“65. He had no children, but the people loved him. 66. Like the Cross, do we have to come back to Neruda with our knees bloodied, our lungs full of holes, our eyes full of tears? 67. When our names no longer mean anything, his name will keep shining, it will keep projecting over an imaginary literature called chilean literature.”
—Roberto Bolaño, “Carnet de baile”
I woke up to the sound of heavy footsteps and a conversation in Spanish, using everything at my disposal to keep out the light beating down on my eyelids. The conversation came closer and grew louder. A door slammed shut, and I realized there was no point trying. I raised my torso from the couch. I was still wearing my coat. It seemed that someone had covered me in a blanket after I passed out the night before. It fell off my chest into a bundle around my waist. Soft white sunlight shone into the room through a window in the ceiling, burning my eyes, and there was a young woman I’d never seen before sitting on the adjacent couch, staring at me.
“Good morning,” she said in Spanish.
She was blurrier than she ought to have been, so I wiped my hand across my eyes, trying to find my glasses. I grunted at her and patted blindly at the blanket covering my legs, the coffee table next to me and the floor underneath the couch.
“Wh … gla … gaf … ”
“What are you looking for … your glasses?”
“Yeah … ”
“They’re on top of your head, man.”
I patted the top of my head and, sure enough, my glasses were nestled into my hair. I tried to pull them down onto my face and felt a sting as a few strands tore out of my scalp. I looked back at the girl, sure that I’d never seen her before.
“You’re one of Gustavo’s friends, right?” she asked.
“Yeah … uh, Gustavo.”
“Ah, OK. Well, he’s in the bathroom.”
It was 10:30 a.m. I stood up, light-headed. Gustavo. We were playing Never Have I Ever the night before, but with pisco. Nunca nunca. Terrible idea. Never again. I took a few steps, wandering in a confused circle. She looked concerned or uncomfortable.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “Can I get you something … Some water? … An egg?”
I patted myself down; wallet, keys, flip phone, pen, passport. Everything in order.
“No, no,” I said. “I’m fine, thanks.”
“Mhmm … OK, well, like I said, Gustavo’s in the bathroom. He should be done in a minute.”
Something was wrong … I left my goddamn bag at the hostel. I looked around the room again, making sure it wasn’t just sitting under a couch or a coffee table. It wasn’t. I had to go.
She looked up at me incredulously as I shuffled out. The light shone brighter as I moved closer to the door and I covered my eyes with a forearm as I stepped out onto the terrace.
The sky over Valparaíso was gray that morning, the air heavy, cold and wet. On my left, I could see the harbor sandwiched among the rows of houses lining the street that runs down off Cerro Concepción, one of the steep rolling hills on top of which Valparaíso is built. To my right I saw thousands of brightly colored houses coating the mountains around the bay. The city looked like a box of crayons gradually fading away into a cloud of fog and mist. Even from there, I could smell a bit of ocean. A French-sounding melody echoed off the facades around the terrace in disjointed phrases; oboe, tuba, accordion. I climbed down the narrow stone staircase and passed through an iron gate into the cobblestone street. As I tried to remember how to get back to the hostel, an old man in a beret and brown wool jacket watched me stumble over a sudden drop in the sidewalk. The street was called Papudo and it was somewhere on that enormous hilltop. I was hoping nobody stole my bag. I needed my books — I was going to Pablo Neruda’s house.
For the better part of an hour I wandered up and down the streets running along Cerro Concepción, one of the hills that dominates the Valparaíso landscape. I eventually found the hostel and fished my bag out of the wooden storage box underneath my bed. Then, I descended the 65-degree-angled roadway that lead back to Valparaíso proper without falling or throwing up, and shuffling down increasingly busy streets. I wandered between an endless procession of smoking street barbecues and sopaipilla carts as stray dogs, some of them in polyester sweaters, trotted between refurbished electronics stores and the old, crag-faced men lining the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes in their wool beanies and rough leather jackets, looking as though their entire lives had been a constant shore leave that never quite ended, even after they’d finished their careers and disembarked for the last time.
