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Chilean earthquakes through a writer's eyes -- not Bolaño but Kleist

March 4, 2010 | 12:14 pm


This week, in a post about the 8.8 earthquake that struck Chile over the weekend, GalleyCat quoted the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño on the unbearable lightness of seismicity.

"Sometimes," Bolaño observed, "the earth shakes. ... The epicenter of the quake is somewhere in the north or the south, but I can still hear the shaking. Sometimes I feel dizzy. Sometimes the quake goes on for longer than usual and people take shelter under doorways or under stairs or they rush out into the streets. Is there a solution?"

That's a nice enough riff, but when I think of writers on Chilean earthquakes, it's less Bolaño who comes to mind than the German author Heinrich von Kleist, whose story "The Earthquake in Chile," published in 1807, takes place in the immediate aftermath of another 8.8 quake, which hit Santiago in 1647. Kleist is widely regarded as a romantic, but really, he's too cynical about human nature, too aware of the influence of coincidence and the capricious rectitude that passes as morality.

In "The Earthquake in Chile," a couple condemned for their forbidden love are reunited when the massive quake frees them; they move through the shattered landscape of Santiago with their infant son, only to be brutally killed by an angry mob after a sermon at the city's only standing church blames them for the cataclysm. It's a bleak vision, but not altogether alien even now; just look at comments by Pat Robertson and the Rev. Bill Shuler in the wake of January's Haiti earthquake that somehow God's wrath had been the cause.

But more to the point is the acuity of Kleist's writing, his evocation of the uncertainty and terror of a massive earthquake, which mirrors, in its own way, the uncertainty and terror of being alive. He writes:

He was scarcely outside when a second tremor completely demolished the already subsiding street. Panic-stricken, with no idea of how to save himself from this general doom, he ran on over wreckage and fallen timber towards one of the nearest city gates, while death assailed him from all directions. Here another house caved in, scattering its debris far and wide and driving him into a side street; here flames, flashing through clouds of smoke, were licking out of every gable and chased him in terror into another; here the Mapocho river, overflowing its banks, rolled roaring towards him and forced him into a third. Here lay a heap of corpses, there a voice still moaned under the rubble, here people were screaming on burning house-tops, there men and animals were struggling in the floodwater, here a brave rescuer tried to help and there stood another man, pale as death, speechlessly extending his trembling hands to heaven. When Jerónimo had reached the gate and climbed a hill beyond it, he fell down at the top in a dead faint.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Santiago, Chile, on Feb. 27. Credit: Carlos Espinoza / Associated Press