Idra Novey is the author of Exit, Civilian, a 2011 National Poetry Series Selection, and The Next Country, a finalist for the 2008 Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. She’s received awards from the Poetry Society of America, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the PEN Translation Fund. Her recent translations include Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H., forthcoming from New Directions and Penguin UK.  She’s taught in the Bard College Prison Initiative, at NYU, and in Columbia University’s School of the Arts.


NH’s Discovery of the Month:

After the rain, Santiago gleams, especially the mountains framing the capital. And although a clear day is rare here, the smog is a universe, the gray a language, taking you on exhilarating turns and curves, mentally and physically. Its mountains offer poetry as well as hiking, trekking, climbing. This city is conservative and daring. Subtle and bold. Nostalgic and modern. Down-to-earth. It’s cultured and cool. Poised and enthralling. Whether you are walking along its grand avenue Alameda, or by the River Mapocho, or through the Centro Histórico, your mind is quiet and infused with small exhilarating thunders.

In the Historic Quarter or Centro Histórico (consisting of La Moneda & Barrio Cívico, around the Cathedral and Plaza de Armas, La Merced, Santo Domingo and San Agustín), you will see nineteenth-century palaces, towers, cafés, galerías, sandwich bars or fuentes de soda (“soda fountains”) where you can have Chile’s national beer, Escudo, or stop at schoperías—places that sell Schop or draft beer. The men playing chess at the Plaza de Armas are an image that stays in my mind, and of course, no one forgets going to the Cafés con piernas (“coffee with legs”), where you can have espressos with a view . . . of half-naked baristas. No other type of coffee is served, just espresso or cortado (macchiato) in the winter. I love that espressos here are accompanied by a shot of sparkling water. The Cafés con piernas are a unique tradition in Chile and you will see businessmen or tourists there. There are many cafés con piernas in San Agustín including the famous Café Caribe and Café Haití. This distinctive part of the centro is a colorful mix of shoe-shiners and tailors. In the Historic Quarter a certain name surfaces—that of Doña Catalina de los Ríos Lisperguer or La Quintrala, a seventeenth-century legend known for her “pacts with the devil.” She led a life where sex and religion, money and murder fused. She appears in the works of many authors as a gorgeous and lustful redhead whose beauty and wealth were synonymous with her malice.

The many barrios—evolving and shifting architecturally—excite the senses. Some highlights: Barrio Dieciocho (Palacio Cousiño and Confitería Torres—confitería is a local term for bistro—is in a gorgeous building and for decades socialites, intellectuals, and especially politicians have gone there); Barrio Bellavista & San Cristóbal (La Chascona or “woman with the scruffy hair” is the Noble laureate Pablo Neruda’s Santiago residence, built in the 1950s—the name was inspired by Neruda’s first wife, Matilde Urrutia’s, famous hairdo. Neruda had two other houses, both on the coast: La Sebastiana, on top of Cerro Bellavista in Valparaíso and the Isla Negra House which has a stunning ocean view and an intriguing collection of seashells, mascarones de proa etc.). Barrio República (Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende); and around Iglesia de San Francisco or Barrio Paris-Londres, is the Great Synagogue of Santiago and the Israeli Cultural Centre.

Barrio Lastarria (Parque Forestal, Museo de Artes Visuales, Museo de Bellas Artes—since 1880, making it the oldest in Latin America—,Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Casa Naranja). Barrio Brasil (Biblioteca de Santiago, Quinta Normal—the capital’s oldest public park, and the impressive cultural and art space, the Centro Cultural Matucana 100 or M100). Santiago Oriente (Galería Animal, Isabel Aninat Galería de Arte, Galería Patricia Ready and Galería A.M.S. Marlborough. But the most dazing cultural space is the Museo de la Moda, privately financed by Jorge Yarur Bascuñán, whose family originally came from Bethlehem).

