I went to Chile to look for the great, dead poet and diplomat, Pablo Neruda. I found him in his houses in the capital, Santiago, and in his coastal residences at Valparaiso and Isla Negra. Chile’s 1971 Nobel Prize winner didn’t just write his poetry on the page, he wrote it in the wood and bricks of his highly inventive dwellings.
The poet’s houses are as idiosyncratic and otherworldly as his poetry. Eschewing straight lines and cubic design, Neruda entertained his fascination with ships by building tight, winding staircases and cramped corner nooks in his multi-level abodes.
La Chascona, in Santiago’s Bellavista district, is close to San Cristóbal hill which offers remarkable city and Andean views. The house was built in 1953 to discreetly house his mistress Matilde, who would become his third wife. Constructed on an almost vertical wedge of land, the building required countless stairs to consummate the poet’s desired view of the Andes. The Stalin Peace Prize paid for most of the building, but Pablo and Matilde had to sell many of their possessions to pay for the poet’s constant requests for modification. Sacrifice for poetry was not foreign to Neruda – he sold his furniture to publish his first collection.
The property has several separate buildings, including a lighthouse-style lodging and a library which houses his Nobel Prize medal. Ducking under yet another low archway, I asked how the six-foot tall poet would have fared. ‘He wasn’t interested in functional houses,’ the guide replied. ‘He wanted them to be interesting.’ He gave reign to his humour too, and liked to bring out salt-and-pepper shakers inscribed ‘Marijuana’ and ‘Morphine’ for visiting diplomats.
Pablo Neruda was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in 1904 in the central city of Parral. He recalled few details of his birthplace in his memoirs, where he whittled away the hours at his grandfather’s house while his father by turns worked on the railroad and dealt with the loss of his wife, who died shortly after Pablo’s birth. The family soon moved to Temuco, where he remembered the steady rain and the plant and animal life. He recalled that the family house there had an ephemeral quality, like ‘a temporary camp’. It was connected with the living areas of many other residences, part of a larger frontier building.
At 10 years old, Neruda was ‘already a poet’. He started school ‘in a rambling mansion with sparsely furnished rooms and a gloomy basement’. When he showed his father an early poem in the dining room of the Temuco house, his father asked him where he had copied it from. In part to avoid his father’s disapproval he would eventually take the pen name ‘Pablo Neruda’.
Neruda liked poetic views. In La Sebastiana, his home in Valparaiso just an hour and a half from the capital, he watched New Year’s Eve fireworks flash above the port’s black waves, perched atop a hill with formidable views of almost the entire city. Here, too, the functional is in harmony with the collector’s random stylings. An easy chair, stained with the green ink Neruda used to symbolise life, sits near an ornate wash basin without plumbing. Neruda attached it to the wall simply because it belonged there. In Chile in the 1960s, there were only green, blue and white housing tiles available. No problem: Neruda used them all and devised his own pattern for his upstairs bathroom. An earthquake in 1961 collapsed the library before the housewarming planned to coincide with September Independence Day celebrations later that year.
It wasn’t just in Chile that a sense of place informed Neruda’s poetic vision. Beset by poverty, the 23-year-old accepted a diplomatic post in Burma, where he spent two years in Rangoon from 1927. He departed from Chile with little money, leaving behind a listless love life and a political and economic landscape in turmoil with the imminent collapse of the nitrate industry.
With little to do in his official post, Neruda languished in the streets and markets of Rangoon, exiled by the language and culture. The consul had to find his own lodgings and, unprepared, he spent his time between dishevelled youth hostels, opium dens and brothels. He wrote very little new verse, but worked painstakingly on a series he had begun in Santiago, the poems that would become Residence on Earth. It would be the volume in which Neruda admitted he finally found his poetic voice. He would return to Burma 30 years later to find a different country; the neighbourhood he had lived in no longer existed.
