Travel: A poetic pilgrimage to Pablo Neruda’s homes In Chile
You half-expect Pablo Neruda to walk through the door as you wander his beloved homes. The Nobel laureate’s houses in Santiago and Isla Negra, Chile, don’t seem to have been fussed over by curators, little is protected behind glass despite the hundreds of thousands of poetry pilgrims who make their way through them annually. Filled with his books and art and furniture, his kitchenware and bottles, his many whimsical collections, these homes are not just lived-in but alive.
Natalie and I began a Neruda-inspired and -enriched trip across Chile at La Chascona, his home in the capital city, which he built and named for his messy-haired third wife, Matilde. Nestled into the hillside in Santiago’s Bellavista neighborhood, the house moves upward. Staircases and jungled-over gardens of stone and mosaics separate rooms that are crafted with low ceilings and porthole windows, in the seafaring spirit that inspired Neruda (not a seaman himself, the author of “The Captain’s Verses” called himself a “sailor on land”). Chimes with drawings of human eyes on medallions hang indoors and out. There’s a portrait of Matilde by Diego Rivera, and photos of Neruda’s literary heroes — Poe and Whitman among them — in his library. His Nobel Prize sits unpresumptuously on a bookshelf. On the dinner table are his salt and pepper shakers, labeled in jest as “Marijuana” and “Morphine.”
And the bedrooms of the man best known for his seductive love poems — the sonnets and “Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desperada,” which have been getting freshman English majors laid for generations — what wonders do they behold? Few, actually. Modest beds, simple spreads, large windows and nice views.
Neruda’s joie de vivre, so evident in this house, is undercut by a fact of its history, and the end of Neruda’s life. La Chascona was ransacked during Augusto Pinochet’s coup of Sept. 11, 1973, which sent the nation into its dark decades under military dictatorship. Neruda, a political ally and close friend of the deposed President Salvador Allende, died less than two weeks later at 69. The cause is said to have been cancer, but suspicions that Pinochet had him poisoned have persisted. In fact, Neruda’s body — buried outside the Isla Negra house — was exhumed in 2013 to reexamine the cause of death. Officials found no evidence of poison, but suspicions still run high in his homeland.
The intricacies of La Chascona were but a preview for the wonders of the house in Isla Negra, which Neruda called his favorite of his three homes, and began building in 1939.
The Isla Negra home is long and narrow, on a rocky bluff above the Pacific, and filled with uncanny objects — the house itself is a Seussian work of the imagination. Rooms and walls are filled with collections of instruments, seashells, nautical instruments, maps, compasses, pipes, butterflies and his famed figureheads procured from ships around the world. Among them is the great Marie Celeste, carved in oak and positioned looking out a window toward the ocean. Neruda claimed she would cry daily in the wintertime. There’s also a life-size wood-carved horse. And there’s Neruda’s adored desk, at a windowsill, fashioned from a piece of driftwood that he spotted one day coming in as a gift from the sea. On it is a bronze hand, modeled after Matilde’s. He kept it there as he wrote, the story goes, to keep her close to him.
Outside stands a bell tower, which he rang when he returned from travels to announce his arrival. From it juts a mast, where he raised a flag every morning emblazoned with the “Neruda” crest he designed for himself.
The rocky shore below churns with the rhythmic crash and turn of violent waves.
“Starting early in the morning, the sea goes into its fantastic swelling-up routine,” Neruda wrote of this view in his memoirs, “looking as if it were kneading an infinite loaf of bread. The spilling foam, driven by the icy years of the deep, is like white flour.”
We sat in the hot sand beside that aquatic churn, and read aloud from a bilingual edition of Neruda’s “Veinte poemas” and returned nightly for luscious sunsets.
Most people visit Isla Negra as a day-trip from Santiago (it’s no more than two hours across the width of this skinny-waisted nation and buses run often). There isn’t much to the town beyond Neruda’s house — a few modest restaurants, a soda fountain, an arcade and a grocery store. But we rented a car and spent three lazy days there in a cabana a few blocks from Neruda’s.
Along with the inherent relaxation of a sleepy off-the-beaten-path South American town, sticking around Isla Negra allowed us to make a discovery.
Neruda dreamed of making a public sculpture garden there for the people of Chile, which was finally realized by Fundacion Pablo Neruda in 2014. A few miles up the coast from his home, high on a bluff, there is now a collection of art including a massive steel installation reminiscent of ship’s sail (and of course, Neruda’s mariner spirit) and large stone heads that recall Easter Island. Below it is the area’s most popular beach.
In Isla Negra, I read Neruda’s memoirs late into the nights. The book reveals a Neruda who, like his homes, contained multitudes: Neruda the epic chronicler of Chile and champion of its people, author of “Canto General;” Neruda of the love poems and the sonnets; Neruda the doting enthusiast who penned odes to tomatoes and bicycles and his socks; Neruda the lepidopterist and conchologist; Neruda the consulate, congressman and ambassador; Neruda the exile; Neruda the bemused Nobel recipient; Neruda the presidential candidate; Neruda heartbroken as Pinochet’s junta seizes power. It details his loves, his fiery literary feuds, his persecution as a Communist, his deep distrust of U.S. foreign policy and his hatred of Richard Nixon. Reading it in Isla Negra was an extra sensory experience.
The memoir also gave me the voice of Neruda the raconteur and reveler, the man who filled those houses with friends and wine and food and conversation.
He writes with great joy about the Isla Negra house we’d just walked through, offering show-and-tells on his ships in bottles, his flag, his library, his seashell collection, his obsessive lifelong search for a narwhal’s tusk and, of course, those figureheads.
“In my house I have put together a collection of small and large toys I can’t live without,” he writes. “The child who does not play is not a child, but the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and he will certainly miss him. I have also built my house like a toy house and I play in it from morning til night.”
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