Among my more distinguished friends in the Quebrada del Alvarado was the late writer and diplomat Robert Otaegui Echeverria (1919-2009).
At the time of the military coup (1973) Roberto was head of protocol in the Popular Unity government and a close friend of President Salvador Allende. He can be spotted in a History Channel documentary alighting from an aircraft with Dr Allende at Moscow. While some people might have had trouble guessing that he had ever been left-wing, Roberto kept a photograph of “Salvador” in the hall of his country house. He did not believe, incidentally, the official version, accepted by Allende’s family, that the Marxist doctor had shot himself during the bombardment of the Moneda (the presidential palace in Santiago). Roberto noticed blood stains on the sofa of a “secret room” – evidence that Allende had been murdered.
As an accomplished story-teller and author of historical novels, Roberto was offered a post at a Spanish university but declined to go into exile. Instead, he took himself off to the Quebrada to finish building the stone mansion he had designed himself, running up a black flag on a tower emblazoned with his coat of arms and arming himself with a laser pistol.
A charming man to some and an opportunist to others, Roberto was extremely kind to me despite his dislike for the English. His library, contained antiquarian editions of Sir Walter Scott, “the last English writer of any note.” Ironically, his gentlemanly hospitality and “open” house made me feel less isolated as a foreigner. When I pulled the rope on the old convent bell at “Fairies’ Corner,” it was as though I was back in my parents’ village in Yorkshire calling on our one of our friends in the village.
Slight of stature with a clipped beard and cockily-tilted beret, he was an upper-middle class Chilean, of Basque descent, cultured, lavishly generous and a great conversationalist.
An atheist absolved on his death bed by a Catholic priest when the penitent could no longer remember his sins, Roberto had long believed in fairies and dwarfs hidden on an inaccessible plateau. Hence the name of his house.
I was introduced to this proud, eccentric old man by two of his nine children, Rodrigo and “Pancho” (Francisco), from whose quarry I bought stones for building my own house. They asked me what my wife’s surname was and on hearing it was Echeverria (their grandmother’s name), they invited me for a drink at the castle. Roberto was indeed a distant relative of Loreto’s and affectionately called her “my niece.”
Roberto’s anecdotes were amusing though often repeated. He published some of them in an embellished and fictional form with the title “Diplomatic Tales.” One story, possibly autobiographical, was about a consul in Central America who sold passports and frequently locked himself up in his sweltering bedroom to drink gallons of rum. Roberto won major Chilean and Spanish literary prizes for his work including “Las Indias de Cain,” an historical novel based on the life of the conquistador Diego de Almagro.
Roberto was born in Valparaiso. His father, a landowner, gambled away the family fortune and Roberto was educated at a state-maintained Catholic school. His nanny “stole” some of the cash his father occasionally won at cards and deposited it in a bank account she’d opened for him. This nest egg came in handy when he chose to study architecture at university but failed to qualify “as I couldn’t count.”
He was in a bar in Santiago shortly after the fall of the left-leaning General Del Campos when a young man challenged the drinkers who were celebrating the dictator’s downfall. They turned on the dissident with anger. Roberto intervened and saved him from a beating. When the General (who, incidentally, founded the paramilitary police of Chile) returned to power, he sent for Roberto. The young man he’d defended in the pub was his son Carlos. Roberto was rewarded with the post of Chilean Consul in Argentina. Sent later to Spain, he met Franco, whom he regarded as intelligent in contrast to the equally brutal General Pinochet, who didn’t mind the jokes told about him until they were explained.
At some stage in his career he founded the Anarchist Party of Chile. He liked to recall one of their songs: Vamos al Vaticano con una bomba en la mano! (Let’s go to the Vatican with a bomb in our hands!)
