24 October, 2020

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Adventures Of Pablo Neruda In Ceylon

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. 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.

First Controversy 

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.

 

Pablo Neruda

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.

Early Years 

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
I chose
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.

Josie-Manappu

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.”

Other Events

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). 

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    Thanks!
    Interesting !

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    Thanks to Laksiri, we have some moments to escape from the discouraging and dreary world of matters political and those that sadly divide our once charmingly united society. I might be described as a student of poetry – albeit a below-average one. But I keep abreast and am fascinated reading of Pablo Neruda. Chile too is a country that fascinates me immensely for several reason – one being the Chileans, like the Russians, have a reputation of being avid lovers of poetry. I made it a point to see the hugely successful movie The Postman (IL Postman) that came some years ago – a story that centred around this Chilean poet. There were some great individual performances in the movie.

    Berty Wickramapala of the Maliban Industry family was, for many years,
    the Hony Consul for Chile here. He probably is. I recall Berty telling me of an official function where a tree was planted in Neruda’s honour at the Victoria/Viharamaha Devi Park – opposite the Colombo Town Hall a few years ago. Yet another incident I recall of this brilliant poet was one where Nehru had virtually brushed him aside, when Neruda called on him officially. Neruda had not taken it well and it was said, later, Nehru had asked an official to visit him in his Hotel and enquire if all was well and if the Govt can assist in any way to make his stay comfortable in Delhi. Apparently, Neruda had responded to Nehru not too politely. Perhaps some in the audience know more of the incident of a proud man from a small country who refused to be bullied. It may well have been an off day for Nehru, usually associated with courtesy and etiquette.

    Senguttuvan

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      Yes! Senguttvan, Il postino (The Postman), directed by Michael Redford was a beautiful film, and its making had been urged by the postman himself, Massimo Troisi, who died (heart disease?) before the film was finished. Noiret, of course, was superb as Neruda. The film became so popular that on the back of some editions of the Chilean novel on which it was based, the story is described as being set on an Italian island, or anyway, NOT in the location Skarmeta set it! But do try to get a copy of the book, even in English. It’s very special. I am not so sure about the ‘authenticity’ of the Italian coastal villagers knowing much about Neruda and his poetry, but the novel, set in Chile, can take for granted that the workers, etc, were very familiar with N’s poetry and cd probably recite huge chunks. What a wonderful feeling for the poet to go out among THOSE people and have them welcome and respond to him.

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    I am not too well now, otherwise would very much like to join these reminiscences of Neruda whom I photographed in the very late 1960s or very early 1970s when he read his poetry (along with other famous poets) at the Round House in Chalk Farm (on an anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, I think it was). Thank you Dr Fernando for giving us this chance to learn about & share what we might know about the marvellous poet. I hope to come back to this in a few days even if interest has tailed off by then.

    Just a note or 2. Feinstein got it completely wrong about Neruda & Leonard Woolf. Neruda, in his own memoir never said he knew Woolf, only that he had read the book by him lent by Wendt (Village in the Jungle). In fact Neruda himself was also slightly confused about the reason Woolf left Ceylon. If Virginia had turned him down Woolf would most probably have been back in this country after going on leave the England.