As I dragged myself through the city, the weight of 10 years of Spanish classes; 15 years of defending my interest in socialism to friends and family who considered it somewhere between naive and psychotic; thousands of hours of extracurriculars; four years of working two jobs alongside 18-credit course loads; 5,500 miles on an American Airlines plane; an hour on the Santiago subway; four hours trapped in a Pullman bus with “The Big Bang Theory” playing at full volume out of the overhead speakers and a lifetime of plaintive sighing over the novels and books of poetry hidden in between my textbooks and inside of my instrument cases — the combined weight of everything that I had ever considered essential to myself. All of that seemed to have crawled into the pile of books in the messenger bag slung across my shoulders and threatening to drag me down into a gutter if I should slacken under the weight for even a moment. Chief among them: Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.”
Born in 1904, Neruda was a Chilean poet and politician. His first book of poems, “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” was the first book in Spanish I ever owned. I have a small, red, hardcover with pictures of pomegranate seeds arranged in even rows across the front. On the back, there’s one of those classic portraits of Neruda in his wool jacket and tweed golf cap, glancing languorously off to his right. His hand — a young man’s hand, less grizzled than the rest of him — is pressed up against the side of his face in an uncanny sort of way, somewhere between resting on the thing and propping himself up with it. An impossibility dressed like a simple gesture, or maybe an everyday motion done so well as to appear more than what it is. In any case, it’s incredibly Neruda.
I spilled a glass of water on the book the day after I bought it and spent the majority of that evening airing out the pages with my mom’s hair dryer. It spent the next seven years on my nightstand, where it slowly grew into a species of totem that I used in a sort of ritual that, in retrospect, seems pretty much completely ass-backward. While the rest of my books accumulated copious marginalia and words translated in superscript, I’d occasionally thumb through my copy of the “Love Poems” — pristine except for a dark stain left on the back cover by the water incident — and read a few lines at random, waiting for the day when my Spanish or my literary sensibilities were developed enough to be able to read entire poems without resorting to Google Translate while experiencing sudden, sublime flashes of working-class spiritual insight with each turn of the page. Something about Neruda’s cap told me that that was what was supposed to happen when you read one of his poems.
But as with any totem, fetish or otherwise meaningful object, the version of Neruda’s book I had floating around in my head was, I was quite convinced, largely disconnected from anyone else’s notion of what that book should mean, how it should be read, or how it should be contextualized within Neruda’s life and larger body of work, within the particular moment in Chilean history to which it belonged and within some grandiose Weltanschauung about the nature of the human spirit.
For that matter, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that not only my relationship with Neruda but the entire scenario in which I found myself wondering about that relationship was somehow fundamentally wrong. Rather than sitting in the comfort of a modernist poetry course back in Ann Arbor, nursing a Lobster Butter coffee and talking with a group of like-minded gringo collegiate-types about a bunch of poems that were little more than words on a page, I was instead taking a book I schlepped from a Barnes & Noble 5,000 miles away on an absurd pilgrimage halfway up a mountain where nothing was waiting for me but an old house full of jaded tour guides.
I walked through the sultry streets the rest of the way, bearing the rain as it began and intensified. But just as I thought I might need to duck into a mercadito and wait for the rain to pass, I turned a corner and saw two uniformed guards standing just inside a large, open portico. Behind them was a courtyard full of people lifting jackets and magazines over their heads, making a collective light jog of an exodus toward what looked like a chimerical lighthouse that had been called forth out of the mountainside by a coven of chanting Nerudas. I had made it to the poet’s house: La Sebastiana.
In place of the coven, however, Neruda’s house is kept from sinking back into the mountain by a cushion of cold, hard cash. I bought a ticket to the show in the adjacent gift shop and made my way toward the house’s front door, which led into a foyer full of tourists holding electronic audio guides up to their ears. There to greet visitors, the museum staff seemed more preoccupied with ensuring that the audio guides matched each guest’s respective lingua franca.