Neruda moved to Barcelona as consul in 1934, but he really wanted to be in Madrid, the centre of Spanish cultural life – ‘where the poetry was’. He travelled there, and was reunited with his friend, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and with another poet, Gabriela Mistral, his old teacher, now the consul there. He received official permission to remain in Madrid and eventually replaced Mistral as consul.
Neruda’s only child, his daughter Malva Marina Trinidad, was born in Madrid. Plagued by health problems her entire life, she was destined to die young in 1943 in the Netherlands, exiled from her father after the separation of her parents.
Neruda lived with Maruca, his first wife, in a fifth-floor apartment in the west of Madrid. It quickly became known as Casa de las Flores, House of Flowers, for the geraniums growing in the windowsills. As was his custom throughout his life, Pablo threw his home open to friends wanting to join him for drinks, food, singing and conversation. Day and night the poets wrote and guests were often crammed in, sleeping where they could on the floor.
The following year, Residence on Earth was published commercially. As Spain descended to civil war, Neruda’s friend Lorca was murdered by the fascists, further bolstering Neruda’s communist leanings. He decided that supporting the republicans and directly contravening his own government’s stance was worth the sacrifice of his official position and corresponding wage. He described it as ‘diplomatic suicide’. Neruda fled Spain soon after, with General Franco’s forces closing in on the capital. Neruda wrote that the Spanish War changed his poetry. He determined that his work should serve the people, and be part of their struggle.
Returning to Spain a year later, Pablo found Casa de las Flores ransacked, broken and riddled with bullet holes. He refused to salvage a single manuscript, book or collectable, and set sail for home.
He was soon elected a communist senator, and his political enemies hunted him through many temporary homes. Eventually he fled on horseback across the Andes into Argentina.
After making his way to Buenos Aires, Neruda travelled to Paris on a borrowed passport. The Chilean government was embarrassed by his escape and quickly denied that the poet was abroad. Neruda was undeterred: ‘Say that I am not Pablo Neruda, but another Chilean who writes poetry, fights for freedom and is also named Pablo Neruda.’ Everywhere he went, Chile asked authorities to make his path a difficult one. Finally, after Neruda had lived three years in exile, the government at home had run its course, and he returned to Chile in August of 1952. Having crept from the country as a fugitive, he came home to a very public welcome, and set to work assisting his friend Salvador Allende in his first attempt at the presidency.
An hour south of Valparaiso, along Chile’s formidable coastline, is the small fishing village of Isla Negra. It is here that Neruda’s poetic imagination was most fully realised. He bought a small house in 1938, and added extensions over the following three decades. Neruda and Delia, his second wife, lived there while construction went on around them. In 1945, at Isla Negra, two years after visiting the ancient Inca site, he wrote ‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’, one of the great South American poems of the twentieth century.
He filled his house at Isla Negra with collections of mastheads, shells, bottled ships, anything that captured his attention on his frequent travels. He carved the names of friends into the beams overhead, including that of the murdered poet Lorca.
When Neruda wasn’t building words into striking monuments, he was furnishing his houses with original and quirky fittings from demolished homes. One day, Neruda noticed a piece of wood in the waves near the beach. It was a ship’s door, and he wasted no time fashioning it into a writer’s desk, calling it his ‘gift from the sea’. A boat sits in the yard, ready to sail. Neruda never set to sea in it, preferring to think of himself as a ‘sailor of the earth’.
It was from Isla Negra that he announced his candidature for the Chilean presidency, before tempering his ambitions to support those of Allende. In 1973, in the last days of Neruda’s life, the house was raided by soldiers in the wake of the military overthrow of the Allende government. Neruda told the soldiers ‘there is only one thing of danger to you here: poetry’.
Neruda and Matilde are buried here on a piece of earth shaped like a ship’s bow, ever poised to set sail upon the waves they had long watched roll onto the beaches of Isla Negra. Shortly after the poet’s death, a large eagle was discovered inside his closed living room in Valparaiso. Matilde was convinced it was Pablo, who had once confided that he would have been an eagle in another life. The houses have been damaged by earthquakes and military coups, but like his poetry, they stand in quiet homage to a unique imagination.