Monday, June 22, 2009

Neruda in Burma

[In his memoir, Isla Negra: A Notebook, Pablo Neruda wrote about how he came to be appointed a consular official in Burma, his long sea voyage there, and his first impressions of what he saw - a man of the people confronted by what he called a "hapless human family". Incidentally, this passage from Isla Negra comes just before Neruda's account of his unhappy affair with his "Burmese panther", Josie Bliss, which became the inspiration for his poem "Widower's Tango".]


A literary prize at school, some popularity my new books enjoyed, and my notorious cape had given me a small aura of respectability beyond artistic circles. But in the twenties, cultural life in our countries depended exclusively on Europe, with a few rare and heroic exceptions. A cosmopolitan elite was active in each of our republics, and the writers who belonged to the ruling class lived in Paris. Our great poet Vicente Huidobro not only wrote in French but even changed his name, making it Vincent instead of Vicente.

In fact, as soon as I had the first little bit of youthful fame, people in the street started asking me: "Well, what are you doing here? You must go to Paris."

A friend spoke to the head of a department in the Foreign Ministry on my behalf, and he saw me right away. He knew my poems.

"I also know your aspirations. Sit down in that comfortable armchair. From here you have a good view of the square, of the carnival in the square. Look at those cars. All is vanity. You are a fortunate young poet. Do you see that palace? It belonged to my family once. And here I am now, in this cubbyhole, up to my neck in bureaucracy. When the things of the spirit are all that matter. Do you like Tchaikovsky?"

Giving me a parting handshake, after an hour-long conversation about the arts, he told me not to worry about a thing, he was the head of the consular service. "You may now consider yourself virtually appointed to a post abroad."

For two years I visited, from time to time, the office of the diplomatic department head, who was more obsequious each time. The moment he saw me appear, he would glumly call one of his secretaries and, arching his brows, would say, "I'm not in for anyone. I want to forget everyday prose. The only spiritual thing about this ministry is this poet's visit. I hope he never forsakes us."

I am sure he spoke with sincerity. Right after that, he would talk without respite about thoroughbred dogs. "Anyone who doesn't love dogs doesn't love children." He would go on to the English novel, then jump to anthropology and spiritism, and end up with questions of heraldry and genealogy. When I took leave of him, he would repeat once more, as if it were a terrifying little secret between the two of us, that my post abroad was guaranteed. Although I didn't have enough money to eat, I would leave in the evening breathing like a diplomat. And when my friends asked me what I was up to, I put on important airs and said, "I'm working on my trip to Europe."

This lasted until I ran into my friend Bianchi. The Bianchi family of Chile is a noble clan. Painters and popular musicians, jurists and writers, explorers and climbers of the Andes give all those with the Bianchi name an aura of restlessness and sharp intelligence. Ny friend, who had been an ambassador and knew the ins and outs of the ministries, asked me: "Hasn't your appointment come through yet?"

"I'll get it any moment now, I've been assured of it by a high patron of the arts in the Ministry."
He grinned and said: "Let's go see the Minister."

He took me by the arm and we went up the marble steps. Orderlies and employees scurried out of our way. I was dumbstruck. I was about to see my first Foreign Minister. He was quite short, and to disguise this, he swung himself up and sat on his desk. My friend mentioned how much I wanted to leave Chile. The Minister pressed one of his many buzzers, and to top off my confusion, my spiritual protector suddenly appeared.

"What posts are available in the service?" the Minister asked him.

The elegant functionary, who would not bring up Tchaikovsky now, listed various countries scattered over the world, but I managed to catch only one name, which I had never heard or read before: Rangoon.

"Where do you want to go, Pablo?" the Minister said to me.

"To Rangoon," I answered without hesitating.

"Give him the appointment," the Minister ordered my protector, who hustled out and came back in nothing flat with the official order.

There was a globe in the Minister's office. My friend Bianchi and I looked for the unknown city of Rangoon. The old map had a deep dent in a region of Asia and it was in this depression that we discovered it. "Rangoon. Here's Rangoon."

But when I met my poet friends some hours later and they decided to celebrate my appointment, I had completely forgotten the city's name. Bubbling over with joy, I could only explain that I had been named consul to the fabulous Orient and that the place I was being sent to was in a little hole in the map.


