Here’s an admission that will nullify what little street cred I might have: I am a Nerdruda. ‘Nerdruda’ is a portmanteau of ‘nerd’ and ‘Neruda’ and refers to people like me, who have a crippling obsession over the works of the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
‘Nerdruda’ is a portmanteau of ‘nerd’ and ‘Neruda’ and refers to people like me, who have a crippling obsession over the works of the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Before we explore the life of this deeply fascinating man, I would like to take this opportunity to smugly point out that I coined the term ‘Nerdruda’ myself. Nobody else thought of it. Trust me – I googled it. I would also like to add with whisky-tinged maudlin that if you were to pit me against a teletubby in a fistfight, Tinky-Winky would win by knockout.
Also, contrary to what 18-year-old me had hoped, being a Nerdruda never got me laid.
And in this spirit of juxtaposing pursuits of the intellect against the pursuit of some masculine ideal, of eating nachos while reading versus looking macho while lifting, of cerebral hubris’ friction with cocky patriarchism, we tread into the wondrous passions of Pablo Neruda’s wandering mind.
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.”
Pablo Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto on 12 July 1904 in Parral, Chile, to a railway worker father and a schoolteacher mother, who passed away from illness two months after his birth. He was exposed to, shall we say, Latino passion, at an early age.
After his wife’s death, Señor Reyes senior married his mistress, with whom he already had a nine-year-old boy named Rodolfo. The young Pablo Neruda also had another half-sibling – a sister named Laurita or Laura, who Señor Reyes senior fathered with a third woman.
The young Neftalí Reyes was a prodigious writer. By the time he turned sixteen, he was already an accomplished writer, with articles, essays, poetry and prose printed in national publications.
His father, however, disapproved of Neftali’s ambitions. In one of his memoirs, Neruda recounted, “Once, far back in my childhood, when I had barely learned to read, I felt an intense emotion and set down a few words…a poem to my mother, that is, to the one I knew, the angelic stepmother whose gentle shadow watched over my childhood.
I had no way at all of judging my first composition, which I took to my parents…Still trembling after this first visit from the muse, I held out to them the paper with the lines of verse. My father took it absentmindedly, read it absentmindedly, and returned it to me absentmindedly, saying: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ That, I seem to remember, was how my first poem was born, and that was how I had my first sample of irresponsible literary criticism.”
His father’s displeasure with his career path would force Neftalí to write under the pen name Pablo Neruda, after his favourite Czech poet, Jan Neruda. Neftalí would later adopt his pen name as his legal name.
It was a timely decision, for when his first commercially-released poetry book, Twenty Love Poems And A Song of Despair, was released a couple of years later, it was received with a lot of controversies. The erotically charged nature of the poems, coupled with the fact that Neruda was only nineteen years old at the time of publication, did not sit well with a largely conservative, Catholic nation.
And yet many fell in love with his poetry.
“My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe”
Early Neruda was a force of passion and sensuality. Where the poets of today write, “You know my motivation, given my reputation, but tonight I’m fucking you”, or “My dick so hard, it make the metal detector go off”, Neruda wrote, “I have gone marking the atlas of your body with crosses of fire. My mouth went across: a spider, trying to hide in you, behind you, timid, driven by thirst.”
The teenage poet expertly employed the sublime subtleties of nature to more gently and gracefully contextualize the carnalities of his poetry. They were the hook that tethered poet to subject matter, and later, as the book spirals into love lost, they became the hook that tore at his flesh and left his heart asunder.
You could see it in the White Bee (“A butterfly of shadow has come to sleep in your belly”), in Leaning Into The Afternoons (“The birds peck at the first stars/ that flash like my soul when I love you”), and even in the not-as-subtle Your Breast Is Enough (“You arrive like the dew to the cupped flowers/ You undermine the horizon with your absence/ Eternally in flight like the wave”).
You could even see it in the denouement of the book, The Song of Despair, albeit under an unpropitious cloud. “The rustling belt of the sea girdles the shore,” he writes, his words a wave of maritime allusions to a sinking relationship. “Cold stars heave up, black birds migrate/ Deserted like the wharves at dawn/ Only the tremulous shadow twists in my hands.”
Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair was erotic, yes, but it was also emotionally mature, unabashedly sensual and tastefully nuanced. Suddenly, the young man from Temuco was a national sensation. Critics accused him of plagiarizing Rabindranath Tagore, but his exceptional ideas on the nature of erotic and romantic love ensured that to this day, Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair remains the best-selling Spanish language poetry book around the world.
Even today, young men and women across the world borrow Neruda’s words and scrawl it across the Whatsapp screens of their beloved(s). If there were aliens studying our culture, they might confuse Neruda’s poetry for our species’ mating call.
But the popularity of the book did not translate to immediate financial success for the young Neruda, as the Chilean literature industry was not a mature one at that time. What it did translate to, however, was the opportunity to travel across his country. He fell in love especially with the port city of Valparaiso. He wrote, “Santiago is a captive city behind walls of snow. Valparaiso… throws open its doors wide to the infinite sea, to its street cries, to the eyes of children.”
With these travels, Neruda developed an incurable restlessness. Even the beauty of Valparaiso failed to settle the young man, although he would later come back to what he perceived to be the jewel of Chile. There were other factors that contributed to his need to roam the world. His deteriorating relationship with his father (who had by now found out about his literary career – but let’s face it, they were fundamentally different people) and his failed romance with a Santiago native named Albertina was also attributed in his decision to leave his native Chile.
I’m leaving. I’m sad, but I’m always sad.
I come from your arms. I do not know where I’m going.
The dream for cultural artisans, back then as it is now, was, of course, Paris. But Neruda’s wanderlust at that time was indiscriminate and carefree (and needed major sponsorship), so Paris was a closed book – for now. Instead, he applied to Chile’s foreign ministry for work as a diplomat.
In a memoir, he recalled meeting the foreign minister, who read to him a list of countries around the world that hold diplomatic ties with Chile. “I managed to catch one name, which I had never heard or read before: Rangoon,” he wrote. Rangoon, now known as Yangon, is the former capital of Burma, now known, of course, as Myanmar.
Worth noting here was his naiveté, his inability to escape the call of the sea. Neruda biographer Jodie Schull noted, “When Neruda’s friends came to celebrate his new job, he had forgotten the name of the city and could only tell them he was bound for Asia.”
It was June 1927 – winter was in its infancy – as the twenty-two-year-old Neruda, just a month off from turning twenty-three crossed the snow-capped Andes from Chile into Argentina. At the port city of Mendoza, he boarded a German steamship, the Baden, bound for Portugal. It was supposed to be a two-month trip from Argentina to Rangoon, but Neruda got into the kind of adventurous hijinks that tend to escape the poets of today.
In any case, his journey to the other side of the world had begun.
The wind is a horse:
hear how he runs
through the sea, through the sky.
He wants to take me: listen
how he roves the world
to take me far away.
Neruda enjoyed the romance of travel – in every sense of the word. On the Baden, he became captivated by a Brazilian girl named Marinech. “The girl was very beautiful,” Neruda said in a memoir. “Much of her face was taken up by her eyes, profound, black, unhurried looking, abundantly radiant.”
They would instantly connect on their ecstatic love for jeu de mots. “She speaks in the musical Portuguese language,” Neruda had described to another biographer Volodia Teitelboim, “and she enjoys playing with her language like a toy. Fifteen suitors surround her. She’s haughty, pale, shows no preference for any of them. Her look, loaded with darkness, flees them.” It was a look she kept from Neruda. The romance did not survive the trip to Lisbon.
On 12th July 1927, Neruda celebrated his twenty-third birthday off the shores of Portugal.
From Portugal, Neruda travelled to Madrid, before reaching Paris. There, in the cultural capital of the world, Neruda had hoped to meet the French poets whose works he admired but ended up spending his time partying with fellow Latin American writers. One such soiree, a lavish champagne party was thrown by Alfredo Condon, a Chilean writer and the son of Chile’s largest shipping company, ended up taking a turn for the embarrassing when Condon collapsed from overdrinking. With the party’s patron down and out, the club locked its doors and demanded to be paid immediately.
Neruda only managed to escape by leaving his brand new diplomatic passport as security.
