by Monique Filsnol
“A Single Drop Lucid and Heavy.”
A French admirer of Pablo Neruda visits his Isla Negra in Chile
Finally, I made it to Isla Negra.
“The great rain from the South falls on Isla Negra like a single drop lucid and heavy.”
Since I read these two lines I wanted to go to Isla Negra. How often have I murmured the verses and dreamed: “like a single drop lucid and heavy.”
I was fifteen when I first read Pablo Neruda’s poetry. My parents had sent me to Valencia, in Spain, to improve my mediocre grades in Spanish. I remember Maria Carmen, our teacher, reading the verses, reciting the words to Neruda’s rounded rhythm. I paid little attention to the music of his poems though and longed for the bell to ring, leaving me free to spend afternoons on the beach.
That was in the late 1960s, some ten years before Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize. He was nevertheless already famous. In 1924, at the age of 21, his “Love Poems and a Song of Despair” established his fame among Spanish-speaking readers. His masterpiece, Canto General was published in 1950. This epic poem, which is an ode to the Latin American continent and its struggle against oppression, is considered by some critics as among the most important pieces of American literature of the twentieth century.
Some thirty years later, while on a business trip to Santiago, I renewed my acquaintance with Neruda. Teresa, my Chilean colleague, turned out to be a long time admirer of Chile’s most famous poet.
“A souvenir from Chile” she said, offering me a thin book.
I read the title: Cien Sonetos de Amor. One Hundred Love Sonnets.
“You must have seen ‘Il Postino’?” I asked.
We had both adored Michael Radford’s film about Neruda’s life in exile in southern Italy; it received five Academy Award nominations in 1995. We remembered the animated dialogue between the poet and the postman on the meaning and use of metaphors. It was during his 1952 stay in Capri that Neruda published “The Captain’s Verses”, poems of love and passion.
Several days after my visit to Santiago, on a boring and lonely Sunday in nearly-deserted Asuncion in Paraguay, I picked up “One Hundred Love Sonnets” – yes my Spanish had improved in the intervening years – and I was overwhelmed, reading loudly, amazed by the endless beauty. It was like relishing one chocolate after another, each wrapped in multicolored paper and discovering that the last one you eat is always the best. Then, I stopped and read several times:
“The great rain from the South falls on Isla Negra.”
and felt a strange desire to go to Isla Negra, to go and see the great rain falling on this black island.
I called Teresa from Paraguay.
“Teresa, where do I take the boat to Isla Negra?”
She laughed and explained that Isla Negra was not an Island, but the name of the place where Neruda had his house perched on the dunes, in a pine forest, gazing over the Pacific Ocean.
But it was time for me to fly back to Europe. I would have to wait another four years to visit Isla Negra, on my next business trip to distant Chile.
The morning was hot, dry and dusty when I left Santiago. After two hours driving north, on the way to Valparaiso, we stopped on a curve at the top of a hill between El Quisco and El Tabo. A small board simply announced “Isla Negra”.
I joined a group of people at a small souvenir shop. I approached a small dark-haired woman who was busy sorting out postcards. “Do you think Neruda’s house is open today?” I asked.
“It’s open everyday of the year. Just follow the signs” she answered swiftly, turning to the next customer.
The cool and crisp breeze was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat of Santiago. I heard the ocean, the muffled rumble of the waves I could hear but not see through the forest of high pine trees. After a short walk on a dirt road I saw the house built on a long hill, with the beach, the rocks and the ocean further on. On this coast, the Pacific Ocean is an immense mass of water swaying freely between Australia and Chile. The ocean roars. The waves swell high showing all shades of green. Crests of white foam collapse and fluster on the blue sky. Maybe a happy glass-blower blows the waves from under the water so they emerge like large green glass balls. The glass balls swell and swell until they burst. The ocean breathes and, from underneath the sea the glass-blower blows his pipe again and again and invents all the shade of green, of emerald, verdant and translucent as green as glass beads.
