Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Jenny Cockle interviews Isabel Allende.
My Chile is an idealised country, probably frozen in the 1970s; it's the old country where I grew up. Though I was born in Peru my parents were Chilean diplomats (the children of diplomats always take on the nationality of their parents) and we returned to Chile during my childhood to live in my grandfather's house in Calle Cueto, Santiago. That particular house really marked me. All my memories of Chile are rooted there. I suppose I've created a utopian country in my mind, the one you find in Pablo Neruda's poetry.

I returned to Chile recently to make a film for The South Bank Show. It's a different country now, especially Santiago. If you travel out of the city, you can still find some of the old-style Chilean hospitality and kindness that I remember. But Santiago has grown into a huge city of 6 million people; everybody is in such a hurry all the time, and there are terrible problems with traffic and smog. During filming, we took the funicular up the San Cristobel Hill. Fortunately, it was a beautiful sunny day and there was no smog, so we got a great view of the city. We could see the whole of Santiago.

Yet, in many ways, I think the country has changed for the better. For example, we now have excellent roads, great airlines and trains that run on time; it's a very efficient place. You might be robbed of a gold chain, but generally there's little violence. It's a safe, wonderful place for European tourists to visit.

In 10 years, Chile has lowered poverty from 39 per cent to 18 per cent, which is astonishing. It's a very prosperous country, yet there's still a gap between the very rich and the rest of the country, which I find appalling. There is a small group of billionaires who control the economy living up in the Santiago hills in gated communities. They live in another world. The country was much, much poorer when I lived there. Now, at least, you don't see all the shanty towns that used to surround the city.

Although I visit Chile three or four times a year, my home now is in Marin County, north of South Francisco. I've often said that I don't fit in anywhere but I almost feel at home in California. When I return to Chile I feel wonderful initially because I can speak with my native accent; I get the humour and all the little codes that you truly understand only in a place where you've grown up. I love all of that. Then after two weeks, I need to get out. There's no privacy because people recognise me in the street and although they are very kind, you can't work in that kind of atmosphere.

It's funny that Chileans look like such mellow people, but anything can spark off the terrible violence that's in our history. We descend from the Mapuche, one of the bravest tribes in Latin America. They were pacified in the 1800s but they never surrendered and I think that formed the spirit of the nation.

I've travelled all over the country - to Easter Island and Patagonia in the south and to the desert in the north. Chile is a great destination to explore but it's a long way away from Europe, so you'll need at least two weeks there.

There's not much of interest in Santiago, but about an hour and a half away is the coastal town of Isla Negra, where you can visit the former home of Neruda, now a museum. He was a collector of all kinds of junk. In his day I would have called it junk but now he's dead, it's "a collection". His poetry had a great influence on Chile. People go there to pay homage and some even stand and recite his poems by heart.

But if I were visiting Chile for the first time, I would go south, to the lakes, the forest, the volcanoes and the island of Chiloe, which is actually an archipelago. If I had more than two weeks, I would add the south of Patagonia, in particular the national park, Torres del Paine, which is surrounded by the most beautiful mountains. Fly to the city of Punta Arenas, and from there, drive for six or seven hours into Patagonia until you reach the wonderful eco-tourist park and hotel Torres del Paine. You need to stay for at least five days because there's such a lot to see: glaciers, mountains. It's the most beautiful landscape in the world. My son says the best part of Chile is the desert up in the north around San Pedro de Atacama; I agree that the desert is fantastic, but I don't think it's as stunning as the south.

Many people come to Chile during the summer in Europe or the US, because it's our winter and we can offer great winter sports. There is also some wonderful fishing to be had. In summer, there are lovely coastal towns to visit in the north such as Antofagasta and La Serena. These are picturesque little towns with beautiful beaches, but the water is really cold. In the south there are no real beaches but you can go to the lakes, which are beautiful. It's a wonderful sight to see the volcanoes reflected on the water.

I grew up in an area of Santiago called Providencia, where my parents still live. My happiest times were spent during the time I was living there, when I was working as a journalist on a magazine called Paula. I was young and still in love with my first husband, and we had two small children. We lived in a tiny house. We had no money, but at the time, the country was changing. The three years when my uncle Salvador Allende and his government were in power were so interesting. It was the beginning of the 1970s, with the sexual revolution, great music, hippies...

I stayed in Chile until about a year after the military coup of 1973, and although it was very sad to leave, I had no choice. I just couldn't have lived under Pinochet's regime. So I went to Venezuela for what I thought was going to be a short time - I never quite unpacked - but I ended up living there for 13 years.

Throughout that time, I was always looking south and hoping to return to Chile as soon as we had a democracy again. But by the time we did, I had met my second husband, William, and was living in the United States. I don't think about what my life would have been like if I'd stayed in Chile - you can't think like that. What if I'd stayed in Venezuela?

It feels natural to keep my Chilean history alive in my books. I don't ever say I'm going to write a book about this or that, but I sit down on 8 January each year and something comes to me. My first novel, The House of the Spirits, started off as a letter to my dying grandfather. And my book Paula started off as a letter to my daughter, who had fallen into a coma. I've just written a memoir based on the letters I've exchanged with my mother over many years. So letters are very important in my life.

I still love my work. I love telling stories and I love the silence that the story requires. I'm not a very social person. I'm not introverted or shy, but I enjoy my privacy and spending time alone. When I'm writing, I don't always feel in control because the story has a way of going in totally unexpected directions. As I work, the characters start shaping up in very different ways. People often want a happy ending but I can't do that. It's not about a happy ending or a bad ending; it's just an open ending. Tomorrow things may be different. Read More

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