ALL IN A DOO-DA ... PABLO NERUDA by Joseph Woods
( Poetry Ireland News, July/ August 2007)
Pablo Neruda´s dominating presence in Chile is still evident more than 30 years after his death. Cafés are named after him, bookshops often stock Neruda’s poetry to the exclusion of all other poets, and all three of his houses are open to the public. They make wonderfully apt museums as Neruda was an inveterate and lifelong collector of virtually everything under the sun. From antiques to bricà-brac, his collections illuminate his loves, enthusiasms and obsessions, ranging from anything with a nautical theme, to antique maps, Victorian dolls, masks, carvings, to coloured glasses, shells and paintings.
The most visited house, ‘La Chasona’, is in Santiago and is also the headquarters of Fundación Pablo Neruda2. The name ‘La Chasona’ refers to the tangled hair of his third wife and muse Matilde Urrutia. A portrait of Matilde by Diego Rivera has a profile of Neruda hidden in her hair.
‘La Chasona’ is at the foot of Cerro San Cristóbal, a spur of the Andes and near enough to the zoo for Neruda to claim that he could hear the lions’ roar. The house, situated on a street of German-style houses, was extended and adapted over the years to end up as three levels running up the hillside. At the highest point is the library, which once contained almost 9000 books and has a reading room which overlooks Santiago. Here Neruda had a floor made that creaked like a ship when it was walked across. Everywhere there is a sense of the sea, from the ship’s furniture and cabinets to the living room designed like a lighthouse. Bars on one window have the initials of Neruda and Matilde entwined and lapped by breaking waves.
Two hours north of Santiago, in the port town of Valparaíso, is the least visited of his houses and also the most accessible, as one can wander around without the mandatory ‘guided tour’. ‘La Sebastiana’ is perched high on the aptly named Bellavista hill, and the four floors of the house have dramatic views over Valparaíso and its bay. Neruda called this house his casa en el aire or ‘house in the air’, and the best views are from his study on the fourth floor. A door here frames a massive picture of Whitman. The carpenter who framed it asked Neruda if the portrait was of his father, and Neruda responded that it was, in a poetic sense. A footstool in the sitting room is still stained with the green ink that he always wrote in, and on the table are collections of coloured glasses in which he believed both water and wine tasted better when drunk from. This house too is full of a sense of the sea, with trunks, chests and ship’s furniture, although Neruda claimed he was ultimately an estuary sailor, and while fascinated by the sea he preferred the security of dry land. ‘La Sebastiana’, in common with all three of his houses, has its own designated bar. Neruda liked to entertain and prepare his favourite cocktail, the ‘Coquetelon’: equal parts of champagne and cognac with a few drops of Cointreau and orange juice. At his dinners and parties he insisted that serious or intellectual topics should not be discussed.
Further on down the south coast from Valparaíso sits Neruda´s most famous house, ‘Isla Negra’, the subject of many poems and the title of one of his books. For a poet who has become associated with the soul of Chile, it’s ironic that Neruda spent very little of his adult life there, due to his other career as a diplomat and a period of political exile (the inspiration for the movie Il Postino). However, it was to ‘Isla Negra’ that he always returned imaginatively and physically for a period of more than thirty years. The house overlooks a thin sandy beach with large rocks and the very blue Pacific. On the day I visited, pelicans in V-formations were flying down the coast. Both Neruda and Matilde rest in a tomb here overlooking the sea with hurricane lamps on their graves.
Alongside the characteristic collections of things nautical (ships in bottles, coloured glasses), and a sink in every study for washing his hands before and after working, Neruda placed in the living room a staggering collection of ship’s figure heads, mostly female, from the prows of wrecked ships. His own study had two desks, one from his father, a railway worker, and another fashioned from the door of a ship he watched drift in as flotsam to ‘Isla Negra’. His suits still hang in a wardrobe here, including the morning suit he wore to receive the Nobel Prize in 1971. He was the second Chilean to win the Nobel Prize, after Gabriela Mistral, awarded the prize in 1945, the first Latin-American writer to achieve that distinction. Coincidentally, in 1920, Mistral had been appointed Headmistress of Neruda’s school in the town of Temuco, where she recognized his fledgling talent while he was still a student. And in a further twist of fate, she was subsequently appointed a diplomat and their paths in this sphere sometimes crossed.
The optimism of winning the prize was short-lived for Neruda and indeed for Chile; he developed cancer, resigned as Ambassador to France and returned to ‘Isla Negra’ in 1972. On September 11, 1973, his close friend and left-wing political ally, President Salvador Allende, died in government buildings as the Pinochet-led military coup began. Within a fortnight Neruda was dead, some say of shock brought on by Allende’s death. His funeral was the first sign of a protest against the junta. After his death, Neruda´s houses, in particular those in Santiago and Valparaíso, were ransacked and vandalised by the military. However, the Fundación Pablo Neruda, established by his widow Matilde Urrutia, has done a service by restoring all of Neruda’s houses and making them available to the public.
Before I loved you, love, nothing was my own:
I wavered through the streets, among objects:
nothing mattered or had a name:
the world was made of air, which waited.
I knew rooms full of ashes,
tunnels where the moon lived,
rough warehouses that growled ‘Get lost’,
questions that insisted in the sand.
Everything was empty, dead, mute,
fallen, abandoned, and decayed:
inconceivably alien, it all
belonged to someone else – to no one:
till your beauty and your poverty
filled the autumn plentiful with gifts.
– Pablo Neruda
1 from the poem ‘Pablo Neruda’ by Austin Clarke: ‘With panama hat / And neat valise / All in a doo-da, / I met him – Pablo / Neruda.’