They posed for the photographer smiling, some put their heads together, others held hands or waist, arm around shoulder … However, on their faces, in their eyes, you could see the traces of the disease, of drug treatments, electric shocks … At the beginning of the nineties of the last century the Chilean Paz Errázuriz, a photographer, and Diamela Eltit, a writer, worked together on a project: to tell in black and white images and in poetic texts what they were like the couples of men and women who lived and loved each other in the Philippe Pinel psychiatric hospital, in the city of Putaendo, in the center of the country, about 200 kilometers from Santiago. The result was a book, The heart attack of the soul, published in Chile in 1994 and now arriving in Spain for the first time. In addition, it marks the debut of the Comisura publishing house, made up of three young women: Laura C. Vela, Carlota Visier and Carol Caicedo. A trio that has also launched a quarterly magazine, called This is a body, on photography and literature, which will dedicate each issue to a part of the human body.
Errázuriz (Santiago, 77 years old) tells by email that in that project he had “the freedom to which he aspired to take the photographs.” The sensation that she recalls, on the one hand, “is the abandonment of the enclosure”, but on the other, she established a close relationship with those people whom she frequented for a long time and who called her, affectionately, “Aunt Paz”, while they kissed her and embraced. The center had been a tuberculosis hospital in the 1940s. When vaccination subdued this disease, it was transformed in 1968 into a madhouse that received patients from different centers, many of them destitute.
The beginning of this four-handed work were the images taken for almost two years by Errázuriz, a magnificent photographer, who has focused her career on marginal figures of society. Added to this was the novelist and essayist Diamela Eltit (Santiago, 72 years old), National Prize for Literature in her country in 2018: “Paz told me about her photos, she invited me to write and I proposed not to write about the photos, but that we make a dual book, on the one hand his photographic story and on the other my literary story ”, he also says by email. “It is a book with parallel aesthetic discourses and, most importantly, founded on a politics of poetics.”
The writer adds that when she entered that place, she felt “that she had to be there, that in one way or another she was a part”, although she already knew about the hospital and “about the condition of the asylees and asylees”. He sums it up in a passage from his texts: “I’m in the madhouse for my love of words.”
In the book, the number of couples that emerged in the sanatorium and how they express their affection and tenderness is striking. Pedro with Margarita, María with Ismael, Rosario with Juan, Carmen with Fernando … “So many lovers can be understood by the number of patients there were,” adds the photographer, who wonders: “Could love be a form of survival?” . In any event, he considers that these relationships could be “a form of resistance to marginalization.” The men and women portrayed in his almost 40 snapshots stare at the camera, “dismantling the stereotype of the happy couple, of the well-formed family couple.” While Eltit wanted to make “a diverse book about love, towards which various registers of writing converge, texts that travel through genres without any barrier.” The reader thus finds himself with a volume that is a travel diary, an essay, poetry, epistolary literature … The writer takes us through the different and sometimes tortuous paths that those who have been in love travel: “Love and its complex processes of investments and disappointments coined in the form of hatred, necessity, indifference, domination, forgetfulness ”.
Regarding how he moved among the inmates, Errázuriz only points out that “they always wanted to be portrayed, united”, and that when they saw the photos, “they considered them as a marriage certificate, so they told me, thanking me.” On one occasion, he declared that “the greatest satisfaction” of that work came when he met the former director of the center, who told him that “for the doctors, these images had opened a door to look at their patients with more dignity.” Love, so often associated with madness, helped the mentally ill here. His partner described Errázuriz’s effort: “He gives them his photographic gaze, the certainty of his images. When he captures their poses, he confirms the relevance of their figures ”.
Asked if those people had children, Eltit clarifies that “they were sterilized, this procedure was done in the same hospital upon arrival.” And when deciding the title for the book, the writer, who has just been awarded at the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL), explains that Errázuriz told her by letter (Eltit lived in Mexico) that one of the inmates He had told him that he was there because “he had given a heart attack to his soul.” “I thought that was an exact title and La Paz agreed. So the title came from within ”.