By Laksiri Fernando –
Pablo Neruda, a well celebrated Chilean poet and Nobel laureate for literature in 1971, had always been a controversial figure not so much in literature but in politics and personal life. Apart from being a famous poet, he had been a diplomat, political activist and a Senator. I have never been very much into literature or poetry thus my main attraction to Neruda was his intriguing political life. In addition, he was the Chilean Consul in Colombo during 1929-30 and reported to have again visited Ceylon in 1950 because of his attachment to the country.
After 40 years of his death in 1973, his body was exhumed recently in Santiago, Chile, to see whether he died of natural causes or by poisoning, as Sharm de Alwis wrote to The Island recently. Still a clear verdict is not given due to obvious forensic difficulties after so many years of his remains being putrefied. It has become a murder mystery.
He died soon after the dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile in September 1973 subsequent to the overthrow of the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende through a bloody military coup engineered by the CIA. Allende was a friend of Neruda. During the coup and its immediate aftermath, over 3,000 were killed and 80,000 interned who went under severe torture. Neruda was an outspoken leftist who could have created an immense international embarrassment to the Pinochet regime if he had lived longer.
I first came to know of Neruda somewhere in late 1960s particularly because of his alleged involvement in the assassination of Leon Trotsky, one of my political mentors when I was a young political activist apart from being still a young lecturer. I didn’t know at that time that Neruda had been in Ceylon. Those days, we were avid readers of all the literature we received from international sources and there were convincing allegations that he was involved in the assassination at least on the side lines.
Trotsky was assassinated on 20 August 1940 four days after Neruda arrived in Mexico to take up his consular position. It is not merely this coincidence that led to the allegation. A previous assassination attempt was made three months before by a person named Siqueiros who was a famous Mexican painter and a communist party member. Neruda gave Siqueiros a visa as the Chilean Consul to escape to Chile while he was still in jail and thereafter Siqueiros in fact was living in Neruda’s villa in Chile. In 1971, Neruda admitted to a Uruguayan magazine that the visa in fact was arranged on the request of the (newly elected) President of Mexico of that time. As Neruda also was a communist party supporter, the suspicions grew. He joined the party much later.
When I went for my master’s studies at the University of New Brunswick (Canada) in 1974, there were many Chilean exiles as students. Cecilia and Gonzalez were at our next door apartment with a small child in the Magee House. Both were members of the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement) in Chile and interestingly Cecilia belonged to the Trotskyists and Gonzalez, a strong Stalinist. Gonzalez was the first to tell me that Neruda had been in Ceylon and lived in Colombo. If I remember correct, Gonzalez being a poet himself was doing his master’s on Neruda’s contribution to poetry.
Gonzalez strongly vouched that Neruda was not a person who would harm even an animal let alone a human being. He was fond of animals and had Kiriya, a mongoose as his pet in Colombo. This does not preclude however that he was assisting some others on the instructions or interests of his party. While he was a strong supporter of Joseph Stalin he was also a strong anti-Fascist. When I was working at WUS in Geneva (1984-1991) my counterpart for Latin America was from Chile who was also a Neruda fan and had a big photo of Neruda behind her desk on the wall. Neruda’s innocence was the same impression I received from her.
Born to a rather impoverished and also wayward family in July 1904, in Parral, in central Chile’s wine country, Neruda was exceptionally gifted in creative abilities very early in life. He lost his mother as he was born and a feeling of loss and/or guilt inspired him for creativity. He was the first child of not fewer than thirteen children from the same father but different mothers. It perhaps ran in the family and from the beginning at school he was attracted to older girls and his first writings were love letters. As he said, in his autobiography, he wrote his first poem “seized by profound anxiety, a feeling I hadn’t had before, a kind of anguish and sadness.” Many of my quotes are from Adam Feinstein (Pablo Neruda, A Passion for Life).
From a landscape of golden regions
to give you, dear Mama,
this humble postcard.
Then everything blossomed thereafter. His first love was for a girl called Maria at the Church. But Neruda never was religious. “That whole, confused first love, or something like it, was shattering, painful, full of commotion and torment and impregnated with all the traces of a penetrating aroma of convent lilac,” he wrote later. Many of his teenage poems were erotic verses and he even wrote about crossing “wheat fields in search of your silken hands and your golden ponytails.” As a teenager many of his poems became published in city magazines and student journals. Most of them were autobiographical.
It’s night time: I’m alone and sad,
thinking in the light of a flickering candle,
about joy and pain,
about tired old age
and handsome, arrogant youth…
At birth Neruda’s name was different affectionately called ‘Neftali’ but he decided to change his name to Pablo Neruda in 1920 at the age of sixteen. He said he picked the name from a newspaper, because it sounded good. By the time of the age of twenty he was very famous with very many national awards, yet he was poor. The times were very difficult in Chile. The inter-war depression hit the country early. After graduation in French literature, he opted for a diplomatic career, first out of necessity, and then found leisure and pleasure to pursue his writing. His first posting was in Rangoon in 1926, at the age of twenty-two and then Colombo in 1929 for two years.
Neruda’s adventure in Colombo also was to escape an adventure in Rangoon. When Neruda was in Rangoon, Josie Bliss was his secretary for a while and then became what Neruda called a ‘love terrorist.’ She was also called the ‘Burmese panther.’ Josie became infectiously jealous about any other woman coming closer to Neruda. That was not the way of Neruda anyway. It was to escape from Josie that Neruda arranged his transfer to Colombo and in the middle of a night he took the boat to Colombo. Neruda wrote: “Sweet Josie Bliss gradually became so brooding and possessive that her jealous tantrums turned into an illness. Except for this, perhaps I would have stayed with her for ever.” For ever? It is unlikely that it would have been the case.
It is said that Neruda started writing ‘Residencia en la Tierra’ (Residence on Earth) on his way to Colombo as a way of exorcising Josie or his guilt in leaving her. But it didn’t work that way. She followed him later and made a big scene one fine day in front of his bungalow in Wellawatta. She even attacked a Burgher girl who had come to pay him a call. The person who came to Neruda’s rescue was my name sake Fernando who was living in front of Neruda’s house. For few days she was persuaded to stay with Fernandos and Fernando managed to convince Josie the impossibility of staying in Ceylon. The final compromise was for Neruda to come to the dock to bid farewell when Josie leaves; quite a feat of conflict resolution so to say. Neruda agreed. But when the boat was about to leave Josie suddenly turned round and as Neruda said later “seized by gust of grief and love, she covered my face with kisses and bathed me with her tears.”
Neruda’s life in Colombo was by and large ‘short and solitary,’ but not without interesting events. He had a frugal living, as the Chilean government had already cut down lot of allowances and perks. He had little furniture and slept on a camp bed, like a soldier or an explorer. So many Chilean consulates were already closed down. But perhaps what kept the consulate in Colombo going was not Neruda but Tea. He didn’t have much to do on trade or diplomacy, so the inclination for adventure, apart from poems. Neruda undoubtedly had many women passing by but talked about one in particular. She was a labourer in the municipality who came to empty the buckets of human waste every day. Neruda said that she was the most beautiful women he had seen in this country. This is what he said with censor:
“She was so lovely that, regardless her humble job, I couldn’t get her off my mind….I called out to her, but it was no use…She would go past without hearing or looking…One morning, I made up my mind, took a firm grip of her wrist and stared into her eyes…
It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open, all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me.”
Some encounters of Neruda were invented or imagined, Feinstein argued. Neruda mentions that he met Leonard Wolf in Ceylon. But Wolf had left the country in 1911. It is possible that it was during a Wolf’s subsequent visit to the country that Neruda met him although there is no known record. Or it could be just an imagination! According to Jason Wilson (A Companion to Pablo Neruda), Neruda’s first English translation, ‘Residencia’ as ‘Walking Around,’ was initiated by Andrew Boyed whom Neruda met in Colombo. Records show that Boyed, a British, resided in Ceylon during 1938 and 1940 and later as an architect. But he had been a frequent visitor to Ceylon before as a ‘tea-taster.’ Although Neruda’s stay in Ceylon was lonely, it was significant in his literary development. According to Ian Goonetilleke (Lanka, their Lanka), he had close interactions with Lionel Wendt which he also extensively mentions in his autobiography. His acquaintance with English literature and particularly of D. H. Lawrence undoubtedly grew during these days.
There are two other characters from Ceylon that Neruda mentions fondly in his autobiography: Kiriya and Brumpy. Kiriya was a tamed mongoose who used to walk with him and sleep with him. Brumpy was his servant boy at home who didn’t speak much but “smiled with a big horse-teeth.” He was amused that Brumpy called him master. After Colombo when Neruda went to Batavia (now Jakarta) he took both Brumpy and Kiriya. In 1950, Neruda again visited Ceylon when he was in exile as a communist and somebody in the Ceylon Communist Party, probably Peter Kenneman would have known about him. I mention these for any young aspirant to further research. Neruda was critical of the colonial subjugation created in the countries of Asia by the British, both in Rangoon and Colombo. He said:
“The English had entrenched themselves in their neighbourhoods and their clubs, hemmed by a vast multitude of musicians, potters, weavers, plantation slaves, monks in yellow and immense gods carved into the stone mountains. Caught between the Englishmen dressed every evening in dinner jackets, and the Hindus, whom I couldn’t hope to reach in their fabulous immensity, I had only solitude open to me, so that time was the loneliest in my life.”
*This article also benefitted from Jayantha Dhanapala (“Diplomat as a Creative Writer: Pablo Neruda,” 1997).