Luis Sepúlveda: His Life and Relationship With Patagonia
1949 – 2020
“One is from where they feel most at home,” the Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda wrote in Patagonia Express, perhaps his signature book about the region. And undoubtedly one place where Sepulveda truly felt very much at home was in Patagonia, a region that was the main subject as well of other popular books by him such as Mundo al Fin del Mundo (World at the End of the World), Últimas Noticias del Sur (Latest News From the South), and Full Circle: A South American Journey.
Sepulveda tragically passed away on April 16 at the age of 70, one of the earliest and most famous victims of Covid-19. Patagon Journal presents this tribute and remembrance of this great writer and passionate defender of Patagonia.
Iwas born by chance i n Ovalle, you have to be born somewhere… i'm from many places, but essentially am Latin American,” Sepúlveda said in an interview with the Universidad de Valparaiso in November 2015. “I've essentially tried to reflect that. Not that I'm a great or not so great writer of fiction, but rather a writer who is fiercely Latin American.”
Exiled by the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile, Sepulveda lived a colorful life with recurrent adventures throughout Patagonia and Latin America. His long and productive writing career included more than 20 novels, children's and travel books that were translated into 52 languages and the subject of several films and documentaries. Books like Patagonia Express, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories ( El Viejo que leía novels de amor) and The Story of A Seagull and The Cat Who Taught Her To Fly ( Historia de una gaviota y del gato que le enseñó a volar) have won scores of international awards, such as Spain's prestigious literary awards El Premio Primavera and Tigre Juan Award.
Sepulveda was proudly leftist in his political leanings, even sporting as his Twitter profile photo an image of him wearing an ushanka – a black, traditional Russian military hat with the hammer and sickle symbol of the Soviet Union – while standing in Moscow's Red Square.
A great writer, a nomad, an environmentalist, a passionate defender and lover of Patagonia.
“When he was 16, Sepúlveda embarked on a trip to the southern tip of Chile. The experience kindled a life-long spirit of adventure.”
His political leanings may stem at least in part from his upbringing. His father José was a militant of the Chilean Communist party; his mother, Irma Calfucura, was a nurse of Mapuche descent; and his grandfather was active in the anarchist political movement in Spain before fleeing to Chile from Franco's Spain.
While studying theater at the University of Chile, Sepúlveda became a student leader during the Salvador Allende government. He was arrested and imprisoned by the Augusto Pinochet military regime but managed to get out of the country in 1977 with the help of the German branch of Amnesty International. Working with a theater group he traveled to Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, before settling in Ecuador, where he spent six months living with a tribe of Shuar Indians as part of a UNESCO research program, an experience which would later inspire him to write The Old Man Who Read Love Stories.
In 1979, Sepúlveda joined the Simon Bolivar International Brigade to support the struggle to oust the Anastasio Somoza regime in Nicaragua. A year later he left for Europe, living in Hamburg for 14 years. He also became an environmental activist, and from 1982 to 1987 worked for Greenpeace as a coordinator and crew member on their ship The Rainbow Warrior.
Sepúlveda eventually settled in 1997 in Gijon, Spain, where he lived for the rest of his life and saw his literary career reach international stardom.
Sepulveda's marriage to Carmen Yáñez is a dramatic love story in itself. Just 19 when they met, he married Yáñez, a radical leftist who would go on to become a poet, in 1971 and they had a son, aptly named, Carlos Lenin. But they separated over “ideological differences, that were irreconcilable” three years later and then lost contact altogether when Sepulveda was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime (Yáñez was also imprisoned by Pinochet's henchmen and went into hiding in Argentina before fleeing to Sweden in 1981). After Sepulveda had three children with a second wife and then became single again, they would reunite twenty years later in Germany. In 2004, Luis and Carmen remarried and remained together until Sepúlveda's death in April after doing battle with the coronavirus for 48 days in a hospital in Oviedo, Spain.