07 February 2018

A surrealistic encounter with Pablo Neruda

A random email from a stranger inquiring about a Sri Lankan Chilean took me to an article I had written 14 years ago.  The stranger sent me a link, which was what had prompted the email in the first place. I had forgotten all about it.  Pablo Neruda brought together Eda Cleary, a Chilean and me, a Sri Lankan.  Common love for his poetry brought us to common ground, one might say.   Anyway, here's what I wrote, an account of a tribute to that great earth-poet born in Chile, a poet of love and of course a poet of the people, Pablo Neruda.

It was around ten years ago that I first browsed through Neruda's 'Memoirs.' I looked for and found the book in the Peradeniya library. I just wanted to read about his time in 'Ceylon'. It was all too brief, I recall. The browsing, I mean.

But two weeks ago, my sister gifted me a new edition of the poet's biographical musings. It did not strike me, as I allowed Neruda to walk me through his life, his oceans and continents, roots and sorrows, his roads and encounters, as I traced the tapestry these threads wove, that June 11, 2004 would be his birth centennial.

I knew this only last Sunday, the 10th, when I saw a newspaper notice announcing a celebration of sorts organised by the ICES (International Centre for Ethnic Studies). The commemoration was to include an address by Tissa Abeysekera, a recitation of Neruda's poetry and the Italian film 'II Postino' directed by Michael Radford. I went. I heard and saw. I was floored by it all.

Senake Bandaranayake chaired the proceedings. He sketched Neruda's life for us and went a little overboard with it, I thought. The room, packed though it was, was nevertheless small. Those who came, one would have expected, knew enough about Neruda to be spared this.

But then again, I reasoned, anyone who was familiar with Neruda and was touched by his poetry naturally tends to lose track of trivial things such as time and proportion. A slide show of photographs of the young Neruda as diplomat in 'Ceylon', including his residence in Wellawatte, was an unexpected gift. It was well received.

Tissa came next, but I must come to him later, for Prof. Bandaranayake promised us that a Chilean Sri Lankan would also address us. Another unexpected "gift", I presume it was meant to be.

Roberto (I forget his last name) talked about Neruda. He educated us about the Latin American diplomatic traditions. He said that all students in Chile would be reading Neruda that day. Roberto, apparently, had been working for the World Bank "mission" in Sri Lanka. "What would Neruda have said?" I wondered. He did not speak about the World Bank. But he knew all about imperialism.

All about capitalism. He knew about the violence, the blood, the dismemberment and misery unleashed by these monsters. Neruda certainly would have had something to say to all those present. Bandaranayake clearly did not see any contradiction. Nothing in what he said about Roberto betrayed even a trace of irony, even though he did mouth some veiled misgivings about globalisation, the new name for capitalism.

I thought Tissa would have made the pertinent point, but then again, he himself seems to have, in his practice at least, evolved beyond Trotskyism's dogmatic trappings. Maybe he has evolved too much.

Tissa's piece was exquisite. He proved that his considerable work in film-making had in no way made him forget the great truth of Neruda's poetry: the word is no less visual in the matter of narration. It was a crafted and marvellously executed meditation that only someone who has allowed Neruda to become resident in his or her sensibilities and who has a superior ability to employ the word could deliver.

Like Neruda's work, Tissa's gathering and juxtaposition was not without political problems. He spent quite some time saluting his "mentor", Regi Siriwardena. A card carrying member of the LSSP bowing low to a communist is certainly worthy of comment, but I believe Tissa consciously or unconsciously demonstrated that the ideological baggage of Trotskyism sits light on his mind. Since Neruda has clearly touched him, this should not come as a surprise.

Neruda, an ardent communist himself, and a defender of Stalin and Stalinism, did after all entertain doubts, both about Stalinism and Soviet dogmatism in the arts. He was a communist who did not see a contradiction between his internationalism and his fervent nationalism, his patriotic love of and nostalgia for his native Chile. Neruda, especially towards the latter part of his life, became a root-seeker and his search for humanity's sacred congealing elements became more nuanced. As he moved with greater fidelity to the import of history, event and personality, he refused to be entrapped in Marxism's doctrinal binds, especially its culture-blindness.

The recitation. The selection was thin in that the Captain's Verses is a collection wherein there is only a sip from the wide waters of Neruda's range of subjects. Neruda describes the book, written while in exile, as "a book of love, passionate but also painful," containing his love for Matilde Urrutia, his wife, homesickness for Chile, and the passions of social consciousness.

The political side is present more as a shadow and an absence. The selection from the Internet did nothing to compensate either, for, unfortunately, Neruda lovers in cyberspace know him almost exclusively through the film. 'II Postino' and the typical search takes you to many websites carrying the poem that comes just before the credits. "It was at that time that poetry came to me..." Sandra Fernando gave a competent performance, dramatic without compromising the music of nuance.

The film came next. Bandaranayake thought it important that the audience be warned of what he believed was the injustice done by the film to Neruda's political sentiments and indeed the pride and passion with which he carried and articulated his political concerns. Introductions and explications of something creative before the reader can get his or her hands on the creation, generally put me off.

To begin with, II Postino is not a documentary on the poet and was never marketed as such. It does not even matter in the end, for, as the postman himself points out, "poetry does not belong to those who write it, but to those who need it." Bandaranayake ought to know that such needs are eminently subjective.

Speaking strictly for myself, I found nothing in the film that contradicted Neruda's deep concern with the human condition. Indeed, I could not help thinking, as they showed how the police waded into a communist rally, which resulted in the death of our hero, Mario Ruoppolo the postman, this is what the World Bank does everyday to people whose hands Neruda relentlessly sought in his poetic and political lives, so inseparable from one another. The politics does not have to arrive with a shout, holding a banner.

There are softer ways, as or more effective.

Neruda was born one hundred years ago. Garcia Marquez was correct when he said that Neruda was a King Midas of literature, that whatever he touched turned into poetry and that even when his poetry got him into murky ideological waters, it contained the glorious quality of rising above it all simply on account of its poetic splendour. He was that good.

In the long twentieth century that has passed, his love and poetry has travelled far and wide, and among its many residences, ironically, is the ICES, ideologically so problematic and out of sync with Neruda's anti-fascist and anti-imperialist sensibilities, for reasons I have articulated elsewhere. Takes nothing away from the man.

And nothing from his poetry either. Or his love of life. Which is why, I believe, I do not cringe when I say, "Thank you ICES". Especially for inviting Tissa Abeysekera to let us borrow his discerning eyes to see Pablo Neruda. It was, all in all, an elegant tribute.

First published on July 18, 2004 in the Sunday Observer