Outside, Neruda and a Chilean friend, Alvaro, found one of the club’s hostesses, waiting for them in a taxi. They invited her back to their hotel ‘for onion soup’. In his memoirs, he recalled that night rather vividly: “She went with Alvaro to his room. I dropped into bed exhausted, but all at once I felt someone shaking me, roughly. It was Alvaro. His harmless maniac’s face seemed a bit odd. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘that woman’s something special, she’s fantastic. I can’t explain it. You’ve got to try her right away.’ A few minutes later, the stranger got into my bed, sleepily but obligingly. Making love to her, I received proof of her mysterious gift. It was something I can’t pin down with words, something that rushed up from deep within her, something that went back to the very origins of pleasure, to the birth of a wave, to the erotic secrets of Venus.”
From Paris, Neruda headed south to Marseille. From there, he took a ship southeast, across the Mediterranean, towards Egypt. His first layover was at Port Said in Egypt, a typically North African port with its ‘narrow streets full of bars’. The ship then continued southeast again down the shimmering Gulf of Aden, flanked by Arabian deserts and African sands. Neruda’s next stop was Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Teitelboim wrote about his rather peculiar exploits there, “Neruda danced with prostitutes in brothels, but they couldn’t speak any language other than Arabic…Neruda observed that they “understood each other” in other ways.”
His next stops were Colombo in India and Ceylon in Sri Lanka, before heading even further East. Finally, in October 1927, after four months of travel, the ship stopped at a foreign land populated by Oriental denizens. Neruda disembarked, and to his horror, found that he was not yet in Rangoon – he was in Singapore.
After months of partying, of patronizing brothels, of drinking, Neruda found himself completely broke, without the means to pay for a hotel to stay in, nor to pay for his fare to Rangoon. He turned to the Chilean consul in Singapore, a man named Mansilla. Initially, Mansilla refused to lend Neruda the money to get to his destination. Neruda, however, threatened to give a series of talks in Singapore about Chilean politics (the supposedly liberal government had, at that time, recently executed two massacres in Masuria and La Coruña to silence dissidents), forcing Mansilla to loan his fellow civil service worker the money to reach Rangoon in exchange for his silence.
On 25th October 1927, Pablo Neruda finally reached Rangoon, two months after he was scheduled to.
I came late to Rangoon.
Everything was already there —
dreams and gold,
a river that flowed
from the savage jungle
into the stifling city
and its leprous streets,
and a white hotel for whites,
and a golden pagoda for the golden people.
and didn’t go on.
Rangoon, steps stained
by the spitters
of betel juice.
In Rangoon, Pablo Neruda found himself in a job he hated. He recalled, “My official duties demanded my attention only once every three months when a ship arrived from Calcutta bound for Chile with hard paraffin and large cases of tea. I had to stamp and sign documents with feverish speed. Then another three months of doing nothing followed, of solitary contemplation in markets and temples. This was the most painful period for my poetry.”
Without intellectual stimuli, Neruda’s uglier side began to rear. He wrote back to his family in Chile, “Here, the women are black. Don’t worry, I won’t be getting married.”
To another friend in Chile, he wrote of his experience in Rangoon, “(I am) beginning to get bored with a life of such enclosed isolation, so far from the great whirlwinds of people, from the good big cities. The women…are dark-skinned, they wear high hair stiff with lacquer, rings in their noses and have a different smell. All this is charming for the first week. But the weeks pass, time passes!” He wrote this in December 1927 – after only three months on the job, and a singular ship from Calcutta.
It is worth recalling here the ‘dance’ he had back in Djibouti. It seemed that a black woman can be Neruda’s whore, but not his wife. Sexism, superficiality, impetuosity and racism were a few of many blights upon the soul of the still-maturing, twenty-three-year-old Neruda, and perhaps more so, the 1920s in general. Credit to Neruda, he would soon grow out of them.
In January 1928, Neruda left his post to visit Japan. He stopped by Shanghai first, and had nothing good to say about the place – it was cold, the nightclubs were closed for it was midweek, and to top it off, he got robbed. A kind Chinese man helped him travel to Yokohama, where money was awaiting him at the Chilean consul.
In Japan, Neruda sent his sister Laurita a postcard, along with the photograph of a Japanese girl, in which he waxed lyrical about Japanese women. “They are the most feminine, the prettiest in the world. (It) wouldn’t have taken much for me to have married one of these dolls,” he wrote in the postcard. “Take a good look at her, because she could have been your sister-in-law.”
