Neruda is a very accessible poet. Not only is his verse – centring as it does around nature and human emotions – quite easy to understand, even in Spanish, but there is also a delightful, if somewhat fantastical, movie about him (Il Postino).
His politics, too, were worn on his sleeve: a passionate communist and liberal with whom there were no half measures. Add tothis the fact that all three of his Chilean residences have been turned into excellent museums by the Pablo Neruda Foundation, and you have perhaps the most familiar Nobel Laureate in the world. That he wrote and lived under a pseudonym (he was born Neftali Reyes) only serves to strengthen this assertion: it was as if he created the Neruda persona solely for the benefit of the public.
To call him accessible is not to say that he was run-of-the-mill or predictable. A visit to any one of his houses will swiftly quash that thought. Like his poems, each house is quirky and unique. La Sebastiana, high on the hillside above the port town of Valparaiso; La Chascona, nestled in the bohemian suburb of Bellavista in the capital; and – Neruda’s favourite – Isla Negra in the austere seaside settlement of the same name, about an hour’s drive from Santiago. All three houses have only zaniness in common. Their layouts are ramshackle, their décor whimsical. Neruda employed architects, but their plans were not sacrosanct: the poet himself had the final say.
Neruda was obsessed with all things maritime, in spite of his chronic seasickness. In search of his fix he brought the sea into his houses, rather than taking himself to sea. Unsurprisingly this is most evident in his seaside houses. La Sebastiana includes figureheads and captain’s wheels and chairs, but Isla Negra takes it further: the whole house is designed to mimic a ship, bobbing just above the Pacific.
My favourite is La Chascona, the city house. It was here that Neruda lived with his third wife and it was here that he died. It’s not as outlandish as the other two, but for this reason it is easier to imagine someone actually living in it. When I visited, the history of the place was brought to life by an excellent guide: a final-year university student of English and Spanish literature, a poet himself. He told us about Neruda’s death, which coincided with Pinochet coming to power by coup. Troops ransacked La Chascona, destroying ‘subversive’ literature and redirecting a nearby stream through the house. This was not only the death of a man, it was the death of freedom. Neruda would have hated the dictatorship, but he would be so happy to see his country, and his houses, resurrected as they are now.
I first encountered Neruda in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, his hugely popular collection which was published in 1924, when he was only twenty years old. This is a good place to start, as poems like Tonight I can Write and Leaning into the Afternoons will only leave you wanting more of the raw emotion that Neruda brings to his verse. Another favourite collection of mine is Odes to Common Things, in which he writes the mouth-wateringOde to the Tomato and the slightly more restrained Ode to the Clothes, among many others. Neither Twenty Love Poems nor Common Things give much of a taste of Neruda’s vision of ‘unalienated man, of justice and equality on earth’ (Franco 1973) – for this you need to turn to his magnum opus, the Canto General, which grapples with the contrast between the sheer beauty of Macchu Picchu and the human suffering which went into its construction.
Neruda wrote about love, about nature, and about human freedom. He 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. He was both a celebrated national hero, and a pariah who was forced into exile. All three of his houses were ransacked by the military and now they are feted. His life was neither boring nor secret, and it lives on in his legacy. If you’re going to visit Chile, you should watch the movie, read the poems and visit the houses.