The Don

Pablo Neruda, My Neighbor: Roberto Ampuero Recalls His Childhood

Roberto Ampuero, Chilean ambassador to Mexico and author of the novel The Neruda Case, newly translated into English, fondly recalls his childhood living by the great poet and Nobel laureate.

Santiago Llanquin / AP Photo

Every day of my childhood I’d wake up for school and glimpse Pablo Neruda’s house through my bedroom window, high up on one of Valparaíso’s 50 hills. Today, that house has become a museum, named after the poet, that attracts tourists from all over the world. When I was growing up near his home, it was mysterious and solitary, and no one was ever seen to exit. It has five narrow floors of different sizes, smaller the higher it is, which makes it resemble a tower as it ascends toward the sky. The first two floors—occupied by a married couple, artists befriended by Neruda—are made of concrete, while the rest are constructed from wood and large picture windows, contributing to its ethereal feel and stylistic echo of the other houses that riddle those hillsides, battling for the best angle from which to gaze out over the Pacific. On those childhood mornings, when I looked out (I am speaking of the 1960s), Don Pablo’s house seemed to me like a white boat with its sails unfurled to the wind, on the brink of gliding off through the translucent air of Valparaíso.

I’d admire that fanciful edifice from afar and imagine seeing its owner, the most important living poet of the Spanish language. Although his presence was sporadic and invisible, just the thought of his proximity delighted and intimidated me. The truth is, we almost never saw him. The reason? Although Don Pablo was a disciplined member of Chile’s Communist Party, he lived like a true bourgeois: he owned two more houses. One stood on San Cristóbal Hill, in the heart of Santiago, the capital city, and its dining room featured a hidden door through which the poet liked to surprise his dinner guests, disguised in one of the exotic costumes he liked to collect; the other house was on the sea in Isla Negra, on the coast of central Chile, where he kept his collections of shells, bottles, and antique iron, and where his remains now rest beside those of Matilde, his last wife. But La Sebastiana—as he’d named his Valparaíso house, in honor of its first owner, the Spaniard Sebastián Collado—was unique because it had been built out of air and blended into the city’s crazed architecture. In Valparaíso, that house was like a fish in water, or a star in the sky. On three separate occasions, I went to La Sebastiana, in my school uniform and carrying my briefcase full of notebooks, and stood at the door to the poet’s garden, which held a papaya tree, bushes, roses, medicinal herbs, and birdsong. All I wanted to do was talk to the poet. But all three times, I was petrified, my fist raised just centimeters from the door, not daring to knock and ask to enter the realm where Neruda dwelt with his secrets. Half a century after these frustrated attempts, which I’ll regret for the rest of my life, my detective Cayetano Brulé has dared to enter—in my novel, The Neruda Case—the space that boyhood shyness kept closed to me.

On two occasions, I saw the Nobel laureate on the curves of Alemania Avenue. Chile was a stable, democratic nation then, neither rich nor poor (though with deep social inequalities), peaceful, safe, where few people could imagine that we would soon have a socialist government under President Salvador Allende, which would be ended by the bloody coup d’état and repressive dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. When he went out for a walk through Valparaíso, the poet was invariably surrounded by a swarm of admirers who seemed to buzz like bees around their queen.

He walked with the air of a cardinal, emitting words with a nasal tone and melancholy gestures. Sometimes he wore a blue peaked cap at an angle, and a finely woven wool poncho on his shoulders. He enjoyed the stir he caused whenever he passed. Another time, at dusk on a windy Sunday, as I was walking through the neighborhood with my father, we saw him sitting in the backseat of a car driven by a woman. Beside her sat a man wearing glasses with thick black frames. “Don’t forget those gentlemen,” my father said. “One of them will receive the Nobel Prize one day, and the other will be president of Chile.” And he was right. The man riding in front was Allende.

I wrote my novel about Neruda, staying true to the actual history of Chile between 1970 and 1973, because I admire him as a poet, because I was curious about him as a neighbor, and because his personal life intersected with crucial moments of 20th-century history.

But I had another, powerful reason for writing my novel. Sheltered by the license of fiction, I strove to portray the Neruda of flesh and blood, the real human being with his grandeur and meanness, loyalties and betrayals, certainties and doubts—the poet who could love passionately and at the same time leave everything to embark on a new affair, a more feverish and impassioned one, that would allow him to write better poetry. Neruda was a towering poet, a sharp politician, a human being who searched tirelessly for love, and a man who enjoyed the pleasures of bourgeois life. He contradicted himself. It isn’t easy to write a novel that captures the real human being, as Neruda’s fame is so solid and universal that written works about him tend toward the apologetic and adulatory, keeping him on a pedestal. I believe that both his genius as an artist and his authentic side as a man spring from his complex spirit, his light and shadow, and the passion of his human condition.

