While many poets are shy and removed from the real world, the Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda went to the other extreme: he lived life to the full and he had many friends. He was a very active member of the communist party, who was at times an employee of the government (working in the diplomatic corps in countries as diverse as Burma, Spain and Mexico) and at other times an enemy of the state.
Although his political views were controversial, they were definitely easy to decipher.
His verse, too, is very accessible too, especially the poems centred about love, nature, and human freedom. Get yourself a copy of his Selected Poems, preferably a Spanish and English version, and tuck in. The poems are arranged chronologically and it pays to start at the beginning: Neruda shot to fame with his first collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which was published in 1924, when he was only twenty years old. The poem Every day you play is a real favourite of mine, and it will move even the stoniest reader if not to tears, then at least to some emotion.
To do with with you what spring does with the cherry trees
Flick through a few pages till you find poems from another one of my favourite collections Odes to Common Things, in which he writes the mouth-watering Ode to the Tomato and the slightly more restrained Ode to the Clothes, among many others.
By now you’ll probably be ready for something a bit heavier, and in particular his vision of ‘unalienated man, of justice and equality on earth’ (Franco 1973). For this you need to read his magnum opus, the Canto General (there’s only an extract in the Selected Poems), which grapples with the contrast between the sheer beauty of Macchu Picchu and the human suffering which went into its construction.
through a night made stone let me plunge my hand
and move to beat in me a bird held a thousand years
the old and unremembered human heart!
Neruda had three houses in Chile, all of which are now museums. La Chascona, tucked away in a quiet corner of Santiago; La Sebastiana, clinging to the hillside above the port town of Valparaiso; and Isla Negra in the wind-battered coastal outpost of the same name.
The only thing the three houses have in common is that their layout and design is completely weird. Although Neruda did use architects, their input was ever only seen as advice, and their plans were there to be overruled. Neruda knew what he wanted, and he made sure he got it.
One thing that comes across when reading his poems is his obsession with ships and the ocean, which is weird considering he suffered from chronic seasickness. To get around this problem he brought the ocean into his houses instead taking himself to sea. The best example of this is in the Isla Negra house, located right on the ocean and designed to mimic a ship. La Sebastiana is also heavily influenced by the sea not least in its incredible views across the Atlantic. Inside, ship’s wheels and captain’s chairs continue the theme.
In spite of being a sea-lover myself, La Chascona, the urban, landlubber’s house, is the one which struck me most.Neruda lived in La Chascona until his death, and it definitely is the house of a slightly older man. It’s not quite as wacky as the other houses, but this is why I like it: it seems more like a house than a museum exhibit. It’s not as outlandish as the other two, but for this reason it is easier to imagine someone actually living in it.
Neruda was at different times a glorious national hero, and an enemy of the state who was forced into exile. His houses may now be celebrated as national treasures, but during Pinochet’s rule all three of his houses were ransacked by the military. He lived an exciting life and he did it in full view of an entire nation.
Neruda, who was born Neftali Reyes, wrote and lived his entire adult life under a pseudonym. It’s almost as if he created the Neruda persona solely for the benefit of the public. His poems are readable and his houses seem like they were destined to be museums from the moment he built them. I can truly say that his poems and his houses are my personal highlight in a country filled with highlights, and you may well say the same.
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