Later, I believe, Roberto became a National Socialist and was close to the late Nazi leader in Chile, Miguel Serrano, a diplomatic chum who had been ambassador in India, also a refined and cultured man. I have reason to think that Roberto was also a Freemason (as was Allende) at some time or another but of course never mentioned it, though his best friend in the Quebrada, “Chuco” who had studied pig-breeding in Hull, was openly on the square. To digress, as we talkative old people do, I went to Chuco’s burial in his garden when one pious daughter sang “Ave Maria” and the other, a bold horsewoman dubbed “Catherine” because of her low-class lover “Heathcliff” said “Ciao Chuco!” and laughed her beautiful head off. I received a card from the family saying that Chuco was enjoying his new life “on the mountain with the fairies and dwarfs.”
Perhaps the greatest contribution made by Roberto Otaegui to Chile is that part of his collection of Pre-Columbine Andean antiquities which was acquired by his friend the director of the museum in Santiago. Many of these remarkable pieces from the Maya and Nazca civilizations were on display in “Fairies’ Corner” alongside Spanish tapestries and old masters’. The spacious living-room was a veritable museum itself. Some of the artefacts were robbed from tombs in El Salvador. Roberto sent them home in the diplomatic bag.
For a socialist, Roberto he didn’t have much affection for the common people. In fact he had no inhibitions about calling them “shitty plebs” for being “reactionary” and drove fast through the village, despite having a glass eye, oblivious of – or unaware of - people he ought to have given a lift to. When stopped by the police, he produced a piece of paper with a Salvadorian letterhead begging the authorities to be cognizant of his legal status of diplomatic immunity. This always did the trick.
He had managed to acquire the mountain where the fairies and dwarfs lived. This had been achieved not by purchase from the community or state but by claiming it as his. This can be done with unregistered land as long as the claim is published three times in the newspaper and no one objects. Twenty other properties in the Quebrada belonged to him. The owners had begged him to buy their plots in order to pay for an urgent operation or settle a debt. These bits and pieces of real estate were now worth a fortune.
The funds he used to snap up land didn’t come from his modest pension but from a million dollar award he received from the Banco Santander over its embargoing of his Santiago house against the debts of a business partner who named it as collateral without being mentioned in the deeds. It is very unusual for a bank to lose a law suit in Chile (or perhaps anywhere) but Roberto bribed three Supreme Court judges with $50,000. So much for the international image that Chile projects of judicial probity compared to other Latin American countries.
Personally, I benefited from Roberto’s cunning and friends in high places. About ten years after buying “La Ermita” I learned that the Spanish-owned electricity monopoly planned to ruin my view of the chain of mountains behind the house with a number of pylons. This was not only an ecological disaster but would also have lowered the value of the place. I joined a group of protesters and blocked the road with my pick-up, forcing the workers to go home for the day.
The company’s helicopter dropped a couple of men with chain-saws in my wood. When I scrambled up with Rupert my Labrador to challenge them, I was told, “Don’t interfere, you prat” (literally, “big egg”). I gave them a damn good thrashing with my stick. They ran like rabbits, the helicopter circling overhead to rescue them from the maddened gringo. Although Rupert was too good-natured to bite them, his deep bark was enough to put the fear of God up them. I wouldn’t have dared to attack them without him and I only did so out of temper. It’s amazing how a born coward can be brave on his own patch.
One of the pylons was plonked on Roberto’s mountain. He couldn’t even see it from his garden but received the equivalent of $100,000 in compensation. Several peasants who had these health-threatening towers planted metres from their shacks were paid miserable sums, for which they were eternally grateful. The community directorate received a big sum, some of which my English friend Simon (see the post “Son of a Preacher Man”) wanted to set up a gym “to keep youth off the street” but the money disappeared.
An inspection revealed that an electricity cable passed a metre or so inside my wood, though far from the house. I called the company but they denied it. I discussed the matter with Roberto over a lunch at which the chief of the government environmental body was present. They gave me the name of a lawyer in Valparaiso who specialized in Human Rights and he won a settlement of $10,000 for first five years and $10,000 annually thereafter. I thought I’d landed a pension not to be sniffed at. Nothing happens in Chile when they say it will happen. But Lo and behold, five years later the helicopters appeared again and carried off all the pylons, leaving their concrete bases to scar the “cerro.”
