Didem Doğan

Pablo Neruda’s house and his life story: the roads traversed for poetry

Thanks to Pablo Neruda Foundation the three houses of the poet in Santiago, Valparaiso and Isla Negro can be visited today. We are now at one of his houses, ‘La Chascona’ that is located at the Bellavista neighbourhood in Santiago. It was built in 1953 by the poet for his lover Matilde, still secret at that time, and was later used by the couple till the death of the poet a couple of days later to the coup in 1973. It is a nice house built on a hill, filled with eccentric objects, you visit the kitchen, the eating hall, Matilde’s bedroom, the living room, the bar, Neruda’s study room, his library and see many art works from famous artists as well as furniture he gathered from various parts of the world. What is more interesting is his life story. I will summarise it from the book I read ‘Memoirs’ (original name ‘Confieso que he vivido’. It’s a long memoir about Neruda’s life, his literary path, his diplomatic missions, his encounter with other intellectuals, and his travels… In the beginning of the book he tells how he published his first book when he was only 19 by his own means, selling a couple of the furniture he owned, his father’s watch, and his black suit, and how he never felt as happy again, even when his books were translated to several languages or he became universally renowned. Maybe we spend all our lives in search of that innocence… In his youth he wrote his first poems describing the long sunsets seen from the window of their humble apartment on Maruri Street in Santiago, and his first book is named ‘Twilight.’ Although he spent almost his whole life as a nomad, his country is always in his poetry: the distant sound of the sea, the cries of the wild birds, his ecstatic, if not lunatic mood in his first youth, and his questioning of whether he can base his poetry on this feeling, whether he can rely on this ‘inspiration’ or not… His whole life was somewhat nomadic. When he was very young he was sent to Birmania for his first diplomatic mission, than he moved to Sri Lanka, and to Singapore, the times when Asia was still virgin... Part of it can be found in ‘Residencia en la Tierra’… He then moved back to Chile, met the legendary poet Lorca, moved to Spain, with his new mission in Barcelona, the Spanish civil war, Lorca’s execution, his escape to Paris, his solidarity with the Republicans even after he moved back to Chile… His years in Mexico and Cuba, publishing ‘Canto General’ in Mexico with the illustrations of Diego Rivera. His acquaintance with Picasso, the Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet… Moving back to the old continent, Italy, the U.K., the prestige after receiving the Nobel prize in literature, various literary awards, conferences… His continuous solidarity with his home country, membership in the communist party of Chile, political roles, his friendship with Allende. It’s like reading the whole history of the 20th century against the background of Neruda’s life story. All of the events from the beginning till the end of the century are seen like a movie scene in the background, and we watch the life story of the protagonist, a Latin American diplomat, a political figure, a traveler, and most important of all a poet. It’s his poems which are like the air everyone breaths, and it seems like all that was lived was for the poetry itself. Even his travels sound like poems themselves; at some point he talked about Valparaiso, where tourists today visit his house on the coast as well as his tomb. He says how suddenly, when he was a young and broke poet, after a long night with his poet and painter mates just as young and broke like him, used to jump on a third class train to run away from the prison-like streets of the capital and find himself in the infinity of this city on the ocean shore. He heard this call once again, in Spain, while he was living in Madrid, with the same vagabond feeling; he tells how they used to watch a theatre play, then take the train and arrive in Toledo and fall asleep under the bridges. One thinks it’s necessary to feel the poetry to live truly as a traveler….