The snowline floated like a delicate arc in the sky. There was an entire mountain beneath, but it was invisible; the yellow mist that surrounded this Andean valley would not clear so easily, making that silvery sliver of the peak look like an apparition.
I was headed for Isla Negra, or the Black Island (which is neither black, nor an island), on the edge of the Pacific. As I was to discover later, in Chile, some things were not what they were called, and some things appeared to be what they were clearly not. We were gliding along the thin waist of that nation, slim like a ballerina in a figure-hugging leotard, balancing herself on her toes.
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Isla Negra is where the poet Pablo Neruda had built a house. Robert Graves once said: “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” Now Neruda was a Marxist and a poet, but he could fill a stadium when he read his poetry, and he was also a diplomat, and he had money: enough to build several houses—just as he loved several women, and had several persona as well (his name was not Pablo, and his surname not Neruda—he was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto—but then poets have the licence to make up such stuff).
Sailor: Neruda’s house in Isla Negra is designed like a ship. Martin Bernetti/AFP
As Neruda did. He designed his house to look like a ship, and he was its captain. As you entered his house, you saw intricately carved figureheads that were once on the prows of sailing ships. His was the captain’s table. The view from the windows was of the sea, the floor wooden, the passages narrow, and there was sailing memorabilia everywhere. It was as though he was in a ship ready to sail somewhere, but going nowhere, except where his mind wanted to wander.
In an essay, Houses from the Past, he wrote: “I am frightened by houses I have lived in. The arms of their compasses are opened wide, waiting: they want to swallow you and bury you in their rooms, in their memories.” Poets need isolation, and as if this house, washed by the ocean, was not distant enough from the big city, he had built a cabin for himself, closer to the water, from where he could see the ocean, and sit on his desk, imagining drunken sailors and mermaids. Nubile nymphs appear often in his poetry, and they inspire him to write about their soothing blue eyes, their enveloping, long tresses, their comforting, soft breasts, and their sweet kisses. The sea appears often, too: “To whomever is not listening to the sea,” he writes, he will bring its sounds and waves:
“And a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
A great fragment of thunder sets in motion
The rumble of the planet and the foam,
The raucous rivers of the ocean flood…”
To those in offices and factories and prisons in distant cities, who ask the poet: “How can I reach the sea?” he will bring freedom and the sea, the “starry echoes of the wave”, and “the cry of sea-birds”. That, Neruda said, was a poet’s obligation.
Neruda’s house itself was large, with quaint masks and curvy glass bottles, deliciously seductive. On the walls and ceilings of his bar he had scrawled the names of Guillaume Apollinaire, Nazim Hikmet and Walt Whitman, as if he regularly shared drinks with them.
Neruda knew his women and his ocean, his wines and his flowers, his vegetables and his mountains. In exile, he could teach a postman how to woo a woman, as he does in the film Il Postino. Politics was a different matter: He admired Stalin. As fellow-Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, was to note about Neruda: “When he describes the misery of his people, I believe him and I respect his great heart. But when he paints the joyous, radiant life of people in the Soviet Union, I stop believing him. I am inclined to believe him as long as he speaks about what he knows: I stop believing him when he starts to speak about what I know myself.” Not everything is what it seems.
Later that afternoon, we drove to Valparaiso, to his other home in Sebastiana, where he had built “an extravagant house, entirely of air”, as Bernardo Reyes describes in his book, Casas Neruda (Houses Neruda), where the house “grows and speaks, supported on its feet”. It is a tall house, and from its top floor, you get a magnificent view of this charming city set on 40-odd hills, with its labyrinthine alleys, cobble-stoned paths, and funicular cable cars. The mighty Pacific roars, its sound penetrating through the wall-sized glass windows.
From his bed, he woke up to see the sprawling landscape through those windows; his typewriter sitting by his bedside; his pillows smeared with his favourite green ink, for Neruda wrote by hand.
As I left the house, I saw his familiar silhouette on a bench. It was a life-size outline of Neruda with his flat cap, pensively looking at the sea. You could sit beside him on that bench, and when the sun was right behind you, someone could take your picture with the silhouette, creating the momentary illusion of you sitting with the poet, admiring the valley below and the ocean beyond, lost in thoughts.
“Look around,” Neruda had told Gen. Pinochet’s soldiers who raided his home the day the general overthrew Salvador Allende’s government. “There’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”
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