I’ve always been connected to Chile in one way or another—initially because many family members from my town of origin, Bethlehem, live in Chile, and later because the city has kept me under its spell due to its resilience, ever-changing architecture and imaginative verve. Growing up, I knew many Bethlehemite exiles and exiles from the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour in Chile, and especially Santiago—my grandfather’s sister being one of them. Today, the Palestinian community in Chile is the largest outside of the Arab world, estimated at half a million. The first immigrants, mostly poor retailers, came in the nineteenth century from all over Palestine. In 1917, they built the Saint George Greek Orthodox Church in an area known today as Patronato; an animated commercial area with many stores and Arabic restaurants. Later a Palestinian social club and sports club were created. The Palestinians played a huge part in developing the textile industry in Chile and by the ’40s many had become successful and innovative business leaders as well as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. More Palestinians went to Chile in 1947-48 with the partition of Palestine, and the creation of the state of Israel. Most of them already had relatives in Chile but came with the intention of returning. Unfortunately, this never happened since the Arab-Israeli conflict worsened with the years. After the 1967 war, more Palestinians were exiled, and many went to Chile, and recently, more refugees found their way here. Today, Palestinians in Chile can be found in all sectors of society from the financial and medical sectors to politics and the arts, like well-known and award-wining writer Diamela Eltit, filmmaker Miguel Littín, and visual artist Alfredo Jaar. The Palestinian Club is one of the biggest private clubs in Santiago. There are also youth organizations, Arab schools where the Palestinian Diaspora can learn Arabic, and the Center for Arab Studies at Universidad de Chile, where university students can also learn Arabic, and study Arabic culture and history. The very exciting sports club Palestino / Club Deportivo Palestino S.A. is the only Palestinian futbol team that plays in a premier league—the club sells fine players to Europe and Latin America.

Some of my fondest memories have been strolls in Patronato, where I’ve stopped to drink coffee at outdoor restaurants which look like they could be in Bethlehem, chatted with people I know in various textile stores, then had sweets and discussed Palestine with the women at the Greek Orthodox church. There is something reassuring yet deeply melancholic about this experience—that all these people, proud and successful, have found another home while sustaining the memory of the Holy Land, while lamenting the fact that today, Bethlehem and its Nativity church lives behind a wall.

Chile has had its share of political turmoil like the other September 11 . . . but this one in 1973, the year General Pinochet led the coup d’état against Salvador Allende's socialist government. But this country, and especially the wondrous city of Santiago is tough. It never ceases to demonstrate its resistance and strength whether during the dark years of dictatorship or the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the country in 2010—a month or so after the earthquake in Haiti. There were hundreds of casualties, and many of Santiago’s old edifices were damaged, including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Teatro Municipal (closed for months, and reopened with a performance by the famous Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez). Whether while visiting the barrios, the Museo de la Chilenidad, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights or passing by the Costanera Center (the tallest skyscraper in South America), the Centro Gabriela Mistral (a 200,000-square-foot art center), or simply, sitting quietly on a bench reading a great book written by a Chilean author—Chile is home to some of the world’s most exciting writers. Think Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda, Roberto Bolaño, Gabriela Mistral, Ariel Dorfman, Diamela Eltit, not to mention the many emerging Chilean authors yet to be discovered by non-Spanish speakers.  

I never leave Santiago. My memories there (and in Chile) stay alive: having lunch at a quaint restaurant in Bellavista with some Chilean writers and Melissa Hotchkiss (one of the founding editors of Barrow Street), dancing with Martin Espada under Estación Central’s stunning Art Nouveau roof in 2004, during the Centennial celebration the country had for Pablo Neruda, (Estación Central is the main railway station, built in 1897 by the French company Schneider & Cie. of which Gustave Eiffel was the head designer), being on a train with Yusef Komunyakaa, and even the Chilean president, reciting Neruda’s poems in the streets of Santiago, or on the beach in Isla Negra with thousands of people, which as you can imagine is like being at a rock concert (except it’s, poetry, yes, poetry). Miracles grow here. This city disregards time, and keeps transforming. And I keep listening to tunes by Víctor Jara, while sipping some Chilean red wine. What else can you ask of a city that is itself a verse.

Published Jul 5, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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