The Earthquake in Chile

September 18, 2015 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Fiction, Ulalume | 0 Comments |

Apart from Japan, Chile is Earthquake Central.  The main picture accompanying this post (by Carlos Varela) shows accumulated rubble about the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago in 2010.  There was another big bad quake yesterday, reportedly one of a recent series, and one of increased magnitude.

It is hard to imagine the experience of an earthquake, along with its equally dangerous sequelae, such as tsunamis, fires, disease and so on.  To get a taste, in safety, read the superb short story by Heinrich von Kleist, The Earthquake in Chile (1807), an account that while fictional, is so rich in nuance and matter-of-facts that it amounts to a prototype of the new journalism.


The story tells of the levelling of Santiago on 13 May 1647, 130 years before Kleist was born.  A stunning nihilistic tone predominates: two lovers’ sins are exposed and they are about to pay when catastrophe strikes the city – the lovers return from the safety of the nearby hills to the only church still standing, giving thanks to the Lord, and are caught up and done down by the prevailing unholy hysteria.  Kleist was here breaking new ground, in evoking the damage to religious belief wrought in the wake of natural disaster.

But his descriptions of the event (apparently inspired by reports of the 1755 Lisbon quake that caused enlightenment thought in the Age of Reason to wobble) resonate and reach out to us: “The ground was heaving under his feet, great cracks appeared in the walls all round him, the whole edifice toppled towards the street and would have crashed down into it had not its slow fall been met by that of the house opposite, and only the arch thus formed by chance prevented its complete destruction….Jerónimo…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 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.”



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