From the terrace I saw a large cypress, and an Araucaria, the symbol of Chile, with pinecones that stood like large candles on a Christmas tree. How appropriate that the majestic Araucaria was so important to Isla Negra’s landscape. Neruda had an almost mystical connection with nature, and his life was intertwined with the political rises and falls of his country.
In the last chapter of his “Memoirs” Neruda related the 1973 military coup that brought General Pinochet to power, and the death, during the bombing of the Presidential Palace, of his friend Salvador Allende. Twelve days after the coup that brought fascism to Chile, Pablo Neruda died. He was seventy and deeply upset by the tragedy taking place in his country. Neruda was buried in the General Cemetery in Santiago, and it wasn’t until 1992, some two years after the restoration of democracy, that his remains, and those of his wife Mathilde Urrutia, were transferred to Isla Negra.
I joined a small group of visitors gathered on the terrace. They too had come to tour the Isla Negra house-museum, managed by the non-profit Pablo Neruda Foundation.
When Neruda bought this place it belonged to an old retired Spanish captain. The house was not finished and through the years he shaped it to his taste. It is made of several buildings along the hill.
We entered the older of the two houses through a small round hall paved with shells and white pebbles half covered with a green carpet.
“At last the house opens its silence,
we enter, step over abandoned stuff,
dead rats, empty farewells,
the water that wept in the pipes.”
We stepped into a high wood-ceilinged room. Opposite the door a wide fireplace surrounded by few armchairs occupied the wall. A bay window allowed for a wide view on the rocks, on the pine trees, and on the ocean. Several figureheads gazed down from the gray stone walls and two full size reproductions of carved wooden Italian renaissance angels hovered from the ceiling.
A narrow wooden staircase led to Neruda’s library on the mezzanine. Five hundred books lined up on the shelves were here waiting for him.
Neruda was Chilean Consul and lived and traveled abroad a large part of his life – Paris, Colombo, Rangoon, Batavia, Singapore, Moscow, New York. When returning from long trips he enjoyed his house. He liked it particularly in winter.
“so the day weaves and unweaves its heavenly net,
with time, salt, whispers, growth, roads,
a woman, a man, and winter on the earth.”
I imagined the fire crackling on a cold and dark night. Outside the ocean thundered, the wind hurled, the house screaked like a boat in the middle of the sea. During the winter nights of tempest, after all the lights were turned off and everybody was asleep, the figureheads whispered and rustled, narrating the endless wanderings of fishermen lost at sea in the midst of wind and gale.
“The girl made of wood didn’t come here on foot;
suddenly here she was on the beach, sitting on the cobbles,”
We worked our way up the steep and narrow staircase to reach the bedroom. The room is small with wall windows on two sides. From the bed Neruda had an unobstructed view of the sea. It would be like sleeping in the crow’s nest dreaming with the sky, with the stars and the moon shining like an apple above your head. On gray and misty days I imagined the rain patting on the window, on the roof, and the crash of the waves down there on the cobblestones.
I held the hand-rail on the way down to a long sitting room. Neruda’s wooden carved desk faces the sea, a picture of Baudelaire, his favorite poet, sits on the right of the desk.
The visit progresses on to the new part of the house through the narrow dining-room, full of light and colors overlooking the ocean: another large fireplace, another brightly decorated entrance.
Neruda had another desk in the new house, by the window, the light coming from the left. He selected for his desk an old carved ship’s door that he found on the beach one morning after a stormy night. A square thick piece of wood offered by the sea to the poet who liked to call himself “captain” but who feared sailing. The rough desk is small, just chess-board size. Perhaps Neruda did not work surrounded by piles of documents. During his time technology had not invaded his space. A few sheets of paper, several pencils and pens, and his favorite green ink lying on the desk. Light luggage for a great poet.
“While the huge seafoam of Isla Negra,
the blue salt in the waves splash over you,
I watch the bee at its work,
Avid in the honey of its universe.”
To visit Isla Negra:
Camino Vecinal s/n Isla Negra
Telephone/Fax: +56 35 461284
Extracts of Cien Sonetos de Amor translation by Stephen Tapscott
In between business trips, Monique Filsnol enjoys discovering places where writers have lived and worked
Orginally Published in 2005
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