Translated by Gustavo Pellón
Imagine that you were born in an infinitely long and skinny country stretched out between a jagged mountain range and a lively sea that flogs thousands of kilometers.
Imagine now that this country has a poet.
That is to say, A POET.
It isn’t that this country doesn’t have other poets. Traditional and avant-garde, intelligent and banal, bald and hairy, successful or resentful, healthy or sick, admired in their province or in the world.
No. This country has as many poets as the sea has waves and the mountain range has peaks.
Except that there is a poet who is the sea, who is the mountain range.
Just as Nature doesn’t need an identity card or a passport, this poet needs no explanation.
He was a man who defined himself as yet one more leaf in the great human tree.
When he saw bread, he asked about the baker.
I don’t know if he was a great lover, but his poetry made couples love.
I don’t know if he was a great politician, but in times of conflict he sowed his word and kindled hope in luminous cities of justice.
He traveled the world and was a friend of the great poets of the 20th century. Before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971, his images had earned the approving consensus of millions.
In life he was a myth.
After his death, he is a man.
I was lucky enough to be born in that country that you now imagine.
The land of Pablo Neruda.
* * * *
My relationship with him, the one that inspired the novel and the play which culminated in the film Il postino (The Postman), was at the beginning so strictly pragmatic that to confess it here brings a blush to my cheek.
When I was a boy, or little more, of thirteen or fourteen, I used to fall hopelessly in love every other day—and forever—with women older than me. But they always preferred the handsome high school seniors, who could expertly curl their lips to croon the ballads of Nat King Cole. Eminent smokers of Richmond cigarettes in the erotic corners of the high school, they were the deft raiders of the uniform blouses of my platonic and impossible lovers.
They knew how to talk to girls in husky voices, looking them straight in the eyes, blowing smoke-rings with the precision of watchmakers, while The Platters sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
We instead, in the lower grades, would start to scratch our necks and our pimples as soon as a girl came near. If one of them even asked us the time we would turn purple, then garnet, and an ocean of embarrassment would make us perspire.
There were occasions in which life, matchmaking cousins, or charity placed one of these beauties, whom I loved with all the fury of silence, within my operational range. Well then, not even alone on the living room sofa, her mother away playing canasta, did I muster the courage to say something. But on the way home, kicking stones through the streets of Santiago, the words would come to me in a flood. I would have said this or that, my sweet. In the solitude of my neighborhood, I looked like a window box with all the flowery phrases that filled my mouth.
And so my days went by, I, simmering in my silence while all the other boys wet their lips on the fresh mouths of all the girls in the world, when a book by Neruda entitled Todo el amor fell into my hands.
A year before I had trafficked ignominiously in poetry. In order to terrorize our French teacher, who taught us harmless verses like “Sur le pont d’Avignon,” I staged a ballet inspired by Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. It was a precarious performance of “Le vin de l’assassin” where, over Baudelaire’s tomb (made of black cardboard), two ballerinas fought for his soul. Meanwhile, my friend Pato Carvacho, a future captain of the air force who had no part in the coup against Allende, played on the accordion “La mer” by Charles Trenet, one of two gallic tunes in his repertoire, which also included “C’est si bon.” I recited the poem in French as if I had pebbles in my mouth, and our teacher, le cochon Arenás, was fully justified in giving me a “better than average” for the performance.
But it was not in the area of bilingualism that I earned fame and popularity. The two ballerinas, brought from an opaque vocational academy nearby, appeared in my choreography clad in clingy tights that not only allowed us to appreciate their terse curves but also insinuated all their clefts.
The inmates of my class broke into a grateful, uproarious ovation, and I became the “cool guy” who had brought “practically naked chicks” to the immaculate Instituto Nacional. Though in possession of the most perfect virginity, I had to assume the pose of a type of gigolo and push aside my classmates, who begged me in their breaking voices to introduce them to my ballerina friends.
They begged me, the most impoverished of all in terms of eroticism!
“Guardian angel, help me make my debut,” I prayed every night, my bedsheet lifting in a little promontory.
Neruda’s Todo el amor had illustrations of long nymphs, like models in a magazine, and I began to imagine that they were the real women at whom the poet aimed his verses. From the drawings my eyes came to rest on the words, and in a few days I proclaimed that Neruda was the ventriloquist of my soul:
¡Ah, los vasos del pecho! ¡Ah, los ojos de ausencia!
