Pablo Neruda’s Houses – Part Two

Isla Negra

Neruda discovered and moved into the house at Isla Negra in 1939.

The journey to Isla Negra takes you through the fabulous vineyards of central Chile, the smell of Sauvignon Blanc is in the air! In Chile it was the rule that you could only drink Chilean wine but this was no great hardship!

With Inés once again at the wheel we could sit back as tourists and admire the landscape, although a little navigation was necessary as we got nearer to Isla Negra which is tucked away on the Chilean coast.

The clouds which had gathered and the rain that had threatened us for the entire journey, descended just as we arrived. Alongside the rain, although I think this was coincidence rather than any dark omen, three busloads of schoolchildren arrived, backpacked and noisy, as school children are. A visit to Isla Negra for the children of Chile was clearly the equivalent of English children being taken to the British Museum for the day. While that in itself would be some cause for excitement, the opportunity to escape the days’ normal timetable was surely as great an incentive!

Having driven for two hours however we decided it would be wiser to eat first and let the school party work its way through before we made our visit. So, with the rain lashing and the South Pacific pounding outside our window, we ate lunch in the second of Pablo Neruda’s Houses.

Neruda’s poetry refers often to the sea. However, he does not regard the sea in an unreal or romantic way; rather he appreciates its awesome power.

Isla Negra was a guided visit. The school children safely well ahead of us, our small group of adults huddled in anticipation. Our guide was a North American, full of good intentions and well versed in her script.

She told us of Neruda’s love for his wife Mathilde.

She told us of his love of the sea and collecting nautical memorabilia.

She told us of his love of the French poet Baudelaire.

On the writing desk in Neruda’s study overlooking the South Pacific are two framed photographs: Baudelaire and the Russian revolutionary, Lenin. Our guide chose to ignore the latter.

The visit continued in similar vein. Ships bows, seashells, big shoes…..

Interesting, of course, but was this really the full Neruda?

Was this the Neruda who had been a communist senator?

Was this the Neruda who had arranged for 2,000 Spanish emigres to escape the fascists in Spain on board the Winnipeg?

Was this the Neruda who stepped aside to give Allende a clear run as the Popular Unity candidate in the 1970 elections in Chile?

The Neruda described by our guide was undoubtedly charming and witty. A quirky, idiosyncratic individual who wrote some very good love poetry and was passionate about the sea.

He and his wife are buried here, did you know?

My blood was boiling.

This was a shadow Neruda, an imposter with no politics and few opinions, presented to us as a nice uncomplicated character who would not scare the tourists.

My own poem, reflecting upon the visit to Isla Negra, attempts to capture this rage.

b) Isla Negra

Lifelong Communist, Pablo Neruda,
Who loved horses, sea-shells and women’s breasts,
(Not necessarily in that order)
Lies buried in the airbrushed agony
Of Isla Negra.

This soulless sideshow sweeps
Subversion under the carpet,
Mocks the meaning of Marxist,
Sanitises the politics in poetry,
Offering ice-cream soda fizz
Before the full blooded wine of Chile.

On the writing desk observe
Baudelaire, balanced by Lenin.
Outside, the beauty of the sky
The beach, the rocks,
The solace of the ocean
Echoed, in the rhythm of his verse.

A sculpted hammer and sickle
Slips the censor, gracing the lobby.
In the shop of mementoes
I buy a postcard, Allende and Neruda,
Side by side.
Some things are irrefutable.
I step outside, smell the air,
Hear the South Pacific thunder,
Doubting that he would see
His legacy in these commodities.

Steve Bishop

Clutching the postcard with as much dignity as I could muster we marched out into the Chilean downpour and Inés drove us back to Vina del Mar.

I suffered a torment of silent frustration!


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