Three sources contribute to my novel. First, the inspiring image that Neruda imprinted on my childhood; second, the narrative that his three houses conferred on me; and third, perhaps most important, the judgment placed on the poet by the women who knew him. With respect to the first source, in my childhood, I discovered that the great poets are not necessarily dead—that one of them, a giant, was even my neighbor. Thanks to this, poetry escaped from dull scholastic texts and came out to stroll along my street, winked at me, and sang to me with an everyday substance that was unsuspected by my classmates.

Also, thanks to the careful restoration and their transformation into museums open to the public, Neruda’s homes still harbor the poet. Anyone who enters them with keen senses and an alert imagination can feel him walking through those rooms. Especially in the Valparaíso house. One day, as I was sketching out the first notes for my novel in the ample living room of La Sebastiana, with its blue fireplace, adjacent dining room, and large picture window overlooking corrugated metal roofs, twisted outdoor staircases, steep streets, and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond, I suddenly felt Neruda begin to tell me unknown aspects of his life. I recall the precise instant that it happened: I was lost in thought, gazing out at a boat gliding into the bay, when I felt a curious call at my back. I turned. I saw a Chinese wardrobe with glass doors. Pablo and Matilde’s robes hung inside, and the poet’s slippers rested on the floor. I sensed that the parts of Neruda’s private life that I was drawn to began with that revealing, ordinary detail. Those slippers, with their fuzzy wool and their heels worn unevenly by the poet’s thick, tired feet, allowed me to discern the world I searched for.

I am convinced that the women in Neruda’s life are the ones who hold his secret. The ultimate keys to his personality and to his work cannot be found in the academic treatises on him, but in the voices of the women who mattered in his personal life—what they said, and what they kept silent. I believe that only these relationships convey the flesh-and-blood poet, that profoundly contradictory being, so full of light and shadow, that I sought and found in order to write my novel that blends fiction with actual history. The rest is a matter of interpreting the words—both poetic and everyday—that Neruda used throughout his life to protect himself, to hide, and to project the image of himself that has become so legendary.

The first woman to play a decisive role in his life was his beloved stepmother, who took him in, loved him, and raised him after his mother’s early death. When he was a university student, his first loves were either platonic or simple passions lacking in fantasies or stunning feats; they were sad loves in cold rooms and dark Santiago winters; it was in remote regions of Asia, where he arrived as a very young Chilean consul, that he discovered the pleasures of passion and learned the skills of an experienced lover. The person who taught him these techniques was Josie Bliss, that mysterious woman lost in Asian landscapes, whose voice we never hear directly. We only glimpse, in Neruda’s poetry, his amazement at her slim, agile body and her mastery of the erotic arts.

The Dutchwoman María Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang gives him everything, trusts him, marries him, and bears him a hydrocephalic child; he leaves them both when he falls in love with Delia del Carril, an aristocratic Argentine 20 years his senior who converts him to communism and persuades him to abandon the hermetic poetry he was composing, and to write in a manner everyone could understand. And then comes Matilde Urrutia, a young dancer who dazzled the poet when he was in his fifties, and who would be at his bedside when he died in 1973.

But there are many more women in Neruda’s life. So many that, among his friends, he was known as a “serial monogamist.” There were romances, both loves and flings, that remain shrouded in secrecy, buried in the untold annals of the past. His love affair with Beatriz could be one of those lost romances. As I said, I didn’t find the most thorough explorations of Neruda’s relationships with women in academic books, but in the memoirs and recollections of the women who knew him, and who describe him and reflect on who he was.

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Neruda died on September 27, 1973, when Pinochet’s dictatorship was 16 days into its 17-year duration. He died of cancer, but also from the pain of watching the tragic end of his political dream. He couldn’t bear the bombing of La Moneda, or the death of Allende, or the murder and imprisonment of thousands of people, or the echoing shots of nocturnal firing squads or the chilling sound of armored helicopters as they patrolled the city. In 1990, Chile returned to democracy and freedom. Pablo Neruda’s poems, many of them born in his Valparaíso home, were a source of inspiration for many people as they fought the dictatorship and strove to create a more just society. As his Valparaíso neighbor, I owed Don Pablo a novel that portrayed his full being.