    I think it was actually 1957 when Neruda next came to Ceylon, for an internationaL PEace Conference organised by the Communist Party. He was accompanied by his third (and last) wife Matilde, and the Brazilian writer Jorge A… (????very famous…) and HIS wife. Neruda went in search of two houses he was acquainted with during his tour as consul (for our TEA of course, Chile being prob the only S American country that relished tea!–I saw someone using a pseudonym recalling neruda’s servant’s name– wondering why on earth Neruda had been sent to Ceylon…must have been to get him out of the way, he says (while scoffing at a letter Sharm de Alwis had written on 19/4, & quibbling about the use of the word ‘diplomatic’ which S d A had simply quoted from Neruda. ). Not at all! Neruda, whose little TWENTY LOVE POEMS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR had brought him such praise and almost adoration, only a few years earlier, needed a job and also to get out into a wider world. Alas, for him (the man, the human being, i mean, not so much, perhaps the poet, Ceylon (as it still was) was a very painful experience for him. Utterly lonely, unable to hear his own beloved tongue for the time he was here, very poor in his ill paying position, which also condemned him to join the ‘chota peg’ company (most of it probably utterly philistine — s supposition born out by one of its members amazement that Neruda had been mesmerized by ‘native’ music he had listened to, and couldnt drag himself away from), if not for the company of a few Ceylonese friends (like Wendt, especially), and the English Andrew Boyd (same age), who, I believe, did the first English translation ‘Walking Around’ (I think it was), Neruda may easily have just gone on walking as far as he could out into the sea at Wellawatte where he used to bathe everymorning.

    On his 1957 visit Neruda looked and looked for his old home, but Colombo had changed so much. When he finally found it, he discovered it was to be pulled down the next day! I have drafted quite a bit about Neruda in Ceylon which I hope to publish one day. Sometime in the 1990s my h & I went in search of the SITE of the house, to find it still standing!. We asked the owner if we could put a plaque on the house to say PN lived here etc… and my h designed the plaque in 4 langs.. our 3, and Spanish. With a FEWFive or 6 of us met and were eager to

    I may have a little more about the ‘cool’ to put it mildly treatment Neruda received at Nehru’s hands.

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    I am not too well now, otherwise would very much like to join these reminiscences of Neruda whom I photographed in the very late 1960s or very early 1970s when he read his poetry (along with other famous poets) at the Round House in Chalk Farm (on an anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, I think it was). Thank you Dr Fernando for giving us this chance to learn about & share what we might know about the marvellous poet. I hope to come back to this in a few days even if interest has tailed off by then.

    Just a note or 2. Feinstein got it completely wrong about Neruda & Leonard Woolf. Neruda, in his own memoir never said he knew Woolf, only that he had read the book by him lent by Wendt (Village in the Jungle). In fact Neruda himself was also slightly confused about the reason Woolf left Ceylon. If Virginia had turned him down Woolf would most probably have been back in this country after going on leave the England.

    I think it was actually 1957 when Neruda next came to Ceylon, for an internationaL PEace Conference organised by the Communist Party. He was accompanied by his third (and last) wife Matilde, and the Brazilian writer Jorge A… (????very famous…) and HIS wife. Neruda went in search of two houses he was acquainted with during his tour as consul (for our TEA of course, Chile being prob the only S American country that relished tea!–I saw someone using a pseudonym recalling neruda’s servant’s name– wondering why on earth Neruda had been sent to Ceylon…must have been to get him out of the way, he says (while scoffing at a letter Sharm de Alwis had written on 19/4, & quibbling about the use of the word ‘diplomatic’ which S d A had simply quoted from Neruda. ). Not at all! Neruda, whose little TWENTY LOVE POEMS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR had brought him such praise and almost adoration, only a few years earlier, needed a job and also to get out into a wider world. Alas, for him (the man, the human being, i mean, not so much, perhaps the poet, Ceylon (as it still was) was a very painful experience for him. Utterly lonely, unable to hear his own beloved tongue for the time he was here, very poor in his ill paying position, which also condemned him to join the ‘chota peg’ company (most of it probably utterly philistine — s supposition born out by one of its members amazement that Neruda had been mesmerized by ‘native’ music he had listened to, and couldnt drag himself away from), if not for the company of a few Ceylonese friends (like Wendt, especially), and the English Andrew Boyd (same age), who, I believe, did the first English translation ‘Walking Around’ (I think it was), Neruda may easily have just gone on walking as far as he could out into the sea at Wellawatte where he used to bathe everymorning.

