He was a poet beloved by the world. He was an ardent politician – a communist. He was a hero who once rescued 2000 people. Above all, he was a passionate collector, a true pack rat, who collected everything, including, it seems, women.
I wanted to know Chile, and to know Chile, I had to know Pablo Neruda, her most revered son.
I had read his work; loved most of it, excited by some of it, driven to righteous anger by much of it, impressed by it all. But because of his legendary collections, I realized to really get to know Neruda, I had to visit the pack rat’s houses.
Houses, plural. He built three. Yes, he collected those, too.
There’s a small stone tower that defines the house, but Neruda kept adding to its structure to house his ever growing collections of ships items, pottery, shells, books, statuary – you name it.
He began working on the house with his second wife Delia del Carril. He had begun an affair with her while still married to his first wife, a Dutch woman, Maria Hagenaar, from Indonesia.
Delia, a gifted artist, his best editor and critic, and an ardent political colleague, was also from a privileged Argentine family with many servants. As such, she never learned such basic domestic skills as cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Neruda, a thorough Latin male, was no help, and was always adding to the construction-zone they lived in, so the early years of Isla Negra tended to be messy and chaotic, but fun.
Delia was 20 years Neruda’s senior and eventually, after 18 years of marriage, the latter years strictly platonic, he began an affair with Mathilde Urrutia who became his third wife. Delia got a form of revenge, though, through longevity. She lived to be over 100 and outlived both Neruda and Mathilde.
At Isla Negra Neruda built a bar that only he was permitted to tend since he loved dispensing drinks to his friends. He also beached a boat for cocktail parties saying one did not need to go to sea in a boat to feel unsteady if one brought a drink.
He installed a great ship’s bell he would ring to let his neighbors know he was home and party was about to begin.
In his living room he installed most of a collection of ships’ mastheads, reserving a couple nudes to surprise guests in other parts of the house. Artist friends contributed various works to Isla Negra as well as his other houses. In his dining room large windows look out over the sea and opposite, over the garden. He placed his collection of blue and green vinters’ jugs on the sea side, the earth-toned ones on the garden side.
Galleries linking living spaces are lined with other collections: masks, pipes, Indonesian idols (he served as Chile’s ambassador to Indonesia in his youth – and had a passionate affair with a wild and violent native woman), sea shells, fabrics – you name it. On one wall is a plaque donated after his death to Isla Negra by the descendants of the Winnepeg. That was a Canadian fishing vessel he managed to commandeer in France that he used to rescue 2000 refugees from Spain’s Civil War who were dying in concentration camps.
His writing studio features a desk made of a hatch cover . He saw it bobbing in the waves and told his third wife, Mathilde, “I see my desk coming.” He waited on the beach all day until the sea delivered it.
His bed was set at an angle so he could see the sea from all directions. He had furniture built to maintain the angle after the housekeeper insisted on moving it to sweep.
Towards the end, he lay ill and dying on the bed looking at his beloved sea. Pinochet, who had just murdered Neruda’s dearest friend and newly elected Chilean president, Salvatore Allende (uncle to Isabelle), ordered his soldiers to invade and trash the house of the communist poet.
But when the young officer burst into the room, Neruda said, “Look around – there’s just one thing of danger for you here – poetry.” The soldier was overwhelmed at actually seeing the revered Nobel Prize winner. He apologized, ordered his men out and left Neruda and Isla Negra in peace.
Neruda and his wife Delia had a house in Santiago but when he brought Mathilde to Santiago, the lovers bought a piece of property and began building a home for her as a trysting place. It is nowhere near the sea but Neruda and Mathilde’s house still feels like a ship.
Although Neruda was a tall and burly man, he favored small doors and narrow steep stairs like a ship. He designed an artificial stream to water his gardens and so he could always hear water – it no longer exists, alas. His dining room is long and narrow, like a captain’s dining saloon. Narrow walkways link living spaces, and secret back spiral staircases pop up everywhere.
The house overlooks Bellavista, a poor working class neighborhood until Neruda moved in. Artists followed him, mingled with or grew out of the workers’ numbers until now Bellavista is the lively, colorful, Bohemian district Neruda envisioned when he built his home there.
He called his house La Chascona which means woman with wild hair after Mathilde who sported an unruly mop of a vivid maroon shade of red still favored by some Latin American women.
The artist Diego Rivera painted a portrait of her with Neruda’s distinctive profile emerging from her curls. It hangs in La Chascona.
This home, sadly, Pinochet’s soldiers did tear apart, burning his books. They ripped out the artificial stream. All the while Neruda lay dying in a nearby hospital. But Mathilde insisted a few days later, after Neruda’s death, on holding his funeral amidst the flooded ruins in a pouring rain.
The city rose in sorrow and protest, to march by the thousands behind his casket to the cemetery. They chanted a roll call: “Comrade Neruda. Present! Now and forever!” The foreign press was out in force so Pinochet was helpless to stop the brave procession
As Neruda had loved blue-collar Bellavista, he also loved the tough working class of the gritty but colorful port of Valparaiso. He had fallen in love with the place when he was in hiding from a hostile government there, before he made a famous escape for his life over the Andes on horseback to Argentina.
Valparaiso, or Valpo, as the locals dub it, cascades down 42 hills to the bay at its feet. Neruda chose a steep top peak for his home like a sea eagle’s eerie. He and Mathilde bought an unfinished home and began to reshape it to suit Neruda.
Smaller than the other homes, the shiplike feeling still permeates this house. A porthole replaces a window, blue and green tiles in a bath suddenly take you underwater. The bedroom at the top of the house seems to hover over the sea port below. Mathilde’s dressing robes still hang in the closet.
This house, too, was demolished by Pinochet’s soldiers after his death. Mathilde got a frantic call from neighbors to come to Valpo and see if she could somehow seal the house. Even the front door was gone. Shortly afterwards a friend of Neruda’s was in Valparaiso when he saw a huge crowd gathered around the house in an uproar. It turned out an angry eagle had flown into the rooms at the top through the broken windows, frightening everyone and it wouldn’t leave. This struck all who knew the poet because Neruda had always said if there was such a thing as reincarnation he would come back as an eagle.
La Sebastiana is not only the smallest, but seems in some ways, the most personal and private of Neruda’s homes. Despite his love of entertaining and the ever-present bar for him to tend, this home feels as though two people shared many close times here.
Neruda wrote a poem about watching La Sebastiana grow organically, and it is still on his desk written in green ink as he wrote all his work – saying it was the color of hope.
It took ousting Pinochet before the Chilean people could demand that La Chascona in Santiago be restored, and that all of Neruda’s homes be opened to the public as he had wanted. Isla Negra had to be sealed for years to legally protect it from being seized and destroyed by Pinochet, so it was the only one to survive intact.
Mathilde was active in making it all happen. She wanted a foundation in his honor established, but while she put all the pieces in place, the foundation couldn’t operate until after her death when Pinochet was finally gone.
Neruda would get a chuckle out of the prosperity of the once poor neighborhoods in Santiago and Valpo whose inhabitants capitalize on visitors’ interest in his homes today. Souvenir stalls abound; handicrafts as well as refreshments are hawked outside La Chascona and La Sebastiana.
His and Mathilde’s bodies were eventually moved to Isla Negra where he wanted to be buried and they lie beneath the slope. It is the most peaceful of the three homes he built, and even free of the souvenir stalls.
The houses are the fruit of a life lived fully, richly, generously, without restraint. The collections are not merely acquisitions, but obviously loved and honored. Like his work they excite, depress or anger you, but they always enrich you.
Pablo Neruda, I think I begin to know you now. I think I begin to understand your beloved Chile.