Luis Sepúlveda, a Chilean writer whose stay among indigenous people in the Amazon led to his most celebrated novel and who was jailed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, died April 16 in Oviedo, Spain. He was 70.
The cause was the novel coronavirus, according to Tusquets, his publishing house in Barcelona. Sepúlveda, who was hospitalized in February, was among the first wave of people in Spain to be diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Sepúlveda published several novels, children’s stories and travel books, and he also wrote and directed films. He acquired fame with his novel “The Old Man Who Read Love Stories” (1988), which tells the story of a man who, together with his wife, leaves his mountain village to take part in the colonization of the Amazon.
The book was inspired by Sepúlveda’s stay in the 1970s with the region’s Shuar indigenous people. A review in The New York Times by David Unger compared it to one of the early works of Gabriel García Márquez.
“In its simple language and philosophical underpinnings, it is magical, thanks to the author’s skill at describing jungle life,” Unger wrote. Sepúlveda wrote the screenplay for a 2001 movie version, starring Richard Dreyfuss.
Sepúlveda was born Oct. 4, 1949, in Ovalle, a small city in central Chile. His father owned a restaurant and was a Communist militant. His mother, who was of Mapuche indigenous descent, worked as a nurse. As a teenager, he joined the Communist Youth and then studied theater at the University of Chile.
After Pinochet staged a coup and took charge of Chile in 1973, Sepúlveda was among a large number of left-wing intellectuals and political activists jailed by the regime.
His prison sentence was eventually turned into house arrest. He fled and went underground but was recaptured and sentenced again, this time to 28 years in prison. With support from Amnesty International, his sentence was eventually changed to exile, and he spent some time in the Amazon.
In the late 1970s, Sepúlveda moved around Latin America, including Nicaragua, where he joined a leftist militant group. He lived for a time in Germany, where he worked for Greenpeace, serving on one of its ships.
In 1997, he settled in Spain’s northern region of Asturias, where he renewed his relationship with Carmen Yáñez, a poet whom he had married in Chile before the coup.
Yáñez had been detained and tortured by Pinochet’s police, but she eventually was granted political asylum in Sweden, where she lived until she rejoined Sepúlveda in Spain. She and five children – Carlos, Paulina, Max, Leon and Sebastián – survive him.