Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pablo Neruda, My Neighbor: Roberto Ampuero Recalls His Childhood

Jun 21, 2012 The Daily Beast

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.

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.

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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.

Read the full piece at The Daily Beast

‘The Neruda Case’ by Roberto Ampuero, trans. by Carolina de Robertis. 352 pp. Riverhead. 
US $27.

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