At Home with Pablo Neruda

When he wasn´t being exiled (and maybe even then), the famous Chilean poet and writer Pablo Neruda seems to have had an enviable lifestyle as a bohemian writer and intellectual. Inspired by Sara Wheeler´s book, ´Travels in a Long Thing Country´, I visited three of his former houses in and near Santiago. La Chascona in the capital itself contains his Nobel Prize for Literature medal, gleaming in a glass case in his library, which roosts up at the top of the wonderful multi-level property. His work is internationally admired and Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez described him as ‘the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language’.

The house reveals Neruda´s obsession with the sea, containing furniture, including a bar, from ships and with lots of curved walls and ceilings to represent the feel of being on board a boat. Having only just stopped feeling as though I was rocking evn on dry land after my return from Antartica, I certainly appreciated the effects. The living room has floor-to-celing glass windows with a vista out onto the city and the mist-shrouded Andes in the background and is like being on the bridge of a boat. When the poet lived there, there was even a stream running past the dining room so that Pablo and his guests could look out onto a watery horizon as though they were afloat on the sea of his entertainment.

And it sounds as though Neruda was an accomplished and enthusiastic host. He hated to eat alone and seems to have been constantly in the company of friends and dinner guests, in between bouts of writing, reading and napping: apparently he was often ´not at home´to visitors because of his regular sisteas and even when he was staying with friends he would ask for a quiet space for his daily snoozes. Often he would disguise himself and jump out on his guests to surprise them, sometimes using several different costumes in a single evening. Sara Wheeler writes that despite wanting to like the author, having read some of his work (which I admit I haven´t, but intend to) she developed a distaste for him. From visiting his houses, I had an impression of a larger-than-life, likable character full of joie de vivre. He always drank from heavy, coloured glasses – more like goblets really – claiming that wine and water tasted different, better, as a result of the colour glass from which they were drunk. A lovely, whimsical idea I thought. As well as the fancy dress, he liked to play tricks on his guests and his sense of fun is exposed (literally) in La Sebastiana in the placing of a toilet in an alcove just off the dining room, behind an open, fretted iron work door, painted pink and with the toilet – and anyone using it – clearly visible to the other diners!

He was an avid collector, of glass bottles, of wooden ship´s mastheads, of shells, of butterflies, masks, carvings and statuettes, antique furniture (he seemed to have a bit of a predilection for sinks, for some reason) and acquired objects from all over the world. As a diplomat he travelled widely and apparently often used the opportunity to add to his numerous collections. In his house La Isla Negra, beautifully situated on the edge of the pounding Pacific, there is a full-size papier mache horse and Neruda was so excited to acquire it – he had been pursuing its owner for 40 years – that he had a special room added to the house to stable it and threw a welcome party for the new equine family member. He could clearly be capricious and self-indulgent but his houses give off a sense of warmth and intelligence.

At La Isla Negra he kept a boat, which lies outside the house, just behind the tomb of the writer and his third wife, Matilda Urrutia, but he never sailed in it because although he loved the ocean, he was afraid of it. A desk in one of the studies there is made from a piece of driftwood he saw floating past the house; he waited all day for it to be washed up on shore and claimed that the sea had given him a beautiful present. The house is in an amazing location and it´s easy to see how a writer could be inspired by living here. The whole place is orientated towards the sea, it is so close and there are so many windows with sea views that you almost feel you are floating on the ocean itself. Waves erupt onto the shore, shuddering as they break in a thunderous display of froth and foam. Today, you can admire this mesmeric view from the terrace of the museum restaurant right next door to the house. I´d recommend the Pacific Pisco Sour, served to me by the charming Jose and tinged blue instead of the usual yellow to reflect the ocean behind.

In La Sebastiana, in Valparaiso, Neruda installed his favourite black leather chair, which he named ‘The Cloud’, in front of the full wall of windows in the living room. The house is perched up on top of the steep hillsides that make up this colourful, atnospheric, almost magical town and from this viewpoint he liked to ‘visually dominate the landscape of Valparaiso’.

Unsurprisingly, Neruda was very well connected with other writers, intellectuals and artists and his houses are full of photographs and memorabilia of his famous friends such as American poet Walt Whitman and Spanish write Federico Garcia Lorca. At La Chascana, I particularly liked the portrait of his wife Matilda by Diego Rivera, an artist I am fond of. The picture shows two sides of Matilda, to reflect the fact that when she and Pablo first met, he was married to somebody else and they had a clandestine affair. And if you look closely at her hair it cleverly reveals the profile of Neruda.

Interstingly, Neruda wasn´t christened as Pablo Neruda but as Neftali Reyes. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was a baby and his down-to-earth, railway worker father was very much opposed to having a poet for a son, and they became estranged. Neruda renamed himself after the Czech poet, Jan Neruda.

While I haven´t (yet) read his work, here are some snippets I copied down from the La Isla Negra museum restauant menu, to whet your appetite (the translations are not mine).

Aqui en la isla

el mar y cuanto mar

se sale de si mismo

a cada rato

dice que si

que no, que no

que no, que no

dice que si

en azul, en espuma, en galope

dice que no.

No puede sentarse quieto,

me llamo mar (…)

Here surrounding the island

The sea, and what sea,

It´s always overflowing

Says yes

Then no

Then no angain

And no, and no

Says yes

In blue, in sea spray


Says no

And no again.

It can´t be still.

My name is sea (…)

Vino color de dia

Vino color de noche

Vino con pies de purpura

O sangre de topacio

Vino, estrellado

Hijo de la tierra

Vino, liso como una espada de oro

Suave, como un desordenado teriopelo

Vino encaracolado y suspendido, amoroso

Marino, nunca has cabido en una copa

En un canto, en un nombre

Coral, gregario eres,

Y cuando menos, mutuo (…)

Day-coloured wine

Night-coloured wine

Wine with purple feet

Or wine with topaz blood

Wine, starry child of earth

Wine, smooth as a golden sword

Soft as lascivious velvet

Wine, spiral seashelled

Amorous, marine,

Never has one goblet contained you

One song, one man

You are musical, gregarious

At the least, you must be shared


2 thoughts on “At Home with Pablo Neruda

  1. I only know one poem by Neruda but it’s one of my favourites. My cousin read it at my request at my sister’s funeral. I heard it first here – Truly Madly Deeply, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson

    love the post and the pictures, Eliane x

    1. Just been able to download this clip. So beautiful and so moving. Thanks for sharing this. X

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