The railway in Chile and the crossroads of historical and poetic memory


“In the manner of the train station, my situation is full of farewells,” wrote Pablo de Rokha in Canto del Macho Anciano, one of the most extraordinary poems about old age written in Spanish. The train stations in Chile today don’t even remind us of those goodbyes because they are simply gone. His poetic roar has been replaced by that of the buses and trucks that populate our geography. Above all the trucks, which with no small amount of aggressiveness have already been moving the country or have been paralyzing it for weeks. A few trucks crossed on the road subjugate a town and turn it into a narrow, long and crowded strip of asphalt.

Various hypotheses have been advanced on the dismantling of the State Railways under the dictatorship and on its non-reconstruction in democracy. The few attempts have been frustrated, despite a significant injection of resources. Worse still, totally insufficient clarifications have been made, such as those of former president Lagos, master of the genre. It seems that the much-quoted “political will” does not exist, but it should be specified who and why. The truth is that the lack of a railway service hurts and deeply lacks a means of transport highly appropriate to our geography and which has undergone revolutionary improvements all over the world, becoming a vehicle that is less polluting, much faster, more comfortable and more safe transport by truck or bus. In a well thought-out system, the latter usually perform a complementary task.

This mediocre present contrasts with the brilliant past of the railway in Chile. In this regard, we can consider two great dimensions of memory, the historical and the poetic. In the case of the first it should be remembered that trains were considered – not only in Chile, but throughout the world – one of the most revolutionary inventions of the modern era. Karl Marx claimed that the English railway factory Robert Stephenson & Co, the first of its kind, dwarfed the god Vulcan, master of fire and blacksmith of iron (Introduction of 1857). Thus, the technological marvels of the present have surpassed the mythic forces of the past, but Marx did not forget to add that this power was not attributable to the painfully exploited Scottish railway workers, subjected to 14, 18 and 20 hour days. Three of them, tried for a serious and fatal accident due to exhaustion, affirmed before the judge that they were “ordinary men and not cyclops” (Das Kapital, vol. I, chap. 8.3).

In Chile, the construction of the railway was considered the maximum expression of the progress of the second half of the 19th century. Vicuña Mackenna likened it to the “fast path that the human lineage travels”. The opening of the Malleco viaduct would have been “the most daring and beautiful of Chilean railway works of art”, according to the engineer Santiago Marín. Indeed, this extraordinary work constituted, according to a witness of the time, the lawyer and soldier, José Miguel Varela, “an epic of Chilean engineering and workers, since the nearly fifteen hundred tons of pieces fit to the millimeter l ‘one to the other’ (G. Parvex, A veteran of three wars, p. 347). When Balmaceda inaugurated it on October 26, 1890, shortly before the start of the Civil War, he did not forget the Mapuche, emphasizing that “with the railway we have brought the population and the capital to the southern region, with the initiative of the government, the temple where one learns morality and welcomes the idea of ​​God, the school where the notion of citizenship and work is taught, and the regular institutions in whose shadow industry grows” (El Colono, Angol, 10.27.1890, cit. .by Jorge Pinto, “Dying at the border”, page 128). Thus, school and the railway will constitute the two pillars of progress in southern Chile and of the relationship with the Mapuche, whom he calls “friends”.

There is an extensive genealogy of great contemporary storytellers and poets who have addressed train-related themes in their works. The train was the setting for or the beginning of exciting thrillers such as The Train to Istanbul (1934), by Graham Greene; Murder on the Orient Express (1934), by Agatha Christie or Strangers on a train, by Patricia Highsmith (1950), all of which were also made into films. This list, necessarily very incomplete, cannot miss the unforgettable sequel of El señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias or the great story -in Kafkaesque tone- “El Guardagujas” by the Mexican Juan José Arreola.

In Chile there have been many writers related to railways and trains. With his modern latria Vicente Huidobro has not forgotten the trains in his poetry; not even Joaquín Edwards Bello and Jenaro Prieto. The southern train, also sung by Los Prisioneros, has above all the names of poets born just south of Santiago. Neruda’s poetry is crossed by trains. From the paternal train of childhood that appears over and over again: “The brusque father returns/ from his trains:/ we recognized/ at night the whistle/ of the locomotive/ piercing the rain/ with an errant knife,/ a nocturnal wail.. . ”, up to the train of the journey of permanent initiation: “Oh journey of my / life, / once again in full light, / in full proportion and poetry / I go by train learning the land / where the ocean calls me” .

Jorge Teillier is another magnificent train poet. Trains cross his poems supported in verse like rails. The poem in the book “Night Trains” sums up his railway vocation: “We will be able to know / that nothing is worth more / than the blade nibbled by a rabbit / or the nettles that grow / between the cracks in the walls. / But we will never stop running / to accompany the children / to greet the passing trains”.

Violeta and Nicanor Parra also do it from Chillán or Santiago. Violeta: “The train arrives at Alameda / with an infernal zalagarda!, the whistle and the bell / the creaking of the wheels / the conductor turns / shouts the arrival, / people worry / pile up their suitcases; / My God, Enriqueta thinks: / I’m already in the capital”. Nicanor comes and goes by train to visit “sacred places”, but he has an unforgettable train, a metaphor for the railway crisis, the “INSTANT TRAIN PROJECT / between Santiago and Puerto Montt”, that train whose locomotive is in Puerto Montt and the last car in Santiago, so just get on to be at the point of arrival, with a single observation: “this type of train (direct) / is only for one-way trips”.

This genealogy and geography of the poetic memory of the railways in Chile has one of its best expressions in José Ángel Cuevas, poet of today. In “The Destruction of the State Railways, Plants and Materials,” Cuevas says: Why did they destroy the State Railways / if National Electricity powered them / and 20 full wagons traveled their lines like stars / at night? // Why did the circulation of branches / Perquenco Maule Constitución and Villarrica stop? // the Train to Iquique the mining train for 6 days and 6 nights / for the Big Night of the Desert populated by ghosts // they had no budget // the southern tracks are very damaged / AND THEY DON’T REPAIR THEM // those poor wagons of the so-called Expreso / covered in mold broken seats dirty toilets / scabs of carrion howl the rails and jump between Temuco and Puerto Montt / Perquenco Antilhue / its rivers / its hills of wheat and trees
IT WAS CHILE THAT PASSED THROUGH ITS OPEN WINDOWS / and it doesn’t happen anymore.

One might think that a dictator (as the Valdivian poet Jorge Torres reminded us) who muttered in an interview: “I hate poetry, neither reading it nor writing it, nor listening to it, nor anything”, would have found a way to put an end to poetry also destroying the trains. It should be remembered that the worst delegate rector of the University of Chile, José Luis Federici, whose management met with the almost unanimous rejection of the entire university community, was one of the main responsible for the dismantling of the State Railways, in a new and curious cross between cultural phobia and railway phobia.

Of course, recovering the trains is not just a poetic or patrimonial problem. It is also a problem of democracy, sustainability and efficiency. Also a strategic question. A network of public roads on which modern state railway trains pass is no longer just a reason for legitimate complaints and understandable nostalgia. It has become an urgent problem, which does not allow for new postponements in its solution. Chile cannot continue to be – as in “Hanjo, the woman with the fan”, by Mishima, or in the homonymous song by Serrat – a modern Penelope waiting for a train that will never arrive.

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  • The content expressed in this opinion column is the sole responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial line or position of The meter.



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