Tales from Valparaiso (and beyond) No. 8

A Chilean friend here exclaimed over lunch the other day: “I'm fed up with all this '73 stuff!” - yes, we're all fed up with it but it keeps coming back – like a recurring nightmare. Two public events have happened this week to bring it back to the fore – firstly, the national newspapers have published, for the first time, a story which the poet Pablo Neruda's chauffeur has been trying to tell for years which suggests that Neruda, who died two weeks after the coup, didn't die of the prostate cancer for which he was at the time being treated, but was assassinated. I'm absolutely not a conspiracy theorist but this story is convincing. The chauffeur says he was called to the hospital one morning by Neruda who was worried about a mysterious injection he had been administered. It was soon after that that he died. While visiting Neruda at the hospital that morning, the chauffeur was asked to go and pick up a prescription from a chemist's – but not from the nearby one, because they wouldn't have this particular drug, he was told, but from a specific one further away. Outside that specific chemist's he was attacked and woke to find himself imprisoned in the national stadium. Naturally there was no way he could then tell his story [it did make it into his local paper not so long ago, but the nationals chose not to take it up]. The chauffeur was adamant that Neruda's cancer was under control at the time, and that he was planning to go to Mexico to start a campaign to influence governments around the world to oppose the dictatorship. There's no doubt that, as a poet of world renown, ambassador and Nobel Prize winner, he, if anyone, could have had influence. Now there are moves to exhume Neruda's remains to conduct tests.

The other event was a dinner two days ago in Providencia, a smart part of Santiago, in honour of a republication of a book. The book in question is called “Miguel Krassnoff – Imprisoned for Serving Chile”. Miguel Krassnoff was convicted of multiple human rights abuses and is currently serving a term of 144 years in prison here. He was in charge of the infamous Villa Grimaldi and has been identified by numerous victims of torture as the perpetrator. He was charged in 23 separate cases, which officials said involved 128 deaths or disappearances and 18 instances of torture. The dinner was attended by about 150 people, including the local mayor, Cristián Labbé, who made a speech of support for Krassnoff. If you look at Krassnoff's website you find that he is very preoccupied by the fact that he is from a Cossack family. His father and grandfather fought, as white Russians, with the Nazis and were executed in Russia after the war. Miguel and his mother and grandmother managed to make their escape to Chile. There's obviously a hugely traumatic background which you can see has fed into his obsession with all things military [The website plays military music as you view it.] The website is incoherent and truly unhinged, with a number of vows to “God” and obsessive boasts of his proud Cossack background. Anyway, news of the dinner leaked and about 400 protesters turned out – ending up, as always here, with a battle with the police who were there to protect the diners. Tear gas, injured policemen, a number of arrests...

Musically I've done nothing remarkable. We went to hear Jean Luc Ponty, with his American Band, at the University of Santa María with Adriana and Dexter. Adriana had grown up with his music in the seventies and eighties and loved the gig. Ann was of another opinion: “Why didn't you tell me he was crap?” The main thing that was wrong, in fact, was that the sound was bad – and far too loud. I couldn't enjoy it much either. Later, looking up websites and You Tube clips, Ann found much to like. Not the greatest evening – though we finished up with a pleasant tortilla and jug of fruit wine (which they do extraordinarily well – red wine and strawberry) at El Pimenton before tearing back up the hill (always scary) in a taxi.

And now I'm huddled in my room, writing two new string quartet arrangements for Jack Bruce which are to be played at Celtic Connections in January - wonderful songs...but I really ought to get out more...

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