ISLA NEGRA, Chile (AP) — Brazilian tourist Cristiane Stekel stood next to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s bed and looked out the window at rough ocean waves. The bed is positioned so that the sun rises at its head and sets at its foot.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet was fascinated by the ocean but preferred to remain a “sailor on land,” incorporating details like the perfectly placed bed in his favorite home in the coastal town of Isla Negra, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) west of Santiago.
“There’s no way not to be inspired and produce great poems with this wonderful view,” said Stekel, 35, a lawyer and fan of Neruda’s poetry. “I knew of his work but now I can understand his history better because it seems like he’s still alive in this house.”
More than 40 years after his death, Neruda’s love poems and adventurous life continue to inspire, drawing about 400,000 annual visitors from around the world to his three homes. Neruda wrote from all three places, which provide a window into his inspirations and eccentricities.
At Isla Negra, built on a rocky cliff over the Pacific Ocean, tourists can “navigate on land,” as Neruda would say, taking a journey through a vast collection of ship figureheads, antique maps, compasses and shells of all sizes.
His two other nautical-themed homes, in the port city of Valparaiso and the capital, Santiago, have low ceilings, porthole windows and are packed with keepsakes.
From Polynesian statues and African masks to pipes and butterflies, Neruda’s collectibles give visitors a glimpse of the love affairs, travels, raucous parties and childlike wonder of one of the 20th century’s most prolific poets.
Isla Negra’s main entrance has shells on the floor that were hand-picked by Neruda from the beach. He joked with friends that the shells were left there to provide a nice foot massage for visitors.
The stained glass windows were chosen by the poet so he could see the ocean in different colors. In “The House in the Sand,” a book dedicated to Isla Negra, Neruda writes about a “muse” in the living room: Maria Celeste, an oak figurehead from a boat that sailed the Seine River in Paris. The poet claimed the muse shed tears during winter.
The house halls are lined with bottled ship models and sand from Brazilian beaches, a gift from the writer Jorge Amado. Outside is Neruda’s biggest toy: a train engine that the poet hauled using oxen and Jeeps.
“In my house I have collected toys large and small, without which I could not live,” Neruda wrote in his memoirs. “The child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the much-needed child who used to live inside him.”
Neruda was born Neftali Reyes Basoalto in 1904 in Parral, a city in south-central Chile. He changed his name to conceal his writing from his disapproving father, a railway worker. Although best-known for his love poems, Neruda was also a diplomat, a left-leaning politician and friend of socialist President Salvador Allende, who was ousted and died during the 1973 military coup.
Neruda, 69 and suffering from prostate cancer, was traumatized by the persecution of his friends and planned to go into exile. However, he died under suspicious circumstances 12 days after the coup.
So controversial was Neruda’s death that in 2013 his body was exhumed from burial at Isla Negra. Tests have shown no signs that he was poisoned, but legal wrangling has kept the body from being reburied.
“Neruda remains current. He has the strength of his poetry, the political connotation and the fact that he died after the military coup made him a legend,” said Fernando Saez, executive director of the Neruda Foundation, which oversees the houses.
Neruda chose the location of his Santiago home because the surrounding green foliage evoked his childhood in Chile’s south. He named it “La Chascona,” or disheveled in the Quechua language, a reference to the curly hair of Matilde Urrutia, a lover who became his third wife. A portrait of her by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, which includes Neruda’s silhouette in her curls, hangs from a wall.
Portuguese cups made of multi-colored glass, which Neruda said gave water a better taste, sit on his dining table. His 1971 Nobel prize in literature is behind glass in the home library.
Neruda’s “La Sebastiana” home in Valparaiso is perched atop a hill so steep that visitors arrive via staircases. He built the house looking for “a quiet place to write” with ocean views in every direction, including from the windows of his tiled green, white and blue bathroom.
Inside the house is his first typewriter, a portrait of American poet Walt Whitman, whom Neruda considered his literary father, and “The Cloud,” his favorite chair for contemplating the sea.
The Pacific Ocean was “so big, unruly and blue that it didn’t fit anywhere,” Neruda wrote. “That’s why they left it in front of my window.”
If You Go…
PABLO NERUDA’S HOMES: http://www.fundacionneruda.org/en/ . Located in Isla Negra, Santiago (La Chascona) and Valparaiso (La Sebastiana). Admission, 5,000 Chilean pesos ($8 U.S.) Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
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