The tiny village of Isla Negra was put on the map when Pablo Neruda moved into a half-built house on the beach in 1939. Born Neftalí Reyes in 1904, this son of a local railwayman made his name in the world of poetry as a teenager under the pseudonym Pablo Neruda. He published his first collection, Crepusculario, in 1923 at his own expense, and success came quickly. The following year, he published a slim volume of sensual, tormented verses, Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), and suddenly found himself, aged 20, with one of the fastest-growing readerships on the continent.

Rangoon and beyond

Despite this success, Neruda still needed to earn a living to fund his writing, and so, aged 24, he began his career as Chilean consul in Rangoon, the first of many posts. It seems ironic that this most “Chilean” of poets, whose verses are imprinted with the forests, rain, sea, lakes and volcanoes of southern Chile, should have spent so much of his adult life far from his native land. His years in Rangoon, Colombo, Jakarta and Singapore were often intensely lonely, but also coloured with vivid episodes and sexual adventures. The most dramatic of these was his love affair in Rangoon with Josie Bliss. Described by Neruda as his “Burmese panther… a love-smitten terrorist capable of anything”, she was a jealous and possessive lover who would sometimes terrorize him with her silver dagger. When he was transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he left without telling her, but she turned up on his doorstep several months later. Neruda’s outright rejection of her was to haunt him for many years, and Bliss makes several appearances in his poems.

Politicization and exile

During his time in Asia, Neruda’s poetry was inward-looking, reflecting his experience of dislocation and solitude. His posts in Barcelona (1934) and Madrid (1935–36), however, marked a major turning-point in his life and work: with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and the assassination of his friend, Federico García Lorca, Neruda became increasingly politicized. He threw himself into the task of providing Spanish refugees with a safe passage to Chile, and at the same time sought to give his poetry a meaningful “place in man’s struggle”, with España en el Corazón. On returning to Chile he joined the Communist Party, and was elected as a senator. His politics were to land him in serious trouble, however, when newly elected president González Videla, who had previously enlisted Neruda’s help, switched sides from left to right, and outlawed communism. When Neruda publicly attacked him, the president issued a warrant for his arrest, and he was forced into hiding. In 1949 the poet was smuggled across the Andes on horseback, and spent the next three years in exile, mainly in Europe.

Matilde Urrutia

It was during his exile that Neruda met the woman who was to inspire some of his most beautiful poetry: Matilde Urrutia, whom he was later to marry. Neruda had been married twice before: first, briefly, to a Dutch woman he’d met as a young consul in Rangoon; and then for eighteen years to the Argentinian painter, Delia del Carril. The poet’s writings scarcely mention his first wife, nor their daughter – his only child – who died when she was 8, but Delia is described as “sweetest of consorts, thread of steel and honey…my perfect mate for 18 years”. It was so as not to hurt Delia that Los Versos del Capitán – a book of passionate love poems written for Matilde – was published anonymously.

The return home

Nonetheless, when the order for his arrest was revoked in 1955, three years after his return to Santiago, Neruda divorced Delia and moved into La Chascona, in Santiago, and then to Isla Negra with Matilde. Based in Chile from then on, Neruda devoted himself to politics and poetry almost in equal measure. In 1970, Salvador Allende, whose campaign Neruda had tirelessly participated in, was elected president at the head of the socialist Unidad Popular. The following year, Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His happiness was to be short-lived, however. Diagnosed with cancer, and already bedridden, the poet was unable to withstand the shock brought on by the 1973 military coup, which left his dear friend Allende dead. Less than two weeks later, on September 23, Neruda died in Santiago.

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