    On his 1957 visit Neruda looked and looked for his old home, but Colombo had changed so much. When he finally found it, he discovered it was to be pulled down the next day! I have drafted quite a bit about Neruda in Ceylon which I hope to publish one day. Sometime in the 1990s my h & I went in search of the SITE of the house, to find it still standing!. We asked the owner if we could put a plaque on the house to say PN lived here etc… and my h designed the plaque in 4 langs.. our 3, and Spanish. With a FEWFive or 6 of us met and were eager to

    I may have a little more about the ‘cool’ to put it mildly treatment Neruda received at Nehru’s hands.

    Oh da this keeps closing ancdf I have written so muich more that has disapeeared npow

    I will try again in a few days…manel f

    I even have a book written (& with a ‘naughty’ drawing) in by neruda in 1949 to a mutual friend…then living in PaRIS
    she gave me it about 20 years later.

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      Dear Ms Fonseka,

      It is sad to hear that you are not well. Your contribution and reminiscences are highly appreciated. You probably are correct that he visited Ceylon in 1957 and I would recheck. My main purpose was to create interest and also to throw my own reflections.

      As Senguttuvan correctly stated it is, even for me, ‘a moment of escape from discouraging and dreary matters of politics.’ Get well.

      Laksiri

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    Iunderstand from a well informed person that Pablo Neruda lived in what is now called the 42nd Lane in Wellawatta. As the lane does not have a name can I propose that the lane be named Pablo Neruda Lane or even PABLO PARA?

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      Well, I wonder if the people who have lived there for generations would agree that their ‘road’/’lane’ does not have a name. And anyway, have you been down there recently?
      Incidentally, I am not a great supporter of these overnight road name changes which mostly take place now (possibly in contravention of bye laws) without the residents in them having a chance to express their feelings. When our little group’s endeavour to have a plaque installed on Neruda’S old home (it WAS finally demolished), we sought to have it put up somewhere at the beginning of the street, without any idea of getting the road name altered. But that too, fell thru. i cant remember why now.

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    Ms Manel Fonseka is such a fountain of learning. I hope you will regain your health soon to educate us of the many things in your wide
    catholicity of knowledge. That the incurable romantic-poet Neruda should be fittingly celebrated by the City of Colombo with some form of visible memorial would have been grasped by any leadership that has an inkling of learning. I hope the Rajapakses will take the lead and not commit that grotesque insult to Ananda Cumaraswamy.

    It is to the credit of ICES II Postman was shown to a selected Colombo audience a few years ago.

    Senguttuvan

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      IL Postino (The Postman) is a moving Italian film which talks about ‘love and learning’ or ‘learning to love.’ It is about the relationship between Pablo (in exile) and Mario (his postman) in Italy. It is also about Mario and Beatrice. Mario loved Beatrice but didn’t know how to say or reveal. Pablo taught him. This was one lesson which I copied from listening to a trailer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-wrM1ptyHM

      Mario: Don Pablo, what is a metaphor?

      Pablo: When you want to say something, you say it through another, comparing.

      Mario: I don’t understand.

      Pablo: When you say sky is weeping what do you mean?

      Mario: It’s raining.

      Pablo: Yes, very good. That’s a metaphor.

      Mario: Why it has got a complicated name?

      Pablo smiles.

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      Yes, it was thanks to ICES that it was shown here. So maybe I even saw you there. I had seen the film before, in Italian with English subtitles and I tried to persuade ICES to show it that way so that people could hear the beautiful rhythms of the poem Neruda develops sitting on the shore with Mario. True it was Italian and not the original Spanish, but to my ears it was absol. beautiful to hear. Anyway, I think ICES and anyone who overheard me thought I was nuts.

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    Laksiri,

    Thank you for the video clip. It is this discussion on “Metaphor” in Il Postino that remains in the mirror of my eye. What a lovely and classy movie. What a treasure trove CT is and can become. It accommodates all shades of opinion – political, economic, social and the very bizarre in all of these too. And thankfully, the beauty of poetry and literature too. Everyone is given a chance to say his/her thing across the racial and religious divide.

