The Santiago Metro could make any other mass urban-transit system feel like a raddled old whore. I’m staying in a flashy hotel in the upmarket El Golf district, and from the 10th floor this teeming, Latin American capital appears cluttered with the banal forms of mirror-shiny buildings. They transform the city into a desktop covered with modular trays: are there office workers in that one, or paperclips? But the Metro, now there’s a thing. I’ve never come across a subway station with its own preserved-fruit shop and lending library. There are also oil paintings on the platforms, and how clean is that? They’re big, well-lit canvases of seaside views and rural farms, perhaps a little neo-realist for my taste — but you can’t have everything. Hell, in Santiago, if you so desire, you can ride smoothly into the centre of town, while reading a Spanish translation of Ken Follett, and stuffing yourself with peaches in syrup. Moscow, eat your dark heart out.
Downtown, the Torre Entel looms over all. It’s homey to be in a country where a monopolistic telecommunications company has planted a 200-metre-high concrete caber in the ground, then stuck a steely yoghurt pot on top. Perhaps the Torre explains why Chileans are called “the English of Latin America”? It could be this, or it could be the riot-control trucks, complete with rotating water cannons, that patrol the streets around the old presidential palace in the Plaza de Armas. Mmm, so A la recherche de Falls Road.
They have a cosy yet threatening look, these battered, brown, bullet-dimpled trucks. Wire mesh has been artfully shaped over their windscreens and wing mirrors, they circle the square under the blank, granite facades of 1930s office blocks that are also pockmarked by gunfire, on one of which hangs a banner showing a handshake and the one-word slogan: “Mediacion”.
Funny old Chile, eh? The Latin American country that works. The Chileans are sober, industrious then in 1973 they went bonkers, the air force strafed and bombed the presidential place, while inside, the incumbent, Salvador Allende, topped himself. Even now, Santiago feels like a decapitated capital, with the Head of State floating in a jar of preserved fruit.
During the Pinochet years, the Plaza de Armas was tunnelled under to create a paranoid network of dictatorial bunkers, but in recent years there’s been a democratic dividend, and instead of the nation’s history being connived at underground, some of the bunkers have been turned into a Museum of National History.
Decorticated, the presidential palace was rebuilt — but only as a theme park version of itself. Now, through its off-white-walled courtyards, past the plashing fountains, their epaulettes tickled by palm fronds, come marching, astonishing squads of girl-soldiers wearing Ruritanian uniforms: shiny-peaked caps, figure-hugging, off-white tunics, olive-green breeches with satin stripes down the side, blanco-ed bandoliers, patent-leather knee boots with spurs. They’re as yummy-looking as chocolate soldiers, while their male counterparts in the Presidential Guard seem freakishly elongated.
Allende himself is commemorated by a sculpture in front of the Palace, which is of such overpowering ugliness it’s difficult not to conclude that the Chileans revile him with a passion. The once mild and professorial socialist leader is depicted with a horse-brush moustache and spectacles as thick-rimmed as welder’s goggles. He strides forward on his plinth, the sharp lines of his double-breasted suit blurred by a strange, thick membrane, which I stared at for some minutes, before realising that it was meant to be the Chilean flag.
Ah, Santiago! With your quaint old stationers, with your little carts selling motte con huesillo, a traditional soft drink compounded from boiled corn and peach juice, while, in the next precinct, global goths munch flame-grilled Whoppers to the “pop-pop-pop” of automated pedestrian crossings.
At the Church of San Francisco there’s a terrifying shrine. In a gold-framed glass cabinet sits Our Saviour, chopped off at the waist, his hair human, his stigmata spray-painted, and bracketed by mad flower arrangements. Poor Jesus, he looks like a mechanical model at the end of the pier of faith. Put a penny in his box and he’ll start to lick his wounds.
Back at the hotel it’s time for me to feel acute self-pity. The turn-down service has come, and besides ensuring that there are 34 large white pillows on the bed, on top of a white chocolate, they’ve re-enacted a scene from The Shining in the bathroom: five inches of bloody, perfumed bathwater have been drawn, a candle lit on the tile surround, and beside this has been placed a glass of red wine. I’m sure this is meant to be the acme of good service, but instead of feeling pampered I feel freaked out and embattled. The fighter-bombers are strafing the plastic tray, and it’s time for me to fall on my paperclip.