Eventually, he returned to Rangoon, and as his mind succumbed to the cloistered ennui of Rangoon, he fought to replace it with a woman’s love. He would seek it everywhere – in brothels, in the streets, and he eventually found it in Josie Bliss (not her real name), his secretary. As was the custom at the time, natives would adopt a pseudonym when around British colonials or other Europeans, and use their birth name only with their fellow Burmese, or their loved ones. At home, Neruda referred to Josie by her native name.
Josie Bliss was a beautiful, dark-skinned Burmese woman, a passionate and experienced but otherwise eccentric lover. After they made love in bed, Josie would insist on sleeping on the floor. She was also fiercely jealous of other women – and there were many – who tried to grow close to Neruda.
Pablo Neruda’s relationship with Jolie Bliss brought a marked maturity in the poet. This was most evident when Burma’s upper society – made entirely of white colonials – found out about their relationship. They refused him admission into their circles. Adam Feinstein, writer of Pablo Neruda: A Passion For Life, recounted, “He does not seem to have minded this – it was scarcely a sacrifice for him to be forced to avoid the company of people he largely despised for their snobbery, their deliberate act of distancing themselves from the society in which they lived. The fact that Josie never learnt Western rituals was, for once, a source of attraction for Neruda, who in many other ways found the exoticism of the Orient tiresome.”
Later in 1928, the Chilean consul decided to send Neruda to Ceylon, culminating in a torrid breakup with Jolie Bliss. Without the fiery passions of Jolie Bliss in his life, Neruda began feeling listless and lonely. The Sri Lankans did not take to him romantically – he described making love to one Tamil girl as the ‘coming together of man and statue…She was right to despise me’.
In October 1929, he wrote to his friend, Argentinian writer Héctor Eandi, “I, who continually made a doctrine out of irresponsibility and movement for my own life and others’, now feel an anguished desire to settle down, to fix my conditions, to live or die in peace. I also want to marry, but soon, tomorrow even, and live in a big city.”
Ceylon, back then already a bustling city, made Neruda feel small, empty and lonely.
Salvation came in a few months. The consul was sending him out of Ceylon.
keep your silence
until the words
In a letter to Eandi, dated February 1930, Neruda wrote, “It seems they are going to transfer me to Singapore…and I’m going to accept. I’m tired of Ceylon, of this deadly idleness. Singapore means the magical Malayan archipelago, beautiful women, beautiful rituals.”
“I’ve already been twice to Singapore and Bali,” he told his friend, but he would come here many times more.
In early June 1930, Pablo Neruda boarded a ship in Ceylon that would take him to Singapore. On June 12th, exactly a month before his twenty-sixth birthday, that very ship would take harbour at the mouth of the Singapore River, guided by the lights of a lighthouse that today sits atop Fullerton Hotel.
A room awaited him at the world-renowned Raffles Hotel, and this room would eventually become known as the Pablo Neruda suite. It was a fitting space for the young consul who would later become a Nobel laureate.
Pablo Neruda had arrived in Singapore.
From here, his fortunes improved. The following year, he would meet his first wife, a Dutch bank employee named Maryka Vogelzang, in Batavia (known today as Jakarta), before attaining the lofty post of Chilean consul in Madrid.
All the twilight seducers, the nights of the wedded,
close over like bed sheets and bury me
It was by no means happily ever after – Neruda would father a daughter who died from illness at a young age. He would then become estranged from his wife and marry two more times, and have multiple affairs.
Later in his life, he would identify himself as Communist (even getting himself exiled from Chile as a result), but in a time of great conflict, he remained a gentle soul, his poetry singing in his heart songs of unity and love and peace.
In 1953, he won the now-defunct Lenin Peace Prize for his work in “unifying comrades”. A Lenin Peace Prize might sound as plausible as a Lee Hsien Loong Most Irie Dreadlocks Award [Ed: Irie: Jamaican slang for ‘good or pleasing’.] but Neruda’s poetry was undeniably a call to recognize our common humanity, whatever our political inclinations – sentiments he developed by having a strong understanding of our human need for intimacy.
Later on, in 1971, he won the Nobel Literature Prize for the impressive body of work accumulated over his lifetime. There are also three museum houses in La Sebastina, Isla Negra and La Chascona to immortalize his works and his legacy.
In 1973, at the age of sixty-nine, Pablo Neruda died from a heart attack. After a lifetime of listening to his penis, it was his heart that gave way.