One day in June 1927 we set out for faraway regions. In Buenos Aires we turned in my first-class for two third-class fares and sailed on the Baden. This German ship supposedly had just one class, but that must have been fifth class. There were two sittings for meals: one to serve the Portuguese and Spanish immigrants as fast as possible, and another for the remaining sundry passengers, particularly the Germans, who were returning from the mines and factories of Latin America. Alvaro, my companion, immediately classified the female passengers. He was a very active lady-killer. He divided women into two groups: those who prey on man and those who obey the whip. These distinctions did not always apply. He had a whole bag of tricks for winning the affection of the ladies. Whenever a pair of these interesting passengers appeared on deck, he would quickly grab one of mt hands and pretend to read my palm, with mysterious looks and gestures. The second time around, the strollers would stop and beg him to read their future. He would take their hands at once, stroking them far too much, and the future he read always indicated a visit to our cabin.

But the voyage soon took a different turn for me and I stopped seeing the passengers, who grumbled noisily about the eternal fare of Kartoffeln; I stopped seeing the world and the monotonous Atlantic to feast my eyes only on the enormous dark eyes of a Brazilian, an ever so Brazilian girl, who boarded the ship in Rio de Janeiro with her parents and two brothers.

The carefree Lisbon of those years, with fishermen in the streets and without Salazar on the throne, filled me with wonder. The food at our small hotel was delicious. Huge trays of fruit crowned the table. Houses of various colors; old palaces with arched doorways; cathedrals like monstrous vaults, which God would have abandoned centuries ago to go live elsewhere; gambling casinos in former palaces; the crowds on the avenues with their child-like curiosity; the Duchess of Braganza, out of her mind, walking solemnly down a cobbled street, trailed by a hundred awe-struck street urchins - this was my entry into Europe.

And then Madrid with its crowded cafes; hail-fellow Primo de Rivera teaching the first lesson in tyranny to a country that would later learn all the rest. The first poems of my Residencia en la tierra, which the Spaniards were slow to understand and would only understand later, when the generation of Alberti, Lorca, Aleixandre, and Diego appeared. And for me Spain was also the interminable train and the sorriest third-class coach in the world, taking us to Paris.

We disappeared into Montparnasse's swarming crowds, among Argentinians, Brazilians, Chileans, Venezuelans, still buried away under Gomez's reign, did not yet dream of coming. And, over there, the first Hindus in their full-length robes. And my neighbor at the next table, with her tiny snake coiled around her neck, drinking a cafe creme with melancholy languor. Our South American colony drank cognac and danced the tango, waiting for the slightest chance to start a battle royal and take on half the world.

Paris, France, Europe, for us small-town Bohemians from South America, consisted of a stretch of two hundred meters and a couple of street corners: Montparnasse, La Rotonde, Le Dome, La Coupole, and three or four other cafes. Boites with black singers and musicians were just beginning to become popular. The Argentinians were the most numerous of the South Americans, the first to pick a fight, and the richest. Hell could break loose at any time and an Argentine would be lifted up by four waiters, and would pass, in the air, over the tables, to be summarily deposited right out in the street. Our cousins from Buenos Aires did not care at all for this rough handling that wrinkled their trousers and, worse still, mussed up their hair. In those days, pomade was an essential part of Argentine culture.

Actually, in those first days in Paris, whose hours flitted past, I did not meet a single Frenchman, a single European, a single Asian, much less anyone from Africa or Oceania. Spanish-speaking Americans, from the Mexicans dow to the Patagonians, went about in cliques, picking on one another. A Guatemalan prefers the company of a Paraguayan bum, with whom he can idle the time away exquisitely, to that of a Pasteur.

Around this time I met Cesar Vellejo, the great cholo; a poet whose poetry had a rough surface, as rugged to the touch as a wild animal's skin, but it was magnificent poetry with extraordinary power.

Incidentally, we had a little run-in right after we met. It was in La Rotonde. We were introduced, and in his precise Peruvian accent, he greeted me with: "You are the greatest of all our poets. Only Ruben Dario can compare with you."

"Vallejo," I said, "if you want us to be friends, don't ever say anything like that to me again. I don't know where we'd end up if we started treating each other like writers."


