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Isabel Allende is one of Latin America’s foremost writers. In this excerpt from her 2003 memoire My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, Allende takes us on an evocative tour of her homeland from north to south.
We Chileans still feel our bond with the soil, like the campesinos we once were. Most of us dream of owning a piece of land, if for nothing more than to plant a few worm-eaten heads of lettuce. Our most important newspaper, El Mercurio, publishes a weekly agricultural supplement that informs the public in general of the latest insignificant pest found on the potatoes or about the best forage for improving milk production. Its readers, who are planted in asphalt and concrete, read it voraciously, even though they have never seen a live cow.
In the broadest terms, it can be said that my long and narrow homeland can be broken up into four very different regions. The country is divided into provinces with beautiful names, but the military, who may have had difficulty memorizing them, added numbers for identification purposes. I refuse to use them because a nation of poets cannot have a map dotted with numbers, like some mathematical delirium. So let’s talk about the four large regions, beginning with the norte grande, the “big north” that occupies a fourth of the country; inhospitable and rough, guarded by high mountains, it hides in its entrails an inexhaustible treasure of minerals.
I traveled to the north when I was a child, and I’ve never forgotten it, though a half-century has gone by since then. Later in my life I had the opportunity to cross the Atacama Desert a couple of times, and although those were extraordinary experiences, my first recollections are still the strongest. In my memory, Antofagasta, which in Quechua means “town of the great salt lands,” is not the modern city of today but a miserable, out-of-date port that smelled like iodine and was dotted with fishing boats, gulls, and pelicans. In the nineteenth century it rose from the desert like a mirage, thanks to the industry producing nitrates, which for several decades were one of Chile’s principal exports. Later, when synthetic nitrate was invented, the port was kept busy exporting copper, but as the nitrate companies began to close down, one after another, the pampa became strewn with ghost towns. Those two words—”ghost town”—gave wings to my imagination on that first trip.
I recall that my family and I, loaded with bundles, climbed onto a train that traveled at a turtle’s pace through the inclement Atacama Desert toward Bolivia. Sun, baked rocks, kilometers and kilometers of ghostly solitudes, from time to time an abandoned cemetery, ruined buildings of adobe and wood. It was a dry heat where not even flies survived. Thirst was unquenchable. We drank water by the gallon, sucked oranges, and had a hard time defending ourselves from the dust, which crept into every cranny. Our lips were so chapped they bled, our ears hurt, we were dehydrated. At night a cold hard as glass fell over us, while the moon lighted the landscape with a blue splendor. Many years later I would return to the north of Chile to visit Chuquicamata, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, an immense amphitheater where thousands of earth-colored men, working like ants, rip the mineral from stone. The train ascended to a height of more than four thousand meters and the temperature descended to the point where water froze in our glasses. We passed the silent salt mine of Uyuni, a white sea of salt where no bird flies, and others where we saw elegant flamingos. They were brush strokes of pink among salt crystals glittering like precious stones.
The so-called norte chico, or “little north,” which some do not classify as an actual region, divides the dry north from the fertile central zone. Here lies the valley of Elqui, one of the spiritual centers of the Earth, said to be magical. The mysterious forces of Elqui attract pilgrims who come there to make contact with the cosmic energy of the universe, and many stay on to live in esoteric communities. Meditation, Eastern religions, gurus of various stripes, there’s something of everything in Elqui. It’s like a little corner of California. It is also from Elqui that our pisco comes, a liquor made from the muscatel grape: transparent, virtuous, and serene as the angelic force that emanates from the land. Pisco is the prime ingredient of the pisco sour, our sweet and treacherous national drink, which must be drunk with confidence, though the second glass has a kick that can floor the most valiant among us. We usurped the name of this liquor, without a moment’s hesitation, from the city of Pisco, in Peru. If any wine with bubbles can be called champagne, even though the authentic libation comes only from Champagne, France, I suppose our pisco, too, can appropriate a name from another nation. The norte chico is also home to La Silla, one of the most important observatories in the world, because the air there is so clear that no star—either dead or yet to be born—escapes the eye of its gigantic telescope. Apropos of the observatory, someone who has worked there for three decades told me that the most renowned astronomers in the world wait years for their turn to scour the universe. I commented that it must be stupendous to work with scientists whose eyes are always on infinity and who live detached from earthly miseries, but he informed me that it is just the opposite: astronomers are as petty as poets. He says they fight over jam at breakfast. The human condition never fails to amaze.
The valle central is the most prosperous area of the country, a land of grapes and apples, where industries are clustered and a third of the population lives in the capital city. Santiago was founded in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia. After walking for months through the dry north, it seemed to him that he’d reached the Garden of Eden. In Chile everything is centralized in the capital, despite the efforts of various governments that over the span of half a century have tried to distribute power among the provinces. If it doesn’t happen in Santiago, it may as well not happen at all, although life in the rest of the country is a thousand times calmer and more pleasant.
The zona sur, the southern zone, begins at Puerto Montt, at 40 degrees latitude south, an enchanted region of forests, lakes, rivers, and volcanoes. Rain and more rain nourishes the tangled vegetation of the cool forests where our native trees rise tall, ancients of thousandyear growth now threatened by the timber industry. Moving south, the traveler crosses pampas lashed by furious winds, then the country strings out into a rosary of unpopulated islands and milky fogs, a labyrinth of fjords, islets, canals, and water on all sides. The last city on the continent is Punta Arenas, wind-bitten, harsh, and proud; a high, barren land of blizzards.
Being so far from everything gives us Chileans an insular mentality, and the majestic beauty of the land makes us take on airs. We believe we are the center of the world-in our view, Greenwich should have been set in Santiago-and we turn our backs on Latin America, always comparing ourselves instead to Europe. We are very self-centered: the rest of the universe exists only to consume our wines and produce soccer teams we can beat.
My advice to the visitor is not to question the marvels he hears about my country, its wine, and its women, because the foreigner is not allowed to criticize-for that we have more than fifteen million natives who do that all the time. If Marco Polo had descended on our coasts after thirty years of adventuring through Asia, the first thing he would have been told is that our empanadas are much more delicious than anything in the cuisine of the Celestial Empire. (Ah, that’s another of our characteristics: we make statements without any basis, but in a tone of such certainty that no one doubts us.) I confess that I, too, suffer from that chilling chauvinism. The first time I visited San Francisco, and there before my eyes were those gentle golden hills, the majesty of forests, and the green mirror of the bay, my only comment was that it looked a lot like the coast of Chile. Later I learned that the sweetest fruit, the most delicate wines, and the finest fish are imported from Chile. Naturally.
Isabel Allende’s books have sold more than 57 million copies and have been translated into 37 languages Allende was born in Lima, Peru in 1942 but returned to Chile with her father, a diplomat, at the age of three. She worked as a journalist in Chile until the 1973 military coup, when her uncle, Chilean President Salvador Allende was assassinated. She fled with her husband and children to Venezuela and now lives in California.
From MY INVENTED COUNTRY. Copyright ©2003 by Isabel Allende.
HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. Used by permission.