When I was suddenly left out in the wake of a group of Japanese tourists, a young woman in a black-and-white uniform noticed me, yet to receive an audio guide, and asked in heavily-accented English, “Where are you from?”
I answered in Spanish, “I’m from the U.S., but I speak Spanish.”
Standing behind the reception desk, a man in his 30s called out in his own accented English, “What does he speak?”
The young woman, again in English said, “English, but he speaks Spanish.”
The man behind the counter looked at her, then me, and then looked for a moment at the air between us, his face suddenly consumed by the sort of expression you see pass across flight attendants’ faces during boarding procedures, just after they’ve greeted one passenger and just before the next one comes close enough to warrant a verbal address; a brief relaxation of the muscles of the face that causes the bags under their eyes to suddenly appear, palpably, to be unmistakably there, as if they were actually shouting at you and not simply hanging above the flight attendant’s cheekbones like a bit of wallpaper.
He then reached down into the audio-guide rack and pulled up one of the units, tossing it underhand to the young woman next to me, who placed it in my hands and told me, in Spanish, to enjoy my visit.
I hit play and held the guide up to my ear. A different young woman’s voice came through the speaker, welcoming me to the La Sebastiana House/Museum Guided Audio Tour in yet another gradation of accented English. I glanced back at the woman who had greeted me at the door. She was busy making hand gestures at a middle-aged French couple. C’est la vie.
La Sebastiana looks like a person of extreme rotundity, or, really, like a wedding cake. In any case, each floor fans out from a spinal column of a central stairwell that leads up to a sort of aerie where Neruda wrote poems in his trademark green ink under the watchful gaze of a massive portrait of Walt Whitman. The other levels of the house each have their own aesthetic, and the audio guide provides a careful description of each room. The audio guide’s description is a catalogue of the incoherent collection of furniture, artworks and knickknacks Neruda had amassed during his lifetime followed by a series of references to the poet’s work, politics and personality quirks that serve as something of an explanation for the otherwise chaotic assemblage of material.
But of course, an audio guide really doesn’t make sense of all of those knickknacks. I wonder, in fact, why they even bother trying. Whatever relationship the Pablo Neruda Foundation — which handles the day-to-day operations of the museum — might be able to draw between Neruda’s life and the random assortment of shit in his house simply doesn’t reveal any profound new way of reading his work or even add much to the body of biographical information amassed in the wake of his death in the throes of the Chilean coup-d’état in 1973. The audio guides almost admit as much. They explain that Neruda simply had an interest in collecting things, and that almost all of the ornaments on display in his house came from friends and admirers who thought of him while wandering through flea markets and antique shops around the world. The only thing that explains this place is the fact that Neruda lived in it, and at the end of the day that’s about all that can be gleaned from the entire edifice.
But if the guide does manage to account, in however slapdash a manner, for Neruda’s approach to interior design, it doesn’t do anything to change the fact that the layout of the place makes for a terribly uncomfortable museum experience in the here-and-now. The aforementioned stairwell is only wide enough for single-direction traffic and the house’s sumptuous furnishings leave roughly the same amount of room open for any kind of walking tour. As a result, the 50-or-so people simultaneously wandering around the place with nothing to guide them other than a set of plastic wands quickly turn into an anxious mob that can’t do much of anything other than try to get around itself. The place is a literal tourist trap, and the cage walls are made out of the other tourists walking around the house.
By the time I reached La Sebastiana’s top floor, I had spent the better part of an hour watching a series of middle-aged gringos inch their way down the house’s staircases and seriously regretted the 10,000 pesos I had blown getting into the place. As I waited in the seven-person line crammed into the hallway leading into Neruda’s study, I was already dreading the walk back down to the ground floor and busied myself trying to calculate the number of sopaipillas I could have bought (upward of 20) instead of coming here in the first place.
