Revisiting a Dark Episode in the Life of Pablo Neruda

Forty-two years since the death of Pablo Neruda, revisiting the interpretation of an obscure episode the poet described in his book of memoirs, “I Confess That I Have Lived,” in which he himself is the author of a rape.

The figure of the poet Pablo Neruda has never been free from controversy. Nobel prizewinner for literature in 1971 and communist militant, he returned to public discussion over the last few days when his name came under consideration to rebaptize what is now known as Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport.

Wednesday 23 September marked the ninth anniversary of the esteemed poet’s death, which has become a sort of emblem of cultural exportation in Chile. However, through decades of flowers and recognitions, few have commented about the shadows that have marked Neruda’s life.
Recently, a series of articles and columns have discussed one of the darker, more obscure episodes recognized by the poet himself, which he narrated in his style in the book “I Confess That I Have Lived” (1974), a publication extensively gathering his memoirs.

The book’s extract contextualizes the poet in the summer of 1929, when Neruda was named consul of Ceylon at 25 years of age and lived in a bungalow in Wellawatha, in Colombo. In his refuge, he describes how he defecated in a semi-hidden wooden box that appeared clean every morning, obliging him to wake at dawn to discover the mystery and determine what was literally an obscure act.

“One morning, I woke earlier than is my custom. I hid in the shadows to watch who passed by. From the back of the house, like a dark statue that walked, the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen in Ceylon entered, Tamil race, Pariah caste. She wore a red and gold sari of the cheapest cloth. On her unshod feet were heavy anklets. On each side of her nose shone two tiny red points. They were probably glass, but on her they looked like rubies.

“She solemnly approached the toilet without giving me the slightest look, without acknowledging my existence, and disappeared with the sordid receptacle on her head, retreating with her goddess steps. She was so beautiful that despite her humble job, she left me disturbed. As if a wild animal had come out from the jungle, belonging to another existence, a separate world. I called to her with no result.

“I then would leave some gift on her path, some silk or fruit. She would pass by without hearing or looking. Her dark beauty turned that miserable trip into the obligatory ceremony of an indifferent queen.

“One morning, I decided to go for all, and grabbed her by the wrist and looked her in the face. There was no language I could speak to her. She allowed herself to be led by me smilelessly and soon was naked upon my bed. Her extremely slender waist, full hips, the overflowing cups of her breasts, made her exactly like the thousands year old sculptures in the south of India. The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes open throughout, unmoved. She was right to regard me with contempt. The experience was not repeated.” (Translation by DJ)

From the point of view of journalist Carla Moreno Saldías, in her column “I Confess That I Have Raped”, this chapter in Neruda’s life has remained outside of public debate because, in reality, it does not seem to be a subject that could affect his image.

“Neither when the event occurred, nor when the book was published, nor now. Society purports to condemn things like rape and femicide, but in reality it does not. Men are taught to experience their sexuality objectivizing women, and as women we are taught to be good objects. Rape and femicide are nothing more than the “extreme” of this logic. A man who rapes is simply a macho guy who ‘went too far’ in carrying out his duties as a man. The same for a man who kills his wife,” she argues.

Converted into a cultural reference for Chile to the rest of the world, the figure of the poet has left no place for this type of questioning of episodes in his life, in stark contrast to what has occurred with other great Chilean artists like Violeta Parra or Gabriela Mistral, who are constantly criticised with respect to their relationships with motherhood and sexuality.

For Moreno, this scenario can be explained because “Neruda was everything that a man was expected to be. He had it all: power, money, women, fame, awards. On the contrary Parra or Mistral did everything opposite to what was expected of a woman. Gabriela was a bull dyke, what could be worse than that. Even today that’s the worst”. What is certain is that the deed seems to have disappeared from Neruda’s memoirs and been overlooked by his vast opus’s literary critics and experts, who perhaps considered it as simply another expression of the poet’s intense pen. For others, however, this type of facts, as yet absent from his official biography, reveal the paucities of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Translated by Danica Jorden. Danica Jorden is a writer and translator of Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian.

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