A womanizer in his time, Roberto was still in love with his first wife Alicia. She was a sleep-walker who died of Alzheimer’s at around fifty. His second wife Yvonne was the daughter of a Belgian diplomat and around thirty years his junior. She was an attractive blonde and charming hostess who encouraged my visits because Roberto was bored with his drunken, sponging sons and his only friends lived in Santiago. It seemed Yvonne was bored too. She was caught by a maid in bed with Chuco in the room next to Roberto’s. I think this influenced Roberto’s decision to do nothing to settle his affairs before he died, leaving her at the mercy of his rapacious children.
He was far from the sentimental, doting Chilean father. He considered the two hard-drinking sons who lived nearby “older” than himself. I regularly went to see him when he became ill with cancer, both at his house and a local clinic where he cut a sorry figure, a man once so grand, among the poor he despised while championing their cause politically. In Latin America, as I think in France, politicians belong to one group or another according to their attitude to the Church. The main thing is that they stick together, feather their nests and hate the other side.
He relapsed into a nostalgic interest in palaeontology, spending hours in a wheel-chair studying an encyclopaedia as though mugging up for an exam. The nurse had forgotten to change his socks, so I didn’t want to stay for long. He opened a chest and pulled out a bunch of medals, ribbons and sashes presented to him by such countries as Cuba and Venezuela.
“These will be important mementoes for your children,” I said.
“What children? I don’t have any. These honours must be sent back to where they came from.”
“Surely you have a favourite son or daughter?”
“Yes, but he’s the worst.”
Shortly after this sad remark Roberto was abducted from the house he loved, whisked away by Ricardo and a brother-in-law to a nursing home whose location was concealed from Yvonne.
I took the train with her to the funeral in Valparaiso. Roberto’s family arrived with the body and the mourners mingled uneasily as the coffin was slid into the family vault in the Catholic cemetery. Roberto had long deliberated on whether to be buried there or in the Dissidents’ cemetery founded by the British Protestants in the nineteenth century. Being of the Masonic persuasion, he ought to have been laid to rest there but he preferred to be with Alicia.
The following day Ricardo threw Yvonne out of the old cottage in the grounds she believed had been put in her name. He threatened her with a revolver and called her a Belgian bitch. He stripped the house of its treasures, accusing Yvonne of illegally selling some pieces. She left to live by a lake in the south of Chile, leaving her claims with a local lawyer who followed the usual practice of working for both parties.
Pancho, the nicer of the two brothers who owned the quarry and a Don Juan who had seduced half the girls of the local town, fell ill with Alzheimer’s. As a callous joke, Ricardo gave him worthless notes from El Salvador to buy pisco at the “Don’t Forget Me” restaurant. He forgot to put his trousers on, his famously gargantuan balls dangling like a bunch of onions.
Pancho went missing one night and was never seen again. Before his own death, Chuco claimed Pancho had been got out of the way by the other members of the family, who thought his incapacity would hold up probate.
Police combed the Quebrada with tracker dogs which had been used by Chilean forces in the Haiti earthquake. Simon denounced the plotters to the carabineros major in Limache but the case was never solved. Ricardo died a couple of years later after his wife, a rich Bolivian, went back to her country. Although I suspected he was a fratricide, I greeted him at the supermarket, telling him that Roberto’s friendship had meant a lot to me. I’m not sure why I spoke to him. It was perhaps a way of honouring his father. He thanked me for chanting “Kyrie eleison” at the burial, which I did at the request of Yvonne.
“Fairies’ Corner” is boarded up and going to rack and ruin. Plans for turning the house into an exclusive mental home have not been realized.