¡Ah, las rosas del pubis! ¡Ah, tu voz lenta y triste!
Ah, the goblets of the breast! Ah, the eyes of absence!
Ah, the roses of the pubis! Ah, your voice, slow and sad!
Like children who fall in love with a blanket or a toy and fondle it day and night, I designated Neruda’s book my Seeing Eye dog. I strolled with that book in the bitterest double solitude: without a girl by my side and with those enormous poems that rubbed her absence in my face.
Until one winter evening, when a certain infinite brunette asked me on her grandfather’s sofa what book I had in my hand. We read some verses until darkness came. She made no move to turn on the light, and I suddenly realized that her tongue was sliding over my lips and opening them slightly, making its way to my own tongue.
The rest was a delicious confusion, difficult to describe in detail and which I should spare my honorable readers.
Concretely, I owe Neruda my loss of innocence.
I believe that from that moment I decided to repay that exquisite debt some day. And perhaps in this provincial anecdote lies the impulse for my vocation as a writer. I already had ample proof of the power of words!
In a “Torre” brand notebook which I rediscovered in my parents’ trunk while I was conceiving these pages, I had written with feverish marks the following report: “I bless my clumsy, dishevelled boy, gestures and my borrowed words; I bless their shoreless sea and the delicious storm in which I am drowning. So this was love. Thank you Don Pablo.”
It is not at all strange, then, that when I published my first book, El entusiasmo (Enthusiasm)—my readers will understand my optimism if I swear that I was young and skinny and had hair then—I ran to Neruda’s house in Isla Negra to secure his opinion and, who knows, perhaps a word of praise.
I punished my swift citroneta, and I arrived with the book pulsating in my fingers. Neruda turned it over in his hand, leafed through it bored, and pulling up his pants said: “All right, boy. I’ll give you my opinion in two months.”
Two weeks later I was back ringing all the bells of Isla Negra.
When the poet opened his door, we had the following dialogue:
“Poet, it’s me.”
“I can see that.”
“Did you read it?”
“What did you think of it?”
Neruda lifted his eyes to some migratory birds, no doubt wishing he could fly off with them.
“Good,” he said.
I flushed with embarrassment and pride. The poet Pablo Neruda thought my book was “good.” With one foot I pressed down on the other to keep myself from levitating.
“But,” he added, lowering his gaze to my forehead, “this means nothing because all first books written by Chileans are good.” He paused dramatically. “It’s best to wait for the second one.”
Years later my relationship with Neruda, after several adventures of a sentimental and picaresque nature in which he was my sponsor and stupefied witness, acquired more substantial nuances.
Toward 1969 he was a presidential candidate, and I had the opportunity to see him during the political campaign in a shantytown on the outskirts of Santiago. It had rained, and the nearly two hundred people who heard his speech stood with their feet deep in the mud. They were very poor, and their situation certainly had not allowed them to go beyond the first grades of primary school. The poet concluded his harangue half-heartedly and was getting ready to descend from the wooden stage, when the people stopped him, shouting: “Poems, poems, we want poems!” Neruda let himself be coaxed for a minute, and then he took a book out of his pocket.
The image of those two hundred people, shivering from the cold, who most likely had not had breakfast, demanding “poems, poems,” made a deep impression on me, and I knew that I would not forget it as long as I lived. Perhaps this is another of the modest clues that led me to the book The Postman.
I see the work and life of Don Pablo as a spiral which rises from deep vegetable shadows toward the plenitude of natural light, vital and social, and later in his last days turns back again to a melancholy solitude, yearning for quietude, shadow, and silence. That is the hour of the infinite, when the country he loves comes apart in his life, the noise of the not-always-glorious sagas, the sickness that bites the healthy animal.
The poet died in 1973, ten days after the coup ended Salvador Allende’s life and Chile’s liberty for many years. With painful synchronization, the poet and democracy died. It was almost a metaphor offered to me by history. I decided to harvest it with fervor. In the last page of my novel The Postman, the narrator is offered sugar for his coffee. He covers the cup with his hand and replies, “No, thank you, I drink it bitter.”