Statues of Buddha everywhere, of Lord Buddha . . . The severe, upright, worm-eaten statues, with a golden patina like an animal's sheen, deteriorating as if the air were wearing them away . . . In their cheeks, in the folds of their tunics, at elbows and navel and mouth and smile, tiny blemishes: fungi, pockmarks, traces of jungle excrement . . . Or the recumbent, the immense, recumbent statues, forty meters of stone, of sand granite, pale, stretched out among the rustling fronds, emerging suddenly from some corner of the jungle, from its surrounding site . . . Asleep or not asleep, they have been there a hundred years, a thousand, one thousand times a thousand years . . . Yet there is something soft about them and they are known for an other-worldly air of indecisions, longing to stay or go away . . . And that very soft stone smile, that imponderable majesty which is nevertheless made of hard, everlasting stone - at whom, at how many, on the bloodstained planet are they smiling . . . ? The fleeing peasant women passed, the men from the fire, the visored warriors, the false high priests, the tourists who devour everything . . . And the statue remained in place, the immense stone with knees, inhuman and also in some way human, in some form or contradiction a statue, god and not god, stone and not stone, under the screeching of black birds, surrounded by the wingbeats of red birds, of the birds of the forest . . . We are reminded of the terrible Spanish Christs we inherited wounds and all, pustules and all, scars and all, with that odor given off by churches, of wax candles, of mustiness, of a closed room . . . Those Christs had second thoughts about being men or gods . . . To make them human beings, to bring them closer to those who suffer, midwives and beheaded men, cripples and avaricious men, the inner circles of churches and those outside the churches, to make them human, the sculptors gave them the most gruesome wounds, and all this ended up as the religion of suffering, as sin and you'll suffer, don't sin and you'll suffer, live and you'll suffer, leaving you no possible way out . . . Not here, here the stone found peace . . . The sculptors rebelled against the canons of pain, and these colossal Buddhas, with the feet of giant gods, have a smile on their stone faces that is beatifically human, without all that pain . . . And they give off an odor, not of a dead room, not of sacristies and cobwebs, but an odor of vegetable space, of sudden gusts of wind swooping down in wild swirls of feathers, leaves, pollen from the infinite forest . . .


In several essays on my poetry I have read that my stay in the Far East influenced it in some ways, especially Residencia en la tierra. As it happens, the poems of Residencia en la tierra are the only ones I wrote at that time, but without going so far as to defend my statement categorically, I say that this business of influence is mistaken.

All the esoteric philosophy of the oriental countries, when confronted with real life, turned out to be a by-product of the anxiety, neurosis, confusion, and opportunism of the West; that is, of the crisis in the guiding principles of capitalism. In the India of those years there was little room for deep contemplation of one's navel. An existence that made brutal physical demands, a colonial position based on the most cold-blooded degradation, thousands dying every day of cholera, smallpox, fever, and hunger, a feudal society thrown into chaos by India's immense population and industrial poverty, stamped such great ferocity on life that all semblance of mysticism disappeared.

The theosophic centers were generally run by adventurers from the West, including North and South Americans. Of course, there were people among them who acted in good faith, but the majority exploited a cheap market where exotic amulets and fetishes wrapped in metaphysical sales talk were sold wholesale. These people were always spouting Dharma and Yoga. They reveled in religious acrobatics, all empty show and high-sounding words.

For these reasons, the Orient struck me as a large hapless human family, leaving no room in my conscience for its rites and gods. I don't believe, then, that my poetry during this period reflected anything but the loneliness of an outsider transplanted to a violent, alien world.

The caste system had the Indian people arranged like an amphitheater of parallelpiped galleries superimposed one above the other, with the gods sitting at the top. The English, in turn, maintained their own caste system, starting with the small shop clerks, going on to professionals and intellectuals, then to exporters, and culminating on the system's garden roof, where the aristocrats of the Civil Service and the bankers of the Empire lounged in comfort.

These two worlds never touched. The natives were not allowed in the places reserved for the English and the English lived away from the throbbing pulse of the country. This situation created problems for me. My British friends saw me in a gharry, a little horse-drawn cab used mainly for ephemeral trysts in transit, and offered me the kindly advice that a consul should never use these vehicles for any purpose. They also suggested that I should not frequent a lively Persian restaurant, where I drank the best tea in the world in little translucent cups. These were final warnings. After that, they stopped greeting me.

This boycott couldn't have pleased me more. Those indolent Europeans were not really interesting, and after all, I had not come to the Orient to spend my life with transient colonizers but with the ancient spirit of that world, with that large hapless human family.

-from Isla Negra: A Notebook, by Pablo Neruda, (Alastair Reid and Enrico Santi, trans.)

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