Pablo Neruda’s Pacific hideaway

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The old house and grounds at Isla Negra aren't on an island in any geographical sense, but somehow they seem to be floating in a sea of peace and tranquility. Maybe that's the poetry talking. It is, after all, world-famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's favourite home out here on the west coast of South America and a spot that inspired some of his finest work.

The house and grounds overlook a public beach in this small town about 90 minutes by bus from Santiago, Chile's bustling capital, and today it is teeming with sun worshippers, shell seekers and rock hounds as the southern summer begins in earnest. Not far off in the Casablanca Valley, the grapes are ripening for another good season of vino blanco. The white wine grapes grow best on the Pacific coast, the reds closer to the still-snow-capped Andes Mountains.

Clearly, the poet's table was well supplied with local vintages. Indeed, a glance inside some of the rooms of this rambling estate reveals a collection of wine bottles the contents of which undoubtedly loosened the tongues of more than a few of Neruda's dinner guests and friends. Among those friends were Cubist painter Pablo Picasso, American playwright Arthur Miller and fellow poet Federico García Lorca.

Exotic is one way to describe the cluster of seaside buildings and their owner, but perhaps the word eccentric also applies. The house is brimming with oddball collections. Olive oil vessels adorn some windowsills. Wine bottles that contain miniature ships decorate others. There are the buxom ship's mastheads. Wood, rock and metal statues dot the acreage. There's even an old tractor painted black and red that sits in a courtyard. A sailboat, ship's bell and anchor that overlook the sea are probably the most photographed of the poet's memorabilia.

His real name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. He adopted his pen name from Jan Neruda, the 19th Century Czech poet. He was born in 1904 in Parral south of the university city of Talca in a wine-growing region of central Chile. But he grew up in the southern city of Temuco where he met fellow poet Gabriela Mistral, the 1945 Nobel Prize winner. She provided early encouragement and in 1971 he matched her success with a Nobel Prize of his own.

Latin America's Whitman

Neruda drew much of his insight from nature, both physical and human. His insights have been compared to those of Walt Whitman, the American poet that he admired. Some say he wrote only in green ink to signify his love of nature. Out here on the windy west coast of a country swelling with natural beauty, it would seem to make sense that he would mould his observations of nature into his poetic vision.

There is much in the poems about the sea and the flowers and shrubs that surround the odd-angled house and its several additions. But his book about the lost city of the Incas set high in the Andes at Macchu Picchu in Peru seemed to mesh his politics with his love of nature. Many of his other poems also reflect his left-wing political beliefs. If his passion for nature seems at odds with his politics, some admirers argue that the poet merged the two in his quest for simplicity and fairness.

The poet as diplomat and activist

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he served as Chile's honourary consul in Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Spain and elsewhere. He joined the Republican movement in Spain, reacting to the murder of his friend Frederico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and dramatist. He returned to Chile in 1943 and in 1945 was elected to the Senate. At the same time, he also joined the Communist Party.

As a result of his support of a 1947 miners' strike and his protests against the government's repressive measures against the strikers, he went underground for two years before leaving Chile again from 1949 to 1952. Born to a railway worker father and a schoolteacher mother, he apparently never forgot his working-class roots despite his wealth.

Allende's ambassador and comrade

President Salvador Allende, the world's first elected Marxist president, made him Chile's ambassador to France from 1970-72. In 1973, when Allende was assassinated in the bloody military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, the poet's health deteriorated.

Some say his death was hastened by the political killing. Soldiers are said to have stormed and ransacked the Isla Negra house as he lay dying of leukemia. It took until 1990 for it to be restored and turned into a museum to celebrate the poet's life and give the world a glimpse of his distinctive artistic tastes. The Fundacion Pablo Neruda now administers affairs at the three Neruda homes with great efficiency and a keen eye on the proceeds from shop sales and guided tours.

His works are available in the shop and are sold worldwide, perhaps the most beloved being his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924). There is also a book of poems dedicated to Isla Negra filled with references to the natural surroundings. Readers also admire the erotica that weaves through some of the work. One book of poems was inspired by La Chascona, his nickname for the last of his three wives. The name refers to the unruly hair of Matilde Urrutia, a former singer that was hired to care for him and eventually married him and shared his last years at Isla Negra. They are both buried there.

Putting Isla Negra on the map

Neruda's fame alone is the reason Isla Negra even appears on the tourist maps. The nearby larger town of El Tabo is not mentioned. A last-resort-motel kind of place, it offers sun lovers a night's lodging and a glass of chope (draft beer) or a bottle of the popular Cristal or Escudo after a long, hard day of bronzing themselves.

The Restaurant Rincon del Poeta is packed both inside and out as a guitarist quietly serenades two young female travellers. He wears a tango hat like the one famous Argentinean singer Carlos Gardel wore. The café troubadour looks surprisingly like the postman in the 1994 film Il Postino. Incidentally, the film is based partly on the poet's time in exile on the isle of Capri in Italy. The late French actor Philippe Noiret played a solid stand-in for Neruda.

It was late afternoon at the restaurant, suggesting that the young travellers might have been enjoying a quaint Chilean custom called 'onces,' a practice akin to afternoon tea. Growing up in Temuco, Neruda's family probably would have observed it in the privacy of their home between 4 and 6 p.m. A gourd of yerba mate might have rested near his writing desk, although biographers say that his father took a dim view of the young poet's writerly aspirations.

If you try to buy onces at any of the local cafes, most with signs boasting something akin to "Pablo Neruda lived here," you'll be out of luck. It is a private affair that has so far managed to escape the tourist industry's insatiable appetite for gringo dollars, euros and yen. It was all beer and empanadas in El Tabo and Isla Negra.

As I sipped Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc, I noticed an old typewriter resting on the sill behind me. Across the way, two old women were knitting images of the Neruda home into wall hangings that were for sale along with Pablo Neruda T-shirts, postcards, books, bookmarks, pottery and tourist trinkets. Posters with a few lines of his poetry were selling well that day. It seemed inappropriately commercial given the former resident's political views.

Though Isla Negra is said to be his favourite, he owned two other almost equally eccentric houses. For a communist, Neruda knew how to pick his real estate. La Chascona in Santiago's Barrio Bellavista, for example, is set in a tree-lined quarter of the city teeming with trendy outdoor cafés and taverns that boast a lively literary and musical clientele. Lapis lazuli shop windows sparkle with hand-made jewellery. Small galleries offer local paintings and sculpture.

La Sebastiana, too, is prime real estate perched high above the famous port city of Valparaiso. Set in Cerro Bellavista, one of several hilltop neighbourhoods called cerros, visitors can climb to it or ride one of several charming old funiculars that inch up the steep inclines. The oldest of them dates back to the 1880s. Far below, cruise ships drop anchor and disgorge busloads of American, European and Asian tourists bound for the wineries of southern Chile or Argentina's Mendoza region and the beaches of nearby Vina del Mar.

As we walked along the highway leading to El Tabo and the bus back to Santiago, we were confronted with the tourist trappery that often accompanies an artist's fame. There was a block-long line of kiosks dripping with Neruda items - cheap clothing, knitted wall hangings, wood and metal sculptures, even a box of used books.

Among them was a faded paperback copy of one of Neruda's books. Inside a poem seemed to speak to the street and to me: "I understand that many people are thinking,/"Say, what's Pablo doing?" I'm here./If you look for me on this street/You'll find me with my violin/Ready to sing/And to die."

Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer.

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