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Pablo Neruda and the fiction of a poet’s house in Chile

By Harriet Staff

Luke Epplin writes in The Millions about the pitfalls of literary tourism and how one’s perceived insight into an author is often the product of what the visitor hoped to gain by visiting the author’s home. Epplin has traveled to many writers’ homes, leaving him a self-described cynic about the power of these places to provide any illumination into the texts or the people who wrote them. “I fell into the habit of reading writers’ houses as formulaic works of genre fiction: easily digestible, diverting, and unmemorable,” a sentiment echoed in Anne Trubek’s book A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses.

Even casual visitors are drawn to writers’ houses for the opportunity, in Trubek’s words, to come “as close as possible to the precise, generative ‘Aha!’” moment of literary creation. Yet since such moments cannot be seen or sensed but instead must be either imagined or re-created, visits to the rooms where writers labored often prove anticlimactic. After all, the rooms themselves were tangential to their inhabitants’ creative processes, and they appear now as little more than sterilized set pieces that have been deliberately frozen in time. Ultimately, the meaning that visitors derive from these rooms varies according to their capacity to imagine what might have taken place there. Or, as Trubek argues, a writer’s house is a fiction that visitors “read” based on whatever desires compelled them to venture there in the first place.

Epplin approached his visit to Pablo Neruda’s home in Isla Negra, Chile with similar trepidation but discovered that this home, which Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like” was the exception to the house that one “reads” but provides no information in return.

Neruda once referred to himself as a “carpenter-poet,” but if his house in Isla Negra is any indication, he was also a “poet-carpenter,” cobbling together images, objects, and textures in jarringly effective ways. Each idiosyncratic room looks and feels as uniquely constructed as Neruda’s poetry, overflowing with seashells, mastheads, ships in bottles, antique maps, mounted insects, and countless other oddities accumulated from a lifetime of travel and collection. Some rooms attest to his love of the sea, resembling ocean liners with low ceilings, porthole windows, and rounded corners; others are stocked with the sort of unvarnished wood furnishings that recall the author’s rustic childhood in the northern Patagonian town of Temuco. Overall, this distinctive house brings to mind the person who, while in Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, declared that “my hobbies are shells, old books, old shoes,” and then, true to his word, promptly spent a hefty portion of his winnings on a stunning array of seashells and rare books.

Despite the lingering sense that he was becoming absorbed in a fictionalized, idealized, childlike imagining of Neruda– spurred on by the tour guide, the gift shop, and the glossing over of Neruda’s political activities that caused the house itself to be ransacked and shuttered for 17 years after Neruda’s death– Epplin found himself won over by the version of the poet it represented.

Halfway through the tour, I’d become, in spite of myself, a willing accomplice in the constructed narrative, vividly imagining Neruda shuffling about the rooms, rearranging his scattered seashells and colored bottles, staring out at the Pacific while seated at his driftwood desk, waiting for inspiration to strike. Through it all a faint voice in the back of my head kept reminding me that for a more nuanced portrait of the author, I would have to wait for the tour to conclude.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 13th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.