After flattening myself up against a wall to allow an old German woman with a walker to shimmy past, there was finally enough space in the room for me to step in. A four-foot-tall portrait of Walt Whitman stared out at me from one side of the room. Next to the portrait, there was a copy of a map of the Americas drawn up by a Dutchman in the 16th or 17th century, complete with caricatures of the indigenous peoples populating Chile and Argentina and a couple of sea monsters floating around in the Pacific. I didn’t bother turning on the audio guide.
I shuffled past Neruda’s writing desk and stood next to the window, looking down over the hills of Valparaiso and out to the harbor and the Pacific Ocean stretching out into the distance. The four or five people crowded next to me were all looking through the window with the same sort of exhausted expression on their faces. They had given up on the audio guides, too.
As I looked over at the them, I wondered whether they had come to Neruda’s house looking for the same sort of things I had come there for. In all honesty, though, my reasons for going there were making less and less sense with each passing moment. I figured that people go on a pilgrimage — even a made-up pilgrimage like the one I was on — to remind themselves why they continue to believe the things they do; to renew their sense of right and wrong and remind themselves why they keep observing the rites and rituals prescribed by their holy books, no matter how out of touch with reality those ideas seem. If a holy site were anything, it seemed to me, it ought to be a place where those beliefs still made something like rational sense. A place without compromises and without hypocrites, where nobody cuts corners and nobody has to cut corners to keep true to their dreams and ideals.
I looked back at Walt Whitman. I suppose I wanted him to be crying, or something miraculous like that. He wasn’t. And this wasn’t any kind of shrine. I had gone on pilgrimage to a goddamn gift shop.
As I sidled back down the stairs toward the rainstorm waiting outside, I wondered to myself why I thought I’d find anything other than I did here.
Before coming to Valparaiso, I had, on a few different occasions, talked about Neruda with my host family and Chilean friends. As I should have expected, none of them read Neruda with any kind of regularity. After all, nobody reads. Period. And even fewer people read poetry, even when it’s poetry by a Nobel-winner. Even in asking people what they thought about Neruda, I got the vibe that I was coming across as a bit of an ass. I mean, shit, imagine a tourist coming up to you off the street and expecting you to have an opinion about Walt Whitman. Even if you did have one, chances are you’d probably be on your way to work and want nothing more than for that guy to get out of your face so you could get back to your Facebook feed and the Drake pouring out of your earbuds for the hundred millionth time, slowly demolishing your ear drums.
The few Chileans I met who did have a serious opinion about Neruda pretty much invariably hated him. They thought he was a self-aggrandizing cornball at best and, if you really wanted to get into it, they thought he was a chauvinist who served as a mouthpiece for precisely the sort of machista, heteronormative Marxism that the Latin American Left has been trying to disassemble for the last 20-some years.
In other words, they saw Neruda for what he was: an old man from a bygone era, a latter-day Romantic whose utopias were an escape from an antiquated set of problems. A quaint sort of antique, maybe, like the ships in bottles and imported silk screens and Coptic tapestries lining the walls of his house. But, in any case, an antique that’s better off left hanging on the wall.
When I finally made it back down to the ground floor, the guy standing at the front desk had his forehead in his hands. He was massaging his temples and sweating around his collar. I left my audio guide on the counter and stepped out the door back into the rain.
I stood outside the gift shop for a moment and watched the steady stream of tourists flowing through the door. The guards over by the front gate were smoking cigarettes under their umbrellas. Over to my left, a few more tourists had gathered at the edge of a concrete overlook. They were speaking Portuguese and trying to figure out how their knock-off selfie stick was going to work with one of their iPhones.
I took my glasses in my hand and did my best to dry off the rainwater with the hem of my coat. I looked down toward the harbor, which seemed just as far away as when I arrived. I glanced at my watch. There was a bus back to Santiago in 45 minutes. But I didn’t need to rush. The busses left every two hours.