    As my friend the late Mervyn de Silva eloquently declared to me in many of the delightful nocturnal meetings we enjoyed together before he died so prematurely “it is left to each of us to act as our own censor in sensitive matters” The tragedy is the post-1960 generation, smitten as it is by the racial prejudice virus, will be so devoid of exposure to the literary genius of the world; poor without knowledge of the great literary heritage. They are unlikely to get the pleasure of this discussion we have had in these pages of Neruda and Il Postino. The Kaduwa, metaphorically speaking, has done its destructive task. The semi-literate mono-lingual nation lies divided, wounded and bleeding. Fortunately, the big wig of the BSS tells us his children go to the (English based) International Schools. Ratharan putha/duwa are saved from the Kaduwa.

    Senguttuvan

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    A couple of quotes from an article (‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’) I wrote for an exhibition of his photographs in 1994. They touch upon some of Neruda’s relationships & possible influences (Wendt choosing to play the Chilean composer, for instance) in Ceylon. Comments in square brackets have just been added now.

    ‘It is tempting to see in a solo recital in 1931, the influence of his [i.e. Wendt] friend, the Chilean Consul, Ricardo Reyes (better known as the poet Pablo Neruda). After opening with Bach and Chopin, he broke into a series of Chilean Tonadas by Allende. An interesting review of this concert by a young tea-taster, A.C.H. Boyd (later the architect, Andrew Boyd) conveys a vivid impression of Wendt’s playing at that time.’ [which I found years ago in the local press.]

    And later…

    ‘In January 1930, supported by Winzer, Wendt organized what can now be seen as a landmark exhibition of work by Keyt and Beling. It drew a lyrical review from Pablo Neruda, translated by Wendt from the Spanish.’ [I am sure many people interested in the ’43 Group in SL know this review. It was of considerable help to two young painters whose work was denigrated by the older generation ‘running’ the art world here under the British. I cant recall now how I decided LW translated the review. It could also have been Andrew Boyd with help from another, the person who collaborated on the translation of ‘Walking Around”. Even people like Jason Wilson, I think, are confused about who that person was. ]

    And later…

    ‘”Alborada”, the house he [LW] built and lived in from the late ’20s, was demolished in 1950 to make way for the first stage of the Memorial complex. The Memorial Theatre was opened in 1953, and the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Gallery in May 1959.’’ [‘Alborada’ was the other house that PN looked for on his 1957 visit with Jorge Amado etc. Little wonder he couldn’t find it – no memory of LW to be found in his Memorial, alas! Neruda was so confused that he photographed another building which still stands in what was until recently Guildford Crescent, and it is this that is identified as LW’s house in the PN archives!

    (Incidentally, I think now that it was SP (A?) Amerasingham – of TRIBUNE? – who helped N find his Wellawatte home, of which a small single pillar or gatepost remained when we last looked.]

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    I’ve admired Neruda all my life–and recently got good enough at Spanish to read his collected poems in the original. I’m slowly reading the memoir Confieso Que He Vivido (I Confess That I Have Lived) in Spanish and am loving it. His two- and three-page anecdotes create such a vivid, scrapbook-like impression of his life…. In the bits about Burma and Ceylon/Sri Lanka, he writes about the importance of his poem “Tango del Viudo” – Widower’s Tango. It’s not in the selected greatest hits of Neruda that I own (though most of his great stuff is)–but it’s worth a read online…. He also writes of his body having been on fire back then –and this poem has no shortage of that erotic fire…. I love his love of Allende and his anti-imperialist fundamentally democratic response to things (rejected by the Brit colonizers for hanging with the gente) –but hope he gave up on his Stalinist infatuation later on. I’m praying that’ll happen around page 350….Yadda yadda! Te queremos, Neruda.

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