A house about how to live

Print edition : November 15, 2013

Pablo Neruda's house by the sea in Isla Negra.

Writer, poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda in 1971 after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Photo: AFP

CAN houses teach you how to live? Perhaps, if they are strong and confident enough in their arguments, and persuasive and beguiling enough in how they present them. Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra, just by the sea on the coast of Chile, is such a house. It is one of several houses that the famous poet owned and lived in, but it was his favourite, and perhaps it is the most complete expression of his quirky but profound personality.

It has the most spectacular location, on a hill overlooking the sea, from where the waves splashing against the rocks can be watched in all their constantly changing eternity. On a beautiful sunny day in late September—the beginnings of spring in Chile—the sea was the most extraordinary incandescent, description-defying blue, capturing the sky and more. The myriad rocks of every shape and size that cause the water to spiral and foam on contact provide some insight into Neruda’s fascination with stones. He wrote of how these mad stones of Chile “spoke to me in a hoarse and drenching language, a jumble of marine cries and primal warnings”.

It is a long low house, not too large, with relatively modest-sized rooms that were obviously added on through the years. But it is extraordinary because of the amazing views it commands, and even more because it so absolutely bursts not just with things but with the poet’s personality. This still permeates and dominates the house, leaving the visitor amazed and joyful.

Pablo Neruda was, of course, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, acknowledged by the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was also a communist, friend of several great revolutionaries and inspiration to many others, Senator and statesman-diplomat. His poetry in works like Canto General and Residence on Earth, his love sonnets and countless other poems still move people across the world.

But he was also a crazy collector. Thousands and thousands of different items fill every conceivable space: beautiful works of art; crafts of the locality and of distant lands; remarkable natural objects; everyday things elevated to things of splendour. Clearly, the man who could write an ode to the potato could never lose his sense of wonderment. The prodigious plenitude of his collection means that each room is full of remarkable objects: ship’s mastheads, sculptures, finely crafted ships in bottles, butterflies that he collected himself, other insects, ceramic pottery pieces, paintings, embroidered paintings, murals made of stone, seashells and giant snails with luminous shells, tables fashioned from wheels or driftwood, musical instruments, pipes, even a life-sized wooden horse—and each one has a story, each sculpture a name!

There are the agates of Isla Negra, as he describes them, “often static with transparency, open to the light surrendered by the honeycomb of the ocean to the whim of the crystal: to purity itself”. Just outside, by the belfry (whose iron bell Neruda would ring whenever he returned home from a journey), there leans in the sand a vast iron anchor, powerful and silent. Of it Neruda wrote: “Everyone ages in his or her own way, and the anchor bears up in solitude as it did on the vessel, with dignity. One hardly notices the flaked off iron on its arms.”

Ships’ mastheads crowd the living room and capture many other spaces. These are mostly sculptures of men and women, of gods and imaginary creatures—each of them with a name and a personal history, either intrinsic or bestowed by Neruda. There is the impressive Medusa, taken from the sea from a wrecked vessel.

In 1948, when Neruda had to hide in a cellar in Valparaiso when communism was outlawed and then flee the country on horseback, the Medusa was also hidden by burying her in a shed near the house. Sometime during his exile she was lost. When he came back several years later, the sculpture was searched for and finally found adorning someone’s garden. Brought back with some difficulty, she now leans against a stone bench in the room with her face to the ocean.

In the dining room, a rather fierce bust of a famous pirate stares at a sculpture of the opera singer Jenny Lind on the opposite side. Neruda claimed he placed them so because he wanted them to fall in love. But the plan did not work, as “she just kept looking out to the sea”. The story of a plank of wood that was used as his desk in a little study looking out onto the garden is equally idiosyncratic. Gazing out from his bedroom window one day, Neruda saw a plank of amber-coloured driftwood being borne by the waves. “Look, Matilde,” he called to his wife, “the sea is bringing the poet a table!” Together they went out to await its arrival—which was delayed sufficiently for Matilde to have to wade into the ocean to grab it and bring it back for Neruda, who had claimed it as the ocean’s gift.

The wooden horse—a handsome creature—was originally on display outside a horse’s stable near his childhood home in the south of the country. The young Pablo (then called Neftali Reyes) would pass by it every day as he went to school. As a boy he told the owner that he wanted to buy it, so of course the man laughed at him. But half a century later, when he was already living at Isla Negra (his third house), he heard that there was a fire in his home town and the shop had burned down. Somehow the owner had managed to save the wooden horse, excepting only the tail, made of real horsehair, which was burned. So Neruda rushed down south and was able to buy the horse at the auction and have it transported to his home. He threw a party for its arrival, to which his friends had to come in appropriate costume, carrying presents for the horse. Three friends brought tails for the horse, so now the wooden horse is the proud possessor of not one but three tails, two at the back and one draped along its mane.

The bar (a room he created in all his homes) is full of coloured glass, swinging angels and all sorts of other random but pleasing items. On the beams are carved the names of Neruda’s dead friends so that they could continue to join in the conviviality: Federico Garcia Lorca, Paul Eluard, Miguel Hernandez and others. These beams, in turn, are directly below the master bedroom so that these dead friends could be near him even as he slept. Of them he wrote: “I didn’t write them on the roof beams because they were famous, but because they were companions.... Why did they leave so soon? Their names will not slip down from the rafter. Each one of them was a victory. Together they were the sum of my light. Now, a small anthology of my sorrows.” Neruda’s whimsy and playfulness are fully evident here: there are eccentricities and bagatelles at every turn. A little rail engine that would delight children sits proudly in the garden, to be viewed from the dining room. A small bathroom off a hallway has fierce African sculptures on both sides of the door, supposedly to scare women away. For this toilet was meant for men only, its walls plastered with risqué drawings of scantily clad women. Another corridor has the most amazing collection of ships in bottles, very fine and detailed work of different sizes, opposite an extraordinary range of masks from all over the world.

The master bedroom has huge windows on three sides, with the bed positioned at an angle so that the morning sun rises at the head of the bed, and the sunset over the sea can be seen on both sides from it. It was here that Neruda (already suffering from cancer) came to rest on the morning of September 11, 1973, when he heard how La Moneda (the presidential palace in Santiago) had been stormed, and his friend Salvador Allende killed by the agents of what would become one of the most brutal military dictatorships in a region already known for its vicious regimes.

A few days later he had to be taken to hospital, his spirit broken by the devastating news of the killings of the young in the stadium and on the streets, the arrests and murders of his friends. His fragile body sank into a coma. He never came back alive to his beloved house, which was taken over by the junta, as his other houses were ransacked and plundered. It was not until 1992, after the end of the military dictatorship, that the bodies of Neruda and his beloved third wife Matilde, for whom he wrote his most wonderful love poems, were buried together according to their wishes, at a spot between the house and the sea, caught between wind and waves.

In the poem “Summary”, in the collection Plenos Poderes, or Fully Empowered, Neruda wrote that his life, “water on stone, goes singing its way between joy and obligation”. This house still reflects that joy, still